The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump 
by Anthony Barnett.
Unbound, 393 pp., £8.99, August 2017, 978 1 78352 453 2
Show More
Show More

If​ 2016 was the year of the crime, then 2017 was dominated by the police investigation. In the eyes of most commentators, there were two prime suspects: the responsibility for the Brexit vote lay with either economic privation or cultural loss. In The Lure of Greatness, Anthony Barnett, the founder of Charter 88 and co-founder of Open Democracy, has identified a third: the constitution.

Those who focus on the economic explanation, for Brexit as for the election of Donald Trump, point to the increasing disparity between rich and poor on both sides of the Atlantic, exacerbated by a squeeze on real wages which sped up after the crash of 2008. (Between 2009 and 2014 the British economy grew by 10 per cent and real wages fell by 6 per cent; in 2016 the incomes of 95 per cent of US households were lower than they had been in 2007.) At the same time, in both countries, the social-democratic left’s embrace of neoliberalism had caused its working-class supporters to look elsewhere. In Britain, the EU referendum freed the electorate from traditional party loyalties, allowing those economically ‘left behind’ by globalisation to mount a protest against a political system dominated by globalism’s supporters. Nationally, 64 per cent of C2 and DE voters chose to leave the EU.

In America, Trump shifted the Republican Party’s economic policy substantially to the left, promising to protect American jobs from foreign competition and to mount a programme of public works unmatched since Roosevelt’s New Deal. This attracted enough white working-class votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to win the electoral college (though not the popular vote). Many of these Rust Belt voters had supported Obama in 2012, not necessarily because they agreed with his liberal social policies, but because Obama – unlike his opponent, Mitt Romney – backed bailing out the auto industry. Rightly or wrongly, these voters believed their economic future would be safer with Trump than with Hillary Clinton.

Opponents of this analysis – notably Matthew Goodwin, whose Revolt on the Right (written with Robert Ford) first identified Ukip voters as older and poorer than the general population – argue that the Leave/Remain faultline is essentially a cultural one. Among working-class voters identified as former or potential Labour supporters, the divisive issue wasn’t economic decline but immigration, as it was for the majority of Leave voters in the Conservative heartlands of the South. Even so, only 37 per cent of people who voted Labour in the 2015 general election voted Leave in 2016 – 20 per cent of the total. By contrast, 58 per cent of 2015 Conservative voters defied their party’s leader to vote Leave. Age was a better indicator of Leave voting than social class or level of education, and a much better indicator than living in the North of England. The best indicator of all (according to the British Election Study) was support for the restoration of the death penalty.

Similarly, the vast majority of Trump voters were traditional Republicans in traditional Republican areas. In the primaries, Trump voters were poorer than supporters of other Republican candidates, but richer than Bernie Sanders or Clinton supporters. In the election itself, Trump proved more attractive to registered Republicans – 90 per cent of whom voted for him – than Clinton did to registered Democrats. The key indicator for Trump voters wasn’t class but race. He won the white vote in every age sector and at every education level, with the single exception of female college graduates (white male graduates voted for Trump by 53 per cent to 39 per cent). Trump’s recently acquired hostility to abortion, and his promise to retain a socially conservative Supreme Court, allowed the thrice-married self-confessed ‘pussy-grabber’ to win the votes of 81 per cent of white evangelicals, a cohort that represents 26 per cent of the American electorate.

As Barnett points out, both the economic and cultural accounts of Brexit risk patronising those who voted for it, edging dangerously close to the idea that ‘thick and stupid’ Leavers ‘lack the necessary faculties to decide a country’s future’. Most commentators seem to think that Remainers voted on the basis of Olympian rationality, while the Leave vote was a rush of blood to the head; they don’t take seriously the proposition that those who voted Leave might have known what they were doing. Barnett doesn’t hold this position. Although he is a Remainer, he accepts and indeed promotes much of the Leave case. The EU, founded and developed as a ‘petri dish for neoliberalism’, had become ‘the most highly organised example of making entire nation-states powerless’, reducing its smaller and weaker members (such as Greece) to the status of ‘prison officers enforcing the rules of imprisonment on their own people’. The Brexit and Trump votes, although they were led by a ‘chauvinist element’ of the corporate 1 per cent, represented ‘a mass breakout from the marketised incarceration of contemporary corporate democracy’. This revolt against the era and ethos of the CBCs (Bill Clinton, Blair, Bush Jr, Brown, Cameron and Hillary Clinton) offered the giddy prospect of ‘a jailbreak from the old order’, filling its supporters with ‘energy and glee’. Barnett respects ‘the audacity of those I know who voted to Leave. They are not racists, they are democrats.’

They were also – overwhelmingly – English. In contrast to the Northern Irish, the Scots and residents of London (all of whom voted Remain), and the UK as a whole (which voted to Leave by a mere 4 per cent), England-without-London voted to go by 55.4 per cent to 44.6 per cent. The contrast with the last vote on Europe, in 1975, was stark. In Scotland, the Remain vote increased by 4 per cent between 1975 and 2016, while England’s dived by 20 per cent. ‘Something has happened in England-without-London that made it receptive to the anti-EU forces,’ Barnett writes, ‘something that knitted the arguments together and amplified them. Something national.’ That thing was an Englishness which, like its transatlantic cousin, was expressed in militant nostalgia: ‘Take back control’; ‘Make America great again.’ In England, that nostalgia was for an efficient and effective British imperial state.

As Barnett sees it, Brexit was the result of successive breaches of trust on the part of a British ruling class, all of which took place during the New Labour years. First, the deceit that led to the invasion of Iraq. After that, the failure of the subsequent occupation. (For the liberal middle class, the principal betrayal was the Iraq invasion itself; for the working class, which provided most of the troops who fought and died there, it was the disaster of the aftermath.) And finally, the financial crash of 2008 and the bailout of the banks that followed, which made clear who was (and who wasn’t) going to pay for it.

The result of these betrayals, exacerbated by the MPs’ expenses scandal, the decay of the monarchy, the half-heartedness of New Labour’s constitutional reforms, the decline of the patrician class and the rise of a celebrity mediocracy in its stead, was the ‘displacement of English exasperation with the whole damn lot of them … onto Brussels’. The connection between English disenfranchisement – the lack of a specifically English parliament, broadcasting corporation, trade union congress, political party – and voting for Britain to take back control of its laws and its borders is a Shavian paradox. Citing an IPPR survey from 2014, Barnett argues that ‘being deprived of a credible, representative power that clearly belongs to you’ leads to anger, not with the body that denies you that power (the British state), but with ‘the most remote authority of all’. Or, put the other way round, people only feel comfortable within as large an international association as the EU if they feel directly represented by a government formed around their primary identity. Hence it is not the EU itself but the British state which is ‘the deep cause of Brexit’. Only when England has dispensed with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can it ‘free itself to become a European country’. The cause of Brexit was neither economic nor cultural: ‘Brexit was a displaced demand for our own constitution.’

Barnett mounts a vituperative attack on the CBCs, unearthing a priceless memo from David Cameron written in response to accusations that he lacked the common touch: ‘Please, operational grid, give me the right language.’ And he gives an acute analysis of the postwar transition from ‘the government of a whole society by a traditional, widely connected establishment that had paternalistic, public-service values’ to government ‘by a modern, narrow political-media caste with populist, market values’, of which Thatcher was the initiator, Blair the maestro, Cameron the result, and Rupert Murdoch the god. But there are problems with Barnett’s case, which go beyond the obvious point that having criticised commentators for claiming that Leave voters were really voting for something else, he does exactly the same thing (the English voted against a system which closed them out, ‘which they mistakenly blamed on the EU’). There is certainly evidence enough of English identity politics: in the 2011 census, of the 37.6 million people who identified themselves as ‘English’, 32.4 million chose that as their sole identity. Michael Ashcroft’s referendum-day poll found that 79 per cent of people who described themselves as ‘English not British’ voted Leave. But there is less evidence for the claim that the English voted for, or currently want, constitutional change. Despite the success of the London and now the Greater Manchester mayoralties, there doesn’t seem to be any great enthusiasm for new tiers of government. Having rejected the idea in a referendum, the West Midlands had to be pushed by the government into holding a mayoral contest (won by the Conservative candidate, Andy Street, on a 27 per cent turnout). The last attempt to institute an elected English regional assembly – in the North-East in 2004 – was rejected by 78 per cent to 22 per cent.

Traditionally, Britishness has been seen as the permissible face of national affection, having given us Parliament, universal suffrage and the welfare state. Against it is pitted English nativism: closed and resentful, the dark soil in which the BNP and the EDL flourished. Barnett, though, contrasts a ‘hard British exoskeleton’ with an ‘English within’ which is ‘personal, even whimsical, and has a romance’. He cites some of the familiar elements – the countryside, the rose, the sense of humour. He praises the yeomanly characteristics of some Brexit-voting English regions (‘remote and stubborn’ Cornwall, ‘proud and defiant’ Kent’) and notes the Shakespearean resonances of many others (from York to Lancaster, from Buckingham to Warwick). There is also an unexpected nod towards the Falklands adventure (he quotes Fred Halliday’s description of the Argentinian occupation: as if ‘the Nazis invaded Ambridge’). When Barnett excoriates Cameron for abandoning patrician values in favour of ‘junk messaging, junk art and junk television’, you suspect he favours the former. The tone of his writing is Chestertonian: following the electoral outrage of Blair’s victory in 2005 (he lost the popular vote in England but still increased the Labour majority by ninety seats) ‘the English waited for their moment’, and in 2016, ‘a nation spoke.’

Barnett’s cultural affections tend towards the Deep England of the countryside, the counties and the coast. His politics steer him towards the English radical tradition. Contemptuous of contemporary patricians who praise immigration for energising workshy natives, he wants ‘an England in which the heirs to the Levellers can succeed’, and sees Brexit as its herald: ‘The positive energy of the Leave campaign was rooted in a spirit of rebellion that goes back to the 17th century.’ Yet the English popular radical tradition was never defined in opposition to other countries’ cultures (with the possible exception of the Norman French), but rather against a domestic ruling class which, however it defined itself, was overwhelmingly English too.

It is that tradition which inspired a radical like the journalist Paul Mason to insist that, ‘as an English person … I do not want to be English.’ Barnett sees this attitude as representative of ‘an educated English repugnance for their nation’. Refusing to accept your nationality is not a progressive stance against xenophobia but ‘an arrogant refusal to be like other people’. There is an irony in this: Mason is a reluctant Remainer, not least because remaining implies staying in bed with the xenophobes currently running Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, and (now) sharing in the government of Austria. Barnett’s answer to those who suspect Brexit voters of heading in the same direction is to insist that we all have multiple loyalties: to our nation, our state and our religion (he might have added to our region, our ethnicity, our gender and sexuality). But surely the problem with nationalism is that it insists on nationality as a primary loyalty: it is, after all, the only identity that can result in your being taxed, imprisoned or conscripted. The obligations of nationality remain, whether under the Union Jack or the flag of St George.

If,​ as Barnett argues, the fundamental grievance of the English is ‘the class system that lies at the heart of Britishness’, is our political future really to be found in Brexit England, so much of it located among the elderly and socially conservative in true blue suburbs and shires? Isn’t the task of the left to win over (or win back) the disenfranchised voters of the post-industrial towns of the Midlands and the North, and to reforge alliances between those places and the cities, with their progressive, multicultural liberalism? And isn’t there now a possibility that these things could be achieved?

The Lure of Greatness was delivered (to the pioneering reader-financed publishing house Unbound) in March 2017 and ends with a ‘post-conclusion’ written just after Theresa May called last June’s snap election. At that point, May’s victory seemed certain, ‘given the apparent unelectability of the opposition’. In hindsight, Barnett must be glad of that ‘apparent’, and of having gone on to suggest that if May ‘emerges as contrived and opportunistic, it may not take long for her popularity to deflate.’

What does the election tell us, retrospectively, about the Brexit vote that preceded it? The crucial difference was that the election was fought along party lines. Labour’s manifesto was socially liberal and economically interventionist, and so, unlike in 2016, some Labour-leaning Brexit voters faced a choice between their economic interests and their socially conservative instincts. What happened was that nearly 13 million Labour voters, old and new, chose to vote for a radical, interventionist economic programme. As Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath concluded in a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘While many voters on low incomes agree with the vote for Brexit, and still favour reductions in immigration, at the 2017 election they were relatively more likely to vote for Labour because of their desire for improved living standards and to oppose austerity.’ According to Ashcroft’s election-day poll, a third of Labour voters (more than four million people) were committed Brexiters, but were persuaded that Labour’s economic programme held out a better prospect than the hard Brexit promised by the Conservatives.

There are four other aspects of the 2017 election – and the political trends it exposed – which have significance for the future. The first is Labour’s extraordinary success among young voters in general, and young working-class voters in particular (Labour won the support of 70 per cent of unskilled and 62 per cent of skilled workers aged between 18 and 34). Second, Labour made significant inroads into the middle-class vote, particularly in the cities and among graduates (Labour’s graduate vote increased by 15 per cent, to half the cohort, while the Conservatives’ vote fell by 3 per cent, to less than a third). Third, Labour managed to stave off the threatened nuclear winter in its traditional heartlands, successfully resisting the Conservatives’ efforts (Conservative gains in Labour areas were largely at the expense of Ukip). Finally, in 2015, the Conservatives and Ukip won half a million more votes than all the progressive parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats, nationalists and Greens) combined; in 2017, the progressive parties were two and a half million votes ahead.

None of this should be taken to mean that the militant nostalgia which underpins right-populism isn’t real and serious. A Trump supporter could have been speaking for the Brexit heartlands when he told an interviewer: ‘I want something new. I want the good old days back.’ The combination of anti-migrant prejudice and hostility to big business remains potent on both sides of the Atlantic. But the 2017 election showed that, despite Brexit, Britain is heading in a progressive direction. Of course Leavers are more socially conservative than Remainers. Nonetheless, according to Ashcroft’s referendum-day poll, more Leavers see social liberalism as a force for good than for ill. The correlation between Leave voting and approval of the death penalty is less significant than the fact that support for its restoration has declined from 75 per cent of the population in 1983 to less than 50 per cent today. The latest British Social Attitude Survey reveals that support for same sex relationships has increased from 47 per cent in 2012 to almost two-thirds now. At the same time, support for raising taxes to pay for more government spending – in other words, for an end to austerity – has grown.

As Barnett acknowledges, ‘Brexit is an old people’s home.’ There may well be a case for creating more English institutions, alongside other constitutional reforms, but if the Brexit result was indeed a coded vote for English independence, it appears likely that support for that position will decline over time. Had the franchise been confined to people of working age, Labour would have won the 2017 election by a landslide.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 40 No. 10 · 24 May 2018

‘Is our political future really to be found in Brexit England?’ David Edgar asks in his review of my book The Lure of Greatness, implying that this is what I argue (LRB, 26 April). Whereas he believes, with hair-raising complacency, that ‘despite Brexit, Britain is heading in a progressive direction.’ My view, as the book sets out, is that ‘Brexit will collapse. The sooner, the less excruciatingly drawn out the pain will be.’ No plausible future awaits this country going solo, and certainly not a progressive one.

I do appreciate the way Edgar directly confronts the English force that exploded in the referendum, when most Remain supporters are afraid of addressing the issue. Yet by examining what I say about the role of England in 2016 in such forensic detail, Edgar misses my larger argument, which is not about identity but concerns democracy and the state. We need more and much better self-government. This is the precondition for sharing sovereignty, which a country of our size must. When Boris Johnson, with his cruel insouciance, says the US would never share its government, he is issuing a challenge to Remainers. It is easy to show that we need permanent, practical collaboration with the other countries in our continent. But our system is founded on the autonomy of parliamentary absolutism. To free ourselves of Johnson’s baleful influence we have to confront the inner, constitutional consequences of becoming a normal European country, and give Ukania the state funeral it deserves. If we run away from this, as Edgar does, every revival of the left, including the challenge mounted by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and half a million Labour Party members, will be asphyxiated.

The cry to ‘Take Back Control’ joined two very different elements: the welcome democratic toppling of a complacent and venal elite was tragically captured by hedge-funded bigotry. Now, we need to build on the first to frustrate the second. The elite structure that led us to Brexit has to be replaced not restored. Any attempt to return to the status quo, as advocated by Blair, Clegg and others, is fatally misconceived. Not just in economic policy, where Edgar and I agree, but also in terms of our political institutions. We would both like all the nations of Britain to become European countries. But Edgar wants them to remain locked in the old British state in the hope that Corbyn will prove their new Attlee, while I am convinced that Westminster and Whitehall have now become the twin stranglers of democracy, and that our emancipation from them is the precondition for any progressive future.

Anthony Barnett
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Vienna

David Edgar makes the suggestion that Anthony Barnett is a Chestertonian English nationalist. This seems to me to be another case of the left only being willing to see nationalism as pastoral and reactionary, and not understanding its own basis in it. I think we should read Barnett differently. One of his key points is that Scotland, including its deprived working class, voted Remain because post-devolution nationalist politics includes the possibility of serious domestic reform. England, by contrast, is stuck with only the undemocratic leftovers of an imperial state, its politics still motivated by illusions of grandeur. Barnett suggests that Brexit is a display of inchoate rage at the absence of legitimate democratic power in London. To ignore the implications of this point – that the nature of the British state matters – is bonkers. I don’t share the New Left view of the British state as antique and imperial, but its nature and capabilities and democratic legitimacy – and the ways in which they have changed – are critical issues for the left and cannot be wished away. For example, there is a good chance that Brexit will collapse even sooner than Barnett predicts, as a result of the inability of the Anglo-British state to face up to the realities Brexit will impose. If that happens there will indeed be a specifically English crisis of major proportions.

David Edgerton
London NW1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences