Jailbreak from the Old Order
- The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump by Anthony Barnett
Unbound, 393 pp, £8.99, August 2017, ISBN 978 1 78352 453 2
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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.
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.