Leave, and Leave Again

William Davies

It is received wisdom about referendums that ‘yes’ has an advantage over ‘no’. Alex Salmond didn’t get the wording he wanted for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum – the Electoral Commission considered ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ too much of a leading question – but he did at least make sure that his side would be fighting for a ‘yes’. The campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland, which won with a thumping ‘yes’ vote in last year’s referendum, was a masterclass in positivity.

Britain’s EU referendum was not a matter of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Even so, the government may have reassured themselves that ‘leave’ carried more negative resonances than ‘remain’. Leave … and go where exactly? What kind of affirmation is leave? What kind of identity or vision does it assert? But among the many things unreckoned with by David Cameron’s government, when it initiated Britain’s current political disaster, was the extent to which voters were up for a bit of negativity.

The vote for Brexit was a ‘no’ to many things: wage stagnation, mass immigration, local government cuts, Brussels, London, Westminster, multiculturalism, ‘political correctness’ and who knows what else? Political scientists and pollsters can spend as much time as they like disentangling one factor from another in an effort to isolate the really decisive one, but Leave’s greatest advantage was that it didn’t have to specify exactly what was being left. As the gilets jaunes are presently showing, ‘no’ has the capacity to mobilise a more disparate movement than ‘yes’, without there having to be any consensus on what is being negated. Leave was a coalition of rejecters, a great refusal that didn’t require a positive or viable programme in order to flourish.

In his recent, wise book Down to Earth, Bruno Latour spots a pattern in this instinct to leave that is far from unique to Britain.[*] Underlying it, he thinks, is a fantasy of escape, ultimately from a shared planet that is becoming less habitable. ‘We can understand nothing about the politics of the last fifty years,’ he writes, ‘if we do not put the question of climate change and its denial front and centre.’ This isn’t to say that all politics is now about carbon dioxide emissions, but that all politics is now terrestrial: there is a finite (and shrinking) amount of firm ground available, and the problem of how to share and conserve it is growing. As for Brexit, ‘the country that had invented the wide-open space of the market on the sea as well as on land, the country that had ceaselessly pushed the European Union to be nothing but a huge shop; this very country, facing the sudden arrival of thousands of refugees, decided on impulse to stop playing the game of globalisation.’

The British do not lack for people wanting to tell them who they are. Whether these opinions have come from the most credible sources is doubtful. Too much attention has been paid to whiggish, conflictless tales of national identity and tradition, and not enough to the insights of those who stand one foot in, one foot out, in particular those with the ambivalent perspective of the once colonised. If it’s never too late to learn, then there should be a rush to the works of Paul Gilroy on Britain’s ‘postcolonial melancholia’, just as there is now an embrace of Fintan O’Toole’s reflections on Britain’s sudden sense of victimhood.

But even this will not bring us face to face with the sheer negativity of Brexit. In the ongoing struggle to make sense of what Brexit is and why it is happening, ample attention has been paid to the ‘Br’, but comparatively little to the ‘exit’. The seductions, myths and affirmations of nationhood are raked through in search of what all this is about. Empire? Race? The Blitz? But what if the answer has been staring us in the face all along? What if there is in British political culture a deep, generalised urge to depart?

What is now clear is that there is no majority support, either in Parliament or in the country, for the hard graft of actively withdrawing Britain from the European Union. The polls register a consistent lead for Remain in any future referendum on the question (in a YouGov poll on 6 January, the lead was 46 to 39 per cent, with the other 15 per cent so alienated from the whole business that they offer no answer one way or the other). A sufficient number of Leave voters has now had enough of Brexit, or of politics in general, for Remain to stand a plausible chance of winning a second referendum.

Nor is there any conceivable parliamentary majority on the horizon that might support a tangible withdrawal agreement. The extraordinary scale of Theresa May’s defeat on 15 January, by 230 votes, once again demonstrated the power of ‘no’. The 432 MPs who voted against her did so for a variety of reasons, underpinned by incompatible visions of what should happen next. There are few things that could produce consensus between Jeremy Corbyn, Arlene Foster, Vince Cable and Jacob Rees-Mogg, but opposition to May’s deal was one. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, responded to the result with a tweet urging the UK ‘to clarify its intentions as soon as possible’. But what if ‘the UK’ does not possess any intentions right now?

May’s gambit, seen at first as a smart one, of putting leading Brexiteers in critical ministerial positions, has gradually disintegrated thanks to a steady stream of resignations. Boris Johnson’s departure from the Foreign Office was the most eye-catching, but the successive exits of David Davis and Dominic Raab from the office of Brexit secretary conveyed a sense that theirs was an ideology that couldn’t survive its own implementation. The committed Brexiteer knows only one tactic: exit, and when that doesn’t work, exit again.

In his classic treatise from 1970, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, the economic theorist Albert Hirschman articulated the different ways power is exerted in the economy. In principle, competitive markets are systems in which ‘exit’ counts for everything. If I am unhappy with the quality of my washing powder, I can simply decline to buy it again, and choose a different brand in future. If enough consumers do the same, the manufacturer will eventually get the message, and either improve its product or get driven out of the market altogether. In a free market, exit is the default way of expressing oneself.

Hirschman realised that markets never quite match up to this ideal. Often, consumers will make a fuss (Hirschman called this ‘voice’), reporting the problem, demanding a refund or – increasingly nowadays – leaving critical feedback. To take a key example, the relationship between employers and employees can’t simply be abandoned at the first sign of difficulty: it involves negotiation, trust and occasional conflict. In short, there is always a space for politics, even where markets appear to have free rein. By studying the subtle interactions between ‘exit’ and ‘voice’, Hirschman was seeking to understand the entanglement of economics and politics, markets and democracy, in everyday life.

Much of the time, exit and voice are things we hold in reserve, as rights rather than everyday behaviours. Most consumers don’t keep switching their brand of washing powder, any more than most voters continually harangue their MP with demands and complaints. But the point is that we retain the right to do these things, which grants us a modicum of power. And these rights have their own proper domains: exit in the market sphere, voice in the political sphere.

How did the ideology – or the fantasy – of exit engulf British politics? How did a principle that belongs in the marketplace, the principle of expressing dissatisfaction through departure, trigger the greatest constitutional crisis since 1945? Viewed this way, Brexit isn’t so much a celebration of sovereignty or democracy, as a new frontier in the marketisation of politics. It is the fundamental right of any investor, customer or business to leave when it suits them – so why not nations too? As the armchair trade negotiators of the Conservative Party’s European Research Group keep reminding us, you don’t get a good deal on anything unless you’re willing to walk away.

Hirschman noted that consumers or businessmen who become too accustomed to withdrawing can gradually forget how to assert themselves in any other way: ‘The presence of the exit alternative can therefore tend to atrophy the development of the art of voice.’ Perhaps the inverse is true in the democratic arena: where the art of voice has atrophied too much, there is an increasing appetite for the exit alternative. This isn’t to say that the European Commission has ever been very open to ‘voice’, least of all a popular one. One of Cameron’s worst strategic errors in committing to a referendum in January 2013 was to promise a major unilateral renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership, which Brussels was never going to accept.

But voice had been atrophying across British society for decades before 2016, as highlighted in numerous pessimistic analyses, including Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy (2000) and Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void (2013). Trade union membership in the UK peaked at more than 50 per cent of the workforce in 1979, but has since declined to just 23 per cent. The mantra of ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ in public services, which was central to New Labour’s modernisation programme, rested on the assumption that improvements could come about only once service users had powers of exit similar to the ones they had in the private sector. The turnout in the 1992 general election was 78 per cent; nine years later, it was 59 per cent.

Developing alongside these trends was a new political common sense about globalisation and the rising mobility of capital, and of the businesses and rich individuals that control it. One of the chief worries of policymakers from the mid-1980s onwards was that of capital flight of one kind or another. Banks and their employees might up sticks and move to Geneva; the super-rich could park their money offshore; the bond markets would grow suspicious of public spending plans, and interest rates would rise; celebrities, such as Phil Collins and Tracey Emin, threatened to leave Britain if income tax rose. We are all too conscious of anxieties concerning immigration in British society, yet the latent fear of emigration – by capital and capitalists – has shaped our politics far more decisively over the past thirty or forty years.

Contemporary forms of financial speculation are characterised by an even more radical assertion of exit rights. The mentality of the high-frequency trader or hedge fund manager is wholly focused on leaving on better terms than those on which one arrived, and on minimising the delay or friction in between. To the speculator, falling prices present just as lucrative an opportunity as rising prices, meaning that instability in general is attractive. As long as nothing ever stays the same, you can exit better off than when you entered. The only unprofitable scenario is stasis.

Private investment funds have been a constant feature of Britain’s descent into political turmoil, though their precise role remains murky. The American hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a friend of Nigel Farage, was accused of aiding the Leave campaign with data analytics expertise, via the now defunct company Cambridge Analytica. Hedge funds were generous backers of both the Leave and Remain campaigns in 2016, but both sides extracted handsome rewards from the financial turmoil that immediately followed the result. Questions were raised about the relationships between polling companies and hedge funds on the day of the referendum, with fears that pollsters were passing on sensitive information to private clients, to give them first-mover advantage. Bloomberg reported last June that when Farage made his peculiar concession of defeat on the night of the referendum result, he may already have been in possession of polling data from Survation – privately commissioned by multiple clients including hedge funds – which predicted that Leave would win. His announcement briefly buoyed the pound, increasing the profits of any speculators correctly predicting its imminent collapse. (Farage ‘rejected the idea that his concessions were aimed at moving the markets for anyone’.) The discovery last summer that the fund co-founded by Rees-Mogg, Somerset Capital, was setting up operations in Dublin smacked of ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ hypocrisy. (‘Our decision to choose Ireland as a domicile had absolutely nothing to do with Brexit,’ the company said.)

Even in the absence of such cynical financial chicanery, there is a certain family resemblance between the logic of the hedge fund and that of hardcore Brexiteers. The hedge fund manager ‘shorts’ the falling currency or stock, turning failure into money; Brexiteers are constantly distancing themselves from the realities of actually existing Brexit. The two share a mentality that is allergic to commitment, political accountability or – Hirschman’s third concept – loyalty. The mindset is infectious, with politicians on every side of the House of Commons currently fixated on short-term moves, seeking to second-guess one another in the hope of benefiting from others’ losses. The difference is that in the realm of financial speculation it is possible to take a position on both sides of a dispute – to hedge against the possibility of being wrong – but in the political realm, to claim that one can exit a set of institutions while continuing to benefit from membership of them is having one’s cake and eating it. Individuals (including Brexiteers and their wealthy donors) can personally hedge against the consequences of exit, moving their assets overseas, applying for foreign citizenship, or even emigrating, but the United Kingdom cannot. At some point, politics comes down to affirmations, not refusals.

For the time being, Britain appears to be heading towards one of two negatives: ‘no deal’ or ‘no Brexit’. The inability to convert Brexit into an agreed set of tolerable policies tells us something crucial about what sort of thing Brexit is: an ideal of withdrawal that is at odds with basic realities of government and politics. If Remain is to have the last laugh in all of this, its best bet may be to make a pitch for the triple negative: saying ‘no’ to the 2016 referendum, the Conservative politicians who made it happen, and the financial interests that supported them. The figure best placed to do that, whatever his personal position, is the one with the greatest reserves of voice just now, the leader of the Labour Party.

[*] Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity, 140 pp., £12.99, September 2018, 978 1 5095 3057 1).