Frustrations, Failures and Fractures: Brexit and ‘politics as usual’ in the UK
In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum on continuing membership of the European Union. To the surprise of many, the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign triumphed, winning 52% of the popular vote and triggering a complex and contested process of disengagement from the European Union, intended to be completed in 2019. The politics of the referendum, the result and its consequences have remained controversial issues. Here I take up some questions about the ‘Brexit’ (British exit) vote’s implications for ‘politics as usual’ in the UK. Both the Leave and Remain campaigns cut across party lines in significant ways, even though the referendum itself was called by then Prime Minister David Cameron primarily as a tactic to settle disputes within the Conservative Party. The following two years have seen considerable political turbulence across the leading political parties, plunging several into leadership elections (the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP). As Watkins (2016) has argued, Europe and the European Union have a much longer history of contention within political parties in the UK (with only the Liberals/Liberal Democrats being consistently committed to the European ‘mission’). At the same time, the referendum was credited with re-engaging many of those detached from ‘politics as usual’, with a turn-out of 72.2% of eligible voters, compared to results ranging from 59.4% to 66.!% in the four general elections since the turn of the century (2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015). The subsequent General Election called by the new Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, in 2017, was intended to shore up her authority and increase the Conservative majority in Parliament but backfired rather badly, with a Labour Party revival, led by Jeremy Corbyn, raising the possibility of a break from Austerity-defined politics and policies, and involving an unusual mobilization of younger voters (Edgar, 2017a).
Brexit can be seen as variously a matter of intra-party discipline, as a setting for individual political ambition (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Theresa May), as disrupting established party formations, and as a significant dislocation of established party affiliations. It has also become associated with a variety of governmental and constitutional troubles as attempts are made to turn the campaign slogan ‘Take back control’ – into international and national settlements (see, inter alia, Clarke forthcoming, a). An alternative approach to Brexit has been to treat it as part of a wider series of disturbance and dislocations. Brexit has been variously viewed as part of a revolt against neoliberalism (Piketty, 2016); as part of a populist revolt (Judis, 2016; Müller, 2016); as the revenge of a dispossessed working class (see the discussion in Khan and Shaheen, 2017); as part of the return of nationalism in the face of globalization or Europeanization (Delanty, 2019) or as part of anti-global rage, expressing popular disaffection from elite projects (e.g., Mishra, 2016). While each of these views identifies particular dynamics of popular disaffection and makes them part of a wider set of changes, I will argue that the temptations of ‘epochal thinking’ (Williams, 1977) ought to be resisted in favour of a more differentiating conjunctural analysis of Brexit (what Williams called ‘actual historical analysis). In particular, I suggest that this means thinking carefully about how aspects of popular disaffection, nationalism, racism and the political repertoire of populism are being combined – or articulated – in specific ways in particular places. This does not make questions of globalization, neo-liberalism or anti-modernism irrelevant, but asks that we think about their uneven and contradictory combinations rather than treating them as simple ‘prime movers’ whose effects can be found everywhere.
Articulating frustrations: Brexit and the conjuncture
A conjuncture can be understood as a configuration of time and space in which many tendencies, many forces, many temporalities and many contradictions are condensed (this is argued at greater length in Clarke, 2010, 2018 and forthcoming b). So, rather than a single motivating cause or driving force, a conjuncture condenses multiplicities – of forces, antagonisms, contradictions and possibilities. Together these may crystallize in a point of rupture in which lines of possibility and potential new settlements between social forces emerge. However, such resolutions of the underlying pressures do not necessarily occur. In their absence, a conjuncture may become a long drawn out non-resolution of the tensions in play; or different attempted resolutions may be developed – and fail. It may be helpful to think of such configurations of time/space as simultaneously overdetermined and underdetermined. They are overdetermined in the Freudian/Althusserian sense of condensing multiple causes and dynamics into one moment; while they are underdetermined in the sense that the multiplicity of forces and dynamics means that there is no single, necessary or guaranteed resolution of the situation.
Brexit can be seen as a distinct moment within a longer conjucture (Clarke and Newman, 2017). The successful ‘Vote Leave’ campaign appeared to speak effectively for many of those frustrated by the status quo and the prevailing Europhile political-cultural ‘elite’. It was, as Jeremy Harding observed, a moment of vigorous popular disaffection:
The big guns of the international liberal order were wheeled out to stop us going headlong for the Puerto Rican option: the IMF, the WTO, the OECD. Ten Nobel economists added to the din; Obama wagged a finger; Clinton too. Then Soros. In reply a forest of fingers was stuck in the air. (Harding, 2016; see also Taylor, 2017)
Much has been made of Brexit, and similar populist eruptions, as giving voice to popular anger. However, it may be important to view anger not as a generic affective condition, but as both conjuncturally specific and multiply motivated. So we might want to think about the diverse frustrations that were bundled together in the act of voting Leave rather than assuming their unity. I suggest that they ranged from a sense of economic abandonment (built upon de-industrialization and dis-investment) to cultural dislocation, expressed as the loss of ‘our way of life’ and often linked to immigration. But there was also explicit political disaffection, reflecting deepening mistrust and cynicism about politics, politicians and the ‘political classes’ seen as detached from ‘ordinary people’. This focussed on the two main parties, acting as the national hand-maidens of neo-liberalization (albeit with different repertoires). Finally, there were undoubtedly forms of nationalist rage, in which anti-immigration, anti-European and post-imperial sentiments were uneasily bundled together. Nevertheless, these multiple frustrations found a common point of expression and promise of redress in the Leave campaign’s claim that people could ‘take back control’.
Such diverse frustrations, however, point to the multiple, and potentially contradictory, dynamics that made up the conjuncture. The ‘national’ character of the political conflict, and the revitalization of nationalism as a political discourse, marks the confluence of several dynamics, particularly the tendency towards economic globalization, and the related but different dynamic of Europeanization (that has both advanced and contended aspects of corporate globalization). These two dynamics intersect with the current trajectories of migration from South to North, and, particularly salient for the English/British discourse, from the ‘peripheries’ of the EU to the UK. Together, these tendencies have exposed the ‘nation’ as a contestable site – a potent imaginary that articulates a distinctive history, a vulnerable and victimised present and a fantasised future of potential greatness. That is to say, we might need to think of nationalism as taking multiple and conjuncturally specific forms, rather than being a generic condition (Kalb and Hamai, 2011; see also Clarke, 2018). Thinking about these diverse frustrations raises further questions about Brexit as a politics of articulation. The Leave campaign found ways of speaking for some of those multiple frustrations as if they formed a coherent and consistent unity – summed up in the potent figure of ‘the People’. Like similar movements elsewhere, the Leave campaign found populist tropes a vital device for political mobilization, with Nigel Farage of UKIP, celebrating the referendum vote as the UK’s “Independence Day” and claiming that:
'We have broken free from a failing political union. We have managed, the little people, the ordinary people who have ignored all the threats that have come from big business and big politics and it has been a huge, amazing exercise in democracy.' Nigel Farage 24.06.2016 Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3657627/What-Nigel-Farage-s-life-s-work-comes-fruition-stunning-Brexit-vote-lauds-new-dawn-Britain-outside-EU.html#ixzz4Cngl7Zj9
But this populist repertoire raises problems about how we understand the process by which ‘the people’ come to voice. Judis, for example, sees the recent ‘populist explosion’ as giving voice to the concerns of ordinary people at odds with dominant politics. He suggests that populist movements arise in
times when people see the prevailing political norms – put forward, preserved and defended by the leading segments in the country – as being at odds with their own hopes, fears, and concerns. The populists express these neglected concerns and frame them in a politics that pits the people against an intransigent elite. (2016: 17)
Judis’s argument that ‘populist express these neglected concerns’ misses the work of politics, especially the practice of articulation between what Gramsci called ‘fragments’ of common sense and a would-be hegemonic political project. Populist projects – like others – involve the selective voicing of elements of common sense (and the silencing or denial of others) by way of narratives, propositions, claims, images and promises that appear to represent a coherent programme grounded in the ‘good sense’ of ordinary people. The Leave movement selectively addressed popular frustrations in a variety of registers. For instance, the sense of economic dislocation, concentrated in the former industrial ‘heartlands’, was attributed to a double dynamic. On the one hand, people were suffering the effects of the UK being inserted into the European economy, undermining the possibility of ‘British jobs for British workers’. The figures of both the ‘jobs’ (not enough investment ‘at home’) and the ‘workers’ (migrants displacing or undercutting the British) explicitly connected this sense of loss to the EU and the dominant theme of ‘excessive’ migration. However, the economic decline was also represented as a result of a distant and uncaring political elite, who had little interest in the lives and needs of ‘ordinary people’.
The sense of cultural dislocation – the loss of ‘our way of life’ – was most directly associated with migration, with attention particularly focused on recent migration from Eastern Europe within the EU, but inextricably entangled with two other dynamics: first, the demonization of refugees and would-be refugees, particularly those fleeing war zones in the global South, and second, the long-standing and unfinished business of Britain’s postcolonial condition (Gilroy, 2005). The entangling of anxieties about migration, race and nation was exemplarily condensed in Nigel Farage’s use of a photograph of a long line of Syrian refugees queuing at a border (not the UK’s), captioned ‘Breaking Point’ (see https://www.newstatesman.com/2016/06/nigel-farage-s-anti-eu-poster-depicting-migrants-resembles-nazi-propaganda). There is a further element to the Leave articulation of this sense of cultural dislocation which points a finger at the ‘liberal elite’, guilty of cosmopolitanism, multi-culturalism, feminism, and a metropolitan isolation from the lives of ‘ordinary people’ and their good sense (traditional virtues and ‘decency’). The ‘traditional way of life’ (and the structures of real and imagined privilege and social authority in which it was enmeshed) also needed to be rescued.
It is, then, possible to see how the campaign to Leave was able to articulate feelings of political detachment and disaffection. It should be clear that contemporary populism did not invent or discover sentiments of political scepticism, cynicism and disaffection among subordinate groups. Indeed, they have probably been in circulation since the expansion of mass suffrage, but the moment of Brexit offered both a vocabulary for naming the causes of such disaffection (the elite/Europe) and a device (the referendum) which made voicing such disaffection possible. It was the culmination of three decades of growing suspicion about politics, politicians and political classes – about the political management of neo-liberalism, the recurrently revealed forms of corruption and collusion among politicians (expense scandals, etc.) and varieties of governmental and party incompetence. As Jeremy Gilbert (2015) has argued, we reached a point where ‘disaffected consent’ (a grudging willingness to buy into the promises of neoliberal growth and progress) had become exhausted – and the Leave campaign found ways of articulating some forms of that disaffection. Other, equally disaffected, elements voted Remain sceptically.
Finally, the Leave movement brought to the fore a simmering cluster of nationalist sentiments, with unevenly and uneasily anti-European, anti-migrant and racist orientations. In doing so, it drew on a long history of nationalist rage, given political and cultural life by a stream of right-wing groupings including the National Front, British National Party, Britain First and English Defence League. In the last decade, UKIP made a pitch for combining this nationalism with a strong anti-EU populism and was a significant force in bringing about the Referendum. The Leave movement argued (as had UKIP) that to be nationalist and anti-migration is not necessarily racist. While this might be true in the abstract, the animosity mobilised during the campaign certainly was racist – working on what Hall (2017) called the ‘fateful triangle’ of race, nation and ethnicity, such that hostility to Polish migrants (not the right ‘white’) oscillated with anti-Muslim themes, into which flickered a longer colonial imagery of brown and black ‘dangers’. The rise of racist crimes and discourse (along with parallel violence around gender and sexuality) following the Referendum suggests that these articulations made possible a significant change in public discourse and conduct.
‘Failing and flailing forwards’: the paradoxes of actually existing neo-liberalism.
As Robotham’s chapter (this volume) makes clear, one of the crucial dynamics of the present conjuncture is the continuing contradictory development of neo-liberalization. Alongside its global dominance as the commonsense of the age, internalized by diverse national governments and international organizations, it is important to give attention to two other features – first, its shape-shifting character achieved through waves of intellectual and political innovation; second, its chameleon-like quality as it enters into alliances and partnerships with a range of political forms – from social democracy to dictatorship – as the means of establishing its rule in specific national and transnational spaces. Both of these dynamics point to an underlying feature of neoliberalism: its propensity to fail. Its grand plans – and grand promises – have proven difficult to realize, while its progress has been constantly crisis-ridden, disaster-prone and contradictory, with each crisis requiring new rationales and new political blocs to implement them (ranging, for example, from 1970s Friedmanite monetarism to the post-2008 demand for fiscal austerity).
Although neoliberalization has certainly liberated capital from many of its former ‘shackles’, it has proved difficult to stabilize as a settled regime of accumulation. This can be seen in its recurring economic and environmental crises but is also visible in the social and political consequences of neoliberal failures: the creation of more crisis-ridden, divided, unequal, contradictory and antagonistic social formations. One critical issue here involves the problems and paradoxes of attempting to politically and governmentally manage neoliberalization and its effects. Jamie Peck has insisted that we pay attention not just to the grandiose discourses of neoliberalism but also the ‘turgid reality of neoliberalism variously failing and flailing forwards’ (2010:7). This forms the site of the recurring political contradictions of neoliberalization: despite its nominal anti-statism, it has reformed, restructured and exploited state capacities in attempts to manage the project, to build and secure popular consent for the regime of accumulation, and to organize the field of social relations and practices in appropriate ways, accentuating individualization (and, I would argue, familialization) as the necessary social correlates of neoliberalization (remember that Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society’ had a conclusion: ‘there are only individual men and women and there are families’). Neoliberalism has also looked to political parties – and conventional inter-party competition – to develop innovative ways of managing the regime and its attendant contradictions and crises (while certainly not being averse to being embodied in non-competitive forms of political regimes). It is at this point we encounter the fraught struggles of national governments to manage both the project and its economic, social and political effects. These national political formations have attempted to manage the tensions between an unstable regime of accumulation (and its fundamentally transnational logic) while securing what Jessop (1990) calls its ‘societalization’ – the social and political arrangements necessary to enable its reproduction. Peck’s phrase – ‘failing and flailing forwards’ – points to the way in each resulting crisis, neoliberalism’s protagonists have recurrently insisted that only a better, bigger, neoliberalizing reform programme can resolve the problems caused by its failures.
This is one critical nexus for understanding the current political moment. Although popular detachment from formal representative politics is not new, the conditions for Brexit marked the exhaustion of popular consent, even in its limited, passive or what Gilbert (2015) calls its ‘disaffected’ forms. The accumulating contradictions of neoliberal rule – especially the dynamics of de-industrialization and uneven development, the growth of low/no wage jobs and the more general stalling of wages, and the increasingly decaying public infrastructure – have contributed to the growing sense of frustration and disaffection. As Allan Cochrane (2017) has argued, the important role of the EU in driving these dynamics of uneven development was not forgotten by those voting Leave. Nonetheless, these accumulating antagonisms resulting from the recurring reinvention of neoliberalization were not the only forces. They are tied to other transnational/national dynamics with different temporalities and trajectories, most obviously the shifting dynamics of migration. The Migrant has been the focus of continuing postcolonial anxiety in the UK since the post-war generations arrived in the ‘mother country’ from the Empire. This has been overlaid by recurring panics about the nation’s others (shifting eventually from lawless African Caribbean youth to the threat of ‘radicalized’ Muslim after 9/11: Hall et al, 1978; Tyrer, 2013) and it has mutated as other migrations took shape, particularly those from Eastern Europe (after EU enlargement) and from the global South after Western interventions into Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and more. The Migrant came to be represented in a double figure: on the one hand, the Migrant condensed many trajectories and embodiments (colonial subject, Romanian labourer or Syrian asylum seeker), but all racialized and all projected as a threat to ‘our way of life’. On the other hand, the Migrant was inseparably connected to the question of the EU and its founding principle of the free movement of labour, such that the apparent solution to the ‘problem of immigration’ was to break with the EU and ‘take back control of our borders’ (enabling in the process a last gesture of colonial disdain to the Republic of Ireland, see O’Toole 2018, for example).
In the UK context, then, the crises and contradictions of neoliberalization cannot be understood separately from the crises and contradictions of the postcolonial condition. These dynamics play out in a social landscape dominated by the combination of economic de-industrialization, wage stagnation and the seemingly endless re/deconstruction of the state, not least the welfare state and the associated pubic realm. Despite rhetorical (and highly conditional) political commitments to ‘fairness’, inequalities have deepened, insecurities have grown and the promises of neoliberal ‘progress’ have failed to materialize for growing numbers of the population. The politics and policies of ‘Austerity’ that followed the financial crisis (and the remarkable disbursing of public funds that followed to ‘save the system from itself’) deepened these tendencies and the increasing detachment of many from conventional party politics (some of which was manifested in growing support for the populist politics of UKIP, see Ford and Goodwin, 2014). These complex dynamics point to the significance of a conjunctural approach. Rather than tracing a singular line of descent from a prime mover (neo-liberalization, globalization or even neo-liberal globalization) as a route to explaining local phenomena, conjunctural analysis insists on the way in which the concrete instance is produced by many determinations – different dynamics with different temporalities and trajectories that are condensed into the particular place and time. But it also means paying attention to the multiple social forces that are in play in this moment of space-time.
Building a bloc? Social fractures and the moment of Brexit.
Thinking about Brexit as a political moment poses significant questions about how we understand social forces and their mobilization/de-mobilization as political forces. For many commentators, Brexit was a moment in which the Leave campaign successfully spoke to, and for, disenchanted working class voters. The Referendum result and its aftermath revealed a profoundly divided and contradictory ‘nation’. This division has been mapped into some profoundly simplifying versions of political demography – of place, age and, perhaps most strikingly, class. It might be more accurate to say that what has been evoked is a very British imagery of class-and-culture, an imagery both captured and contested in these comments by a trade union official in Sheffield:
I am a branch officer of Unite the Union South Yorkshire Community branch who campaigned, as did my Union, for remain. As I type I am sitting on the fault line of the brexit debate. To the west lies the affluent suburbs of Sheffield where there has been much howling and gnashing about losing the vote. To the east lies the working class parts of the city and the wider de-industrialised county of South Yorkshire which voted, with much anger, to leave. The two sides are glaring at each other through the fractures of English society, or so we are told. On one side the educated, liberal progressives, on the other the people who do not know any better; at least according to the likes of the guardian. This is dangerous myth. Most of our members live precarious lives, some are on the dole, some work in fast food joints, some at local universities. You would be hard pushed to tell the difference between the budding academic and the burger flipper, sometimes they are the same person. (James, 2016)
This helpfully problematizes some assumptions about the ‘class divide’ around Brexit (see also Edgar, 2016; Khan and Shaheen, 2017, Taylor, 2017). It indicates above all the need for a historically dynamic understanding of class formation. The ‘rediscovery of class’ in the moment of Brexit has too readily evoked an older image of the working class as though it – a male, factory-centred, industrial working class – was the universal form that the proletariat takes. However, the social and economic impacts of neo-liberalization on class formation in the UK took place at the intersection of at least four dynamics. One is the process of regional and local uneven development, itself inextricably interwoven with processes of de-industrialization, de-collectivization and de-socialization. The combination of these processes produced – and distributed – both joblessness and forms of precarity. The result is a highly fragmented working class in which collective identity, organization and action have all become increasingly problematic.
The simplifying class/culture imagery of Brexit conceals a different problem – this time around the place of the middle classes. The assumption is that the middle classes were characterised by a cosmopolitan liberalism that prompted them to vote Remain. This ignores a substantial population of what might be called the ‘traditional’ middle classes (an older petit bourgeoisie, in occupational, generational and cultural terms). Indeed, Dorling (2016) claims that some 59% of the middle-class overall voted to quit the EU, compared to 24% of the working class. ‘Brexit’ was strongly supported by this traditional(ist) middle class, at home in the suburbs and shires, which remained committedly non-cosmopolitan. There it was also apparently fuelled by immigration anxiety (despite such spaces typically not being occupied by many migrants). Attention to this particular class formation underscores the significance of the age/generation division around Brexit (those older than 45 being much more likely to vote Leave). This is an ageing population that feels ‘loss’ in a variety of economic, social and cultural registers, and provided a potent audience for the Brexit version of the ‘national-popular’. Loss proved to be a critical ‘structure of feeling’ for the Brexit mobilization.
The ‘rediscovery’ of class via Brexit has also drawn on the problematic imagery of the “white working class” – a figure that has occupied a significant place in recent British academic, popular cultural and political discourse (e.g., Collins, 2004; Dench, Gavron, and Young, 2006; Sveinsson, 2009). Apparently abandoned by the Labour Party, unloved by a cosmopolitan middle class, and displaced from its indigenous rights by migrants, these representations of a white working class return us to troubling controversies about the relationships between race, place and culture—and politics. These representations tend to silence other conceptions of class formation (see Khan and Shaheen, 2017 and Bhambra, 2017). They exclude migrants and ethnic minority others, young graduate unemployed, carers, and volunteer workers who are, somehow, not imaginable as part of the working class. In the process, proponents of the ‘white working class’ thesis articulate an understanding of antagonisms between class and its others (especially its racialized others), who are represented instead in politically diminutive terms as ‘communities’, ‘minorities’ or ‘identities’ (rather than the ‘black working class’, for example). This differentiation both reproduces – and contributes to – understandings of the relationship between place, race and nation that were central to the Brexit campaign (there are interesting parallels with some of the debates about the racialization of politics in the US, see the chapters by Sophie Bjork-James and Maskovsky in this volume).
These issues point to a central question for conjunctural analysis: how are social groups mobilized as political forces? Answering the question demands two sorts of analysis – one that is attentive to the complex constitution of social groups (rather than broad brush and reductive characterizations of social classes)l the other requires attention to the discourses, representations and imaginaries through which people are invited to see themselves as political actors and through which they become mobilized (or de-mobilized). The Brexit campaign involved a skillful assemblage of populist, nationalist, anti-migrant and anti-European elements, linked by threads of xenophobia and racism, that promised to restore the nation – putting the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain’. Leave voters were consistently summoned to see themselves as part of a nation, composed of ‘ordinary, decent people’ who had been ignored, abandoned and abused by the cosmopolitan elite, and whose goodwill had been exploited by migrants whose ability to enjoy the fruits of the United Kingdom (including picking them, as seasonal labourers) was being enabled by the EU’s founding principle of the Freedom of Movement. As I have already argued, a critical element in this mobilization was the possibility of expressing frustration, anger and rage. The referendum – a political form different from conventional local, national and European election systems and their associated party affiliations – offered a way of saying No. Mahmud’s chapter in this volume also points to the instability of the referendum as a political device, involving what Delanty has described as the ‘illusion of a constitutive moment’ (2019:102-4).
This points to the unstable mix of people and politics that was mobilized by the Vote Leave campaign, assembled under the leadership of some exceptionally idiosyncratic embodiments of capital (see Arron Banks, for example), populist leaders denied a leadership role (Nigel Farage of UKIP), and a strange cast of Conservative party chancers (notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) who saw personal and political opportunities in the politics of the referendum. Around them was assembled a very contingent coalition of the frustrated, angry and outraged. This coalition cut across classes in a strange way, nicely expressed in Cochrane’s description of the ‘strange alliance’ between the twin nostalgias emerging from the post-imperial Home Counties and the post-industrial heartlands (2017). One of the strange effects of the Brexit moment is that most attention and analysis has been focused on the Brexiters. This is not the place to remedy that situation but it is important to note that those who voted Remain also formed a complex and contingent coalition – an equally temporary alliance built out of diverse social forces: leading fractions of industrial and especially financial capital; much of the broadsheet press, as opposed to most of the tabloids who supported Leave; core sections of most of the political parties; and the public sector-based and more socially liberal fractions of the middle classes and some sections of the working class. The Remain voter tended to be younger than the Leaver and the younger fractions were predominantly female: 80% of the Remain vote between 18-24 was female: Statista, nd). The Remain vote was also built from multiple motivations, from enthusiastic endorsement of the EU as marketplace to those inclined to more cosmopolitan ‘European’ dispositions or attached to the increasingly residualized traces of the ‘social dimension’ of the EU. It is perhaps most important to avoid a simplifying distinction that treats Brexit as the embodiment of visceral emotion (a politics of rage) and the Remain campaign as the continuation of ‘normal’ (i.e., rational, considered, or even calculating) politics. On the contrary, the Remain campaign, dubbed “Project Fear” by its opponents, sought to evoke anxiety and anger about the risks of leaving the EU (and marshalled heavy weaponry to authorize such anxiety). The diverse attachments to Europe and the EU that motivated Remain votes were often, and explicitly, weighed against the problems of the actually existing EU (especially after the Greek crisis) and of entering into the unholy alliance that voting Remain involved. One recurring trope of the referendum campaign appeared in jokes about the horror of voting Remain with Conservative demons such as David Cameron and George Osborne; a prospect only made bearable by looking at whom one would be bundled with in voting Leave (Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in particular). And in the aftermath of the referendum, anxieties, anger and despair have all been part of what Ben Anderson (2015) calls the ‘affective atmospheres’ of current British politics (see Knight, 2017).
In short, I suggest that conjunctural analysis demands attention to how blocs and coalitions are put together, not least the political practices through which groups of people come to be political actors (or not). It offers a way of avoiding the temptation to mistake these moments as epochal – as marking a structural change (from politics as usual to an era of populism or an age of rage).
Conclusion: Brexit and politics as usual?
Did the Brexit vote mark a permanent realignment of UK politics? Did it reconfigure political affiliations and attachments? Did it rework the internal elements of the UK, where both Scotland and Northern Ireland had majorities for Remain? The resurgence of British/English nationalism, a degradation of public culture (particularly around race/ethnicity and other ‘minority’ identities), a socially conservative conception of a nation of ‘ordinary decent people’, and a politically conservative political inheritance of the Leave vote (as new Prime Minister Theresa May insisted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’) suggested that the referendum had indeed dramatically reshaped British politics. It could also be seen as part of a much wider dynamic towards a renewed right-wing nationalist and authoritarian populism in Europe and beyond:
Across the west, the postwar social democratic alliance between a left-behind working class and middle-class social liberals broke down. From Warsaw to Wisconsin, socially conservative anti-immigration populists devised interventionist economic policies, so as not to put off working-class voters they wanted to attract. A new fault line was scored, pitting what was defined as a liberal cosmopolitan elite against the economic interests and conservative instincts of the majority. Values trumped (or Trumped) economics. The best identifier of Homo Brexitus was not class or income or age but a positive attitude to the death penalty. Being for public whipping of criminals was a pretty good indicator too.
In Britain and America, mainstream parties followed in the populist wake. The Republicans picked Trump, and the Conservatives anointed as prime minister a distinctly illiberal home secretary, with a dubious record on gay rights and a fuzzily interventionist economic programme, whose line on cosmopolitan liberalism was that a citizen of the world is a “citizen of nowhere”. (Edgar, 2017a)
But, as Edgar goes on to argue, in the UK context such pessimistic projections of a new political order were soon challenged when the incoming Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a general election in June 2017 with the ambition of establishing a substantially increased parliamentary majority. Instead, her majority shrank, and the resulting Conservative government was sustained only by an expensive and complicated arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. Equally striking was the way that the votes for parties outside the ‘big two’ (Conservative and Labour) eroded, returning us to a much older binary version of ‘politics as usual’. However, this version differed in that the Labour Party was led by an ageing left winger (Jeremy Corbyn) who had been the subject of leadership challenges and intra-party plotting since he took up the leadership in 2015. Denounced by the conventional media as the biggest of ‘no hopers’, Corbyn led Labour on an anti-austerity, pro-public services manifesto and successfully mobilized younger people to vote, and to vote Labour. The election thus saw a further reconfiguring of the political landscape, turning some of the frustrations mobilized in Brexit into an anti-austerity politics that challenged both the Austerity narratives that had dominated after the financial crisis, and the longer standing pro-market or neoliberal consensus that had prevailed since the 1980s. David Edgar has developed the account from which the above quotation was taken into a larger argument about the possibilities of rebuilding progressive alliances across classes and across generations to challenge the declining appeal of the regressive bloc centred on the Conservative party (Edgar, 2017b). Meanwhile, Andrew Gamble (2019) has pointed to the difficult calculations facing all the major parties (and some smaller ones) in the unsettled conditions following Brexit, noting the particular paradoxical calculation facing Labour: that while two-thirds of Labour voters voted Remain, two-thirds of Labour-held parliamentary seats voted Leave.
For a time, the social and political fractures emerging from the UK’s neo-liberalization (and Conservative Austerity) were given a terrible focus by the fire at Grenfell Tower in west London, which killed around 80 people and has been seen as embodying the increasingly divided society generated by neoliberal politics and policies. The fire came to symbolize the degradation of the public realm, the marginalization of social housing tenants, and the increasing gap between rich and poor – in the country at large, but especially in the specific local authority, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea (e.g., Wismayer, 2017). Here, too, anger and frustration, entangled with grief, came to voice and were articulated in challenges to the pro-austerity and anti-social policies prevailing at local and national levels. Even so, at the time of writing (March 2019), fragile Conservative rule continues, struggling towards a global ‘free trade’ version of Brexit. The end of ‘politics as usual’ – at least the managerial politics of the last thirty years – has established new lines of fracture and of possibility: how they will turn out is, as usual, the puzzle at the heart of conjunctural analysis.
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