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How Brexit Broke Up Britain

Fintan O’Toole
There is stark and overwhelming evidence that the English people who voted for Brexit do not, on the whole, care about the United Kingdom and in particular do not care about that part of it called Northern Ireland.

Mary Turner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A sticker reading “No Border, No Brexit” on a road sign near the “Hands Across The Divide” sculpture, Derry, Northern Ireland, July 22, 2018

So, at long last, it seems that the negotiations on Brexit between the United Kingdom and the European Union have produced a draft agreement. We do not yet know what it contains but it will be a compromise that falls far short of the high expectations of June 2016 when the British voted to leave. It will tie Britain to the EU’s customs union and single market for an indefinite but probably very long time. Instead of making a glorious leap to independence, Britain will become a satellite orbiting the European planet, obliged to follow rules it will have no say in devising.

This is an exercise in damage limitation, not a bold break from the recent past. But the question is whether the British political system is capable of resigning itself to this least bad outcome. Theresa May will put the draft deal to her cabinet Wednesday and thereafter try to cobble together a parliamentary majority for it at Westminster. Can a chaotic political establishment find a way to swallow a complex, ambiguous, and deeply disillusioning necessity? Nothing in this story so far suggests that this will be easy.

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell did not quite say that when a government loses its mind it may be regarded as a misfortune but when the opposition does so as well, it begins to look like carelessness. But had she been around for Brexit, she might well have done. The British government’s journey toward Brexit is like a ride in Disneyland: every bout of soaring optimism is followed by a vertiginous plummet into despair.

It is easy to blame May and her bitterly divided Conservative Party for creating a situation in which a deal has been done with just four months to go before the UK leaves the EU, and in which nothing is yet certain about its fate. Easy because entirely justified: the Tories have plunged their country into its biggest crisis since World War II and seem utterly incapable of providing a credible or coherent collective leadership.

But what makes that crisis all the more profound is that what we would usually expect in a parliamentary democracy—that the main opposition party provides a distinct alternative to a failing and flailing government—is patently not happening either. The Labour Party’s members are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit: a poll in September showed that 86 percent of them say they want a second referendum. In a recent large-scale national survey for Channel 4 News, 75 percent of Labour voters said they want the UK to retain a close relationship with the EU. Surveys show that in Labour’s old industrial heartlands, where working-class voters strongly backed Brexit in 2016, opinion is swinging sharply toward a rethink.

Yet Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the German newspaper Der Spiegel last week that Article 50 (the clause in the European treaty that allows a member state to leave and that May triggered in March 2017) is irrevocable and that his party had to “recognise the reasons why people voted leave.” He was then almost immediately contradicted by both his chief foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry and by his senior Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, both of whom insisted that a second referendum is still possible. The party’s divisions are now as public as the Conservatives’.

Labour, like the Tories, is being held together only by a fantasy. Its official position is that it supports Brexit but will oppose any deal with the EU that does not “deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union.” This is either utterly delusional or, more probably, deeply dishonest. The EU cannot give the “exact same benefits” to a non-member as its remaining members enjoy. If it did so, it would cease to exist: Who would accept the responsibilities and costs of being in the club if all the club’s facilities were freely available to non-members? The Labour leadership undoubtedly knows this, but it maintains this illusion so it can talk out of both sides of its mouth at the same time: supporting Brexit but condemning May for failing to secure in the negotiations an outcome that was inherently impossible.

So what’s going on here? The most recent evidence from that Channel 4 News survey, the largest of its kind since the 2016 referendum, is that the UK would now vote to remain in the EU by a majority of 54 percent to 46 percent. The very least that might be said is that there is a large political constituency for a coherent opposition to Brexit, based on the demand that whatever deal (or no deal) emerges from the talks be put back to a popular vote. How can it be that the entire British political system seems incapable, at a moment of national crisis, of presenting citizens with a clear set of alternatives?


One can blame poor leadership and there is plenty of that to go around. But there is surely more to it than that. There is a deeper problem of articulation. Two very big things—both of them central to Brexit—are not being addressed at all. They are being ignored because they are the great contradictions of the whole crisis. The EU has repeatedly expressed frustration at the inability of the British to say exactly what it is they want. But this is not just a failure of negotiation. The British government and its technocrats can’t say exactly what they want because the whole Brexit process is fundamentally tongue-tied. It is driven by two things that dare not speak their name.

The energy of Brexit is contained in the brilliant slogan of the Leave campaign in 2016: Take back control. It is brilliant because it slides smoothly over two very awkward questions: What is “control”? And who is to have it?

Another word for “control” is “regulation.” The fundamental appeal of Brexit is that the British have had too much regulation imposed from Brussels and desire in the future to regulate themselves. Thus the British will control their own environmental safeguards, their own food safety, their own labor standards, their own laws on competition and monopolies. The EU does indeed do many of these things and there is a perfectly coherent argument to be made that the British state should do them instead. It is a safe bet that this is what most people who voted for Brexit want and expect.

But that’s not actually what Brexit is about. The real agenda of the Hard Brexiteers is not, in this sense, about taking back control; it is about letting go of control. For people like Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, the dream is not of a change in which regulation happens, but of a completion of the deregulating neoliberal project set in motion by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Brexit fantasy is of an “open” and “global” Britain, unshackled from EU regulation, that can lower its environmental, health, and labor standards and unleash a new golden age of buccaneering hyper-capitalism. Again, this is a perfectly coherent (if repellent) agenda. But it is not what most of those who voted for Brexit think it is supposed to be. And this gap makes it impossible to say what “the British” want—they want contradictory things.

The second question is who is supposed to be taking control: Who, in other words, are “the people” to whom power is supposedly being returned? Here we find the other thing that dare not speak its name: English nationalism. Brexit is in part a response to a development that has been underway since the turn of the century. In reaction to the Belfast Agreement of 1998 that created a new political space in Northern Ireland and the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 that did the same for another part of the UK, there has been a rapid change in the way English people see their national identity. Increasingly, they are not British, but English. This resurgent identity has not been explicitly articulated by any mainstream party and surveys have shown a growing sense of English alienation from the center of London government in Westminster and Whitehall. Brexit, which is overwhelming an English phenomenon, is in part an expression of this frustration. In Anthony Barnett’s blunt and pithy phrase from his 2017 book The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, “Unable to exit Britain, the English did the next-best thing and told the EU to fuck off.”

There is stark and overwhelming evidence that the English people who voted for Brexit do not, on the whole, care about the United Kingdom and in particular do not care about that part of it called Northern Ireland. When asked in the recent “Future of England” survey whether “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit that allows them to “take back control,” fully 83 percent of Leave voters and 73 percent of Conservative voters in England agree that it is. This is not, surely, mere mindless cruelty; it expresses a deep belief that Northern Ireland is not “us,” that what happens “over there” is not “our” responsibility. Equally, in the Channel 4 survey, asked how they would feel if “Brexit leads to Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland,” 61 percent of Leave voters said they would be “not very concerned” or “not at all concerned.”

This may be startling but it is also a pretty clear message. The problem, though, is that no one in either of the two main parties wants to talk about it. In one of history’s little jokes, the English national revolution that is Brexit led to Northern Ireland’s small ultra-unionist Democratic Unionist Party holding the balance of power at Westminster and keeping Theresa May in office. Thus, while the people who voted for Brexit are waving goodbye to the UK, May—with, in this, the support of Labour—has turned up the volume on her declarations of love for the United Kingdom: “I will always fight to strengthen and sustain this precious, precious Union.”


The future of the Union, moreover, has become central to the negotiations with the EU. The emerging deal will be horribly complex, largely because of British insistence that no arrangements must be made to prevent a hard border in Ireland that would in any way differentiate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Brexit cannot be properly articulated because it has made a sacred cause of fighting for the very thing that Brexit’s voters don’t care about. As Lady Bracknell remarked, “This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.”

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