While I was briefly in Belfast, a thriving city with no visible Leave or UKIP posters, Jo Cox was horribly murdered and I began to fear the worst. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and co. had gaily thrown open Pandora’s box, unleashing all the political evils of xenophobia, nationalism, and racism. As in the myth, once the evils were unleashed, to deadly effect, only one hope remained: perhaps her awful murder would make people see what was really happening. I felt guilty for harboring that hope.
Along with the political evils came the endless lies. A week later, the votes were cast and the liars have it. Turkey and Albania are not about to join the EU. 350 million pounds a week will not be used to the fund the NHS. We will not be able to restrict the free movement of EU citizens to Britain with Australian-style immigration controls. Sadly, democratic will of the people is not invalidated when it is based on lies. In politics, winners take all. If you win the vote, you’ve won the argument. Chris Grayling did not blush the following day when blithely claiming it was merely “an aspiration” to spend “part of money” that went to the EU on the NHS. And Johnson stretched credulity by claiming that the Leave campaign had not been about immigration; after Brexit there will still be free movement of people in Europe; and Britons will still have access to the single market.
The people have spoken, and since he has no chance of dissolving them and electing another, David Cameron has resigned and George Osborne, his lieutenant, has started quacking like a lame duck. He has just let out a statement redolent with the rancor and disingenuousness of one who has had his ambitions crushed, and is resigned to a safe seat on the backbenches and a dreary life of lucrative consultancies. “It was not the responsibility of those who wanted to remain in the EU to explain what plan we would follow if we voted to quit the EU”. It was the responsibility of the Government that called the referendum that required only a simple majority, in the context of a longstanding poisonous campaign against EU membership, to plan for both eventualities.
Now with a political vacuum to fill, the Parliamentary Labour Party seizes the moment to take a vote of no confidence in its leader, and Jeremy Corbyn refuses to stand down. This stalemate opens up the prospect of three months of internal party wrangling, as Corbyn fights it out with Angela Eagle. As if it is not enough that we have no effective Government, we now have no effective opposition either. Instead, we have a grand coalition of the unwilling and the unable.
So due to a toxic cocktail of the personal vanity and unconscionable stupidity of our politicians, our country has been plunged into constitutional crisis. Predictably, Brexit has precipitated the imminent breakup of the Union. Nicola Sturgeon announced new plans to hold another independence referendum, and Martin McGuinness has not been slow to realize that many Northern Irish citizens would prefer to remain in the EU as part of a United Ireland, than to exit right with the English and Welsh. (In my view, the latter might be no bad thing, but it is the last thing the Brexiteers wanted.)
And then there is the considerable matter of the economic turmoil into which the UK has been sent spinning. Gove apparently trusts IBJAM (I’m Brilliant Just Ask Me!) more than he does experts. The organizations that had warned against the economic costs of leaving the EU included the Bank of England, the IMF the IFS and the OECD. “People have had enough of experts,” he declared, and “organizations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” When Britain voted Leave 3 trillion dollars was wiped off world markets in two days. Maybe even Gove will realize he is not so brilliant as he thought.
Meanwhile he and Johnson have gone to ground, amid bland assurances that there is no need for hasty exit negotiations. Perhaps, after all, they did not expect to win. Perhaps their plan was to lose narrowly, fatally weakening their opponents’ and strengthening their own hands. The only plans they seemed to have was for their respective leadership bids, and even those seem chaotic and ad hoc. It looks as if for them the referendum was merely an opportunity for career development. Once that issue is sorted, they will face the much more challenging task of devising a plan to help them avoid economic disaster and social unrest on the one hand, while keeping up their democratic appearances on the other.
They can hardly call for a General Election. For they will have to state in their Manifesto whether they intend to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. If they do they will be held responsible for the all the economic and political fallout foreseen by the organizations with acronyms, and many of the 16 million who voted Remain. And if, as is likely, they have to accept the free movement of people across the EU as the condition for access to the single market, they will have cheated everyone whose vote they snared with the promise of strict immigration controls. If by any chance they get away without invoking Article 50, they will betray the 17 million people who voted Leave. In either case UKIP and the rabid Tory rump will be resurgent. (And it was partly to shoot the UKIP fox, and appease eurosceptic Tories, that Cameron foolishly allowed the referendum in the first place.)
Short of a political deus ex machina whereby a coalition is elected to Government on the explicit basis that it is against the national interest to ratify the referendum result, there are no good outcomes. It is an open question whether any current politician is brave enough to call for Parliament not to ratify the referendum decision. Boris clearly is not. There are only bad options on the table around which the future leaders of our country presently sit. And though this is to everyone’s misfortune, it is no political tragedy. For tragedies, as Aristotle knew, are stories about the well-intentioned actions of fundamentally good people, not about the reckless miscalculations of unprincipled, over-privileged narcissists. It seems that we have bypassed the historical stage of tragedy and moved straight to the political farce. Only this one is not the least bit funny.
This talk was given by Professor Anne Phillips (LSE) at the University of Sussex on November 20th 2015, as part of the Centre for Social and Political Thought Research Seminar Series. The talk is based on Professor Phillips’s latest book, “The Politics of the Human” available from Cambridge University Press
Call for Papers
With its 24th Volume recently published, Studies in Social and Political Thought is a student run journal based in the University of Sussex’s Centre for Social and Political Thought. The journal has a dual purpose: first, fostering developments in the inter-disciplinary areas of social and political thought and, second, serving as a publishing platform for junior academics.
Past issues have featured articles by well-respected figures such as William Outhwaite and Stefan Muller-Doohm as well as the first publications of a number of promising junior academics. Although student run, we try to ensure highest standards and best quality publishing. We have attracted a prestigious panel of leading scholars in social and political thought for our international advisory board, including: Martin Jay of UC Berkeley, Robert Pippin of the University of Chicago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University, Seyla Banhabib of Yale University, Simon Jarvis of the University of Cambridge, William Outhwaite of the University of Newcastle, Homi Bhabha of Harvard University, Adriana Cavarero of the University of Verona, Alessandro Ferrara of the University of Rome, Axel Honneth of the University of Frankfurt and Fredric Jameson of Duke University.
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