A Left Reading of Brexit

by .


The liberal left – north London – has gone through various forms of disbelief since the Brexit vote. (I include myself in this.)

First, try to have another vote.

Second, try to subvert the outcome of the first vote through Parliament.


Third, hope enough Leave voters wake up feeling remorseful, see the light and switch sides, especially when they realise how unattractive Britain will become.

Fourth, try to belittle the working class people who voted for Brexit by suggesting:

(a) they are racist;

(b) we all go to visit Stoke-on-Trent to listen to what they have to say (because being listened to by us will make them feel better).


(c) they fell for transparent lies because they are a bit gullible.


(d) we give them some more money through state transfers because obviously if they had more money they would be happier, that is what a new fairer political settlement amounts to.


All of this seems to underestimate the scale of the challenge.

People voted Leave for lots of different reasons, including at one end people who are clearly racist and at the other end utopian liberal internationalists.

But for much of the working class I think it came down to five things which in a way are made for the Left to respond to if only we could work how to bridge the gap between metropolitan and cosmopolitan progressives and working class voters who believe in solidarity and community.

Original article published here, in The New Statesman. 

What the left needs more than anything is a way to have a conversation which bridges this divide.

(i) This was a vote for meaning over money.

The Remain campaign was all about money and how much people would lose if Britain was out of the EU. The Leave campaign was all about restoring a semblance of meaning to people’s lives despite not having much money. As a vote for something more than money – for pride, belonging, community, identity, “home” – it was a rejection of the market. We might not much like some elements of this vote for meaning, but it was a vote with the heart rather than the wallet. It is a reminder that people need something more in their lives than money, especially perhaps when they do not have much prospect of having much. They need above all a sense of narrative.

(ii) It was a vote for democratic decision making over opaque and distant power.

The EU has a distant, opaque and ineffective decision-making process. Understandably people want decisions made closer to them. Read Martin Wolf or Dani Rodrik: globalisation, democracy and the nation state are incompatible. Nationalism may be the price we have to pay for a sense of democratic control over our lives. This was a vote to reassert nation state democracy in the face of global markets. That may be romantic, naive and far-fetched but it is a vote for democracy over global forces. There is nothing wrong with people wanting a sense of control over their lives: that was what social democracy was meant to provide.


The psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose explored this path in her book States of Fantasy, which examines how politics is driven by public, shared fantasy. (US political life is devoted to the pursuit of the American Dream not the American Reality. The June 23td vote was a vote for a kind of British Dream. Of course it may yet turn out to be a nightmare)

(iii) This is high-energy politics.


People are engaged in political debate in a way that matters to them for the first time for a long time. Impassioned conversations are to be had everywhere between all sorts of people about what kind of society we should be, what a good society is. Traditional, representative political systems are in decline. Politics is seen as procedural, distant, untrustworthy. Yet this has engaged lots of people in political debate and all voters feel, perhaps for the first time, that they have something at stake in the outcome, something they want to defend/stand up for. When Roberto Unger the left wing philosopher calls for a high-energy politics to take over from the exhausted representative democracy, well this is it. Having more people politically engaged should be good for it because it believes in the power of democratic politics to shape markets. That is what the Left is supposed to want.


(iv) Objects of public love.


National symbols are still the most potent objects of public love. In Scotland the SNP seems to have fashioned a forward-looking, civic nationalism. If only England, led by the left, by localism and a new civic activism could do something similar.


Most leaders of social democratic politics are schooled in the tradition of John Rawls, which reduces the search for a fair society to a set of equations. A cheque in the post has become a substitute for human solidarity. The US political theorist Bonnie Honig argues that as a result proceduralism has replaced real political engagement.


Honig’s antidote to proceduralism is a politics that is tumultuous, unpredictable, contingent and fragile, driven by passions and fantasies. She is more interested in a politics that destabilises existing procedures and lead to new forms of political power. Welcome to the world the Brexit world. Suck it up. Learn to adapt to it.


According to Honig part of the answer is affective and emotive, the creation and defence of “objects of public love”, which are icons of our common life. They help make us a society because we see ourselves reflected in them. In the UK in 2012 a public campaign prevented the privatisation of publicly owned forests which became objects of public love. The 2012 London Olympics were and remain an object of public love for people in the UK, albeit more like a long lost holiday romance (one involving Boris Johnson.) The NHS remains an object of public affection and loyalty if not love.


Politics across Europe is now driven by a sense of lament and loss and so objects of public love are more about the past than the future.


If the Left wants to win back the Leavers then it needs to create more civic, shared, objects of public love which can be draped in the Union Jack, earn our loyalty but which also embody values of tolerance, openness, solidarity and fairness. A top down distant state, of a social democratic kind cannot create these shared objects of public love. The left would have to embrace decentralisation of power and expressions of the good life and relinquish centralisation and statism. It is worth thinking what this would mean, for example, for the funding of arts and culture.


(iv) This was a vote for a version of equality.

People who think they have little to gain from globalisation voted for a new Brexit settlement in which those who already gain find it harder to do so. The beneficiaries of globalised, network economy will struggle now to do as well as they once did. The fact they will find life harder and so the economy may grow less quickly matters little to people in industrial towns left stranded and with no growth in their incomes for two decades. House prices in London will fall. High earners may flee. Creative industries will suffer.


The truth is that for a while now growth has failed to deliver its moral dividend alongside its economic one because increase prosperity is not shared fairly. It should be no surprise that people who have spent years feeling overlooked and neglected by both the market and by politics should now feel such resentment and so little sympathy for people with wealth who might feel, for the first time, that the world is slipping away from them. On the contrary it might be cause for celebration and quite satisfaction.


The truth is that for a while now economic growth has not delivered many dividends at the bottom of the income pile. Will slower growth post Brexit make much difference? The country may be poorer but it could, perhaps, become less unequal. It will almost certainly become uglier.


The Post War Settlement was founded on Keynesian principles, a welfare state and an industrial, fully employed economy. The Thatcherite Settlement was about the individual, private and market taking precedence over the collective, public and the state. It was complex because it combined a belief in the strong state, the open market and yet also a national purpose. We now stand on the verge of a Brexit Settlement which will redress the relationship between Britain and Europe, the white working class and immigrants, the cosmopolitan and urban against the communal and provincial.

Seen from this perspective there should be a lot for the left to work with in the Brexit vote. People want more meaning in their lives. They want more democracy. They want an engaged, high-energy politics. They will rally around objects of public love if they are attractive and meaningful. They want greater equality and more of a sense community. They want lives which have a narrative and for national pride to be a part of that. They want a sense that they can exert some control over what is going on around them.


This is everything that the left should stand for. We just need to show how all of that is made more possible in a UK which is part of Europe and for example like Norway and Canada unafraid of the free flows of people, trade and ideas which also make us rich, diverse and exciting.

Sign up to be kept up to date