The return of blue passports, or the royal yacht Brtiannia; gunboats being sent to Gibraltar; the return of imperial measures – it’s not difficult to see the world of Brexit Britain as a sort of contemporary version of Passport to Pimlico, with the symbolism of empire once again dominating Britain’s political discourse. And it is not hard to see why elsewhere in Europe, the whole Brexit narrative is seen as a sort of nostalgic extravaganza by a nation that sees itself as a sort of Ruritanian theme park.
But is it really that simple?
There’s no doubt that nostalgia – in many cases for an imaginary past – is part of the political mix in Brexit Britain. And the narratives and tropes, especially in the tabloid press, are overwhelmingly on the Right – and often expressed in deeply angry terms.
But let’s just suppose all this is a proxy for, and an anger about, something else. It’s a truism that, following on from the rise of UKIP, Brexit is the political property of an older generation. A long time ago, I argued that the reasons for the rise of UKIP were economic rather than nationalistic – that the generation that had been raised during the period between Bretton Woods in 1945 and the oil shock of 1973, and who had experienced economic growth that was distributed far more evenly than today, job security, affordable housing, and crade-to-grave universal welfare, reacted with bewilderment and anger to the modern curse of insecurity. In particular, the prospect of a comfortable and secure retirement had been taken away.
We have been told now for decades that these things are now unaffordable. Are they? The last truly popular political experiment in Britain was Blairism, which was successful insofar as a growing economy allowed incremental improvements in public services and state provision without the need to raise taxes. And its success masked some of the fundamental weaknesses of the UK economy, especially with public sector investment masking the private sector’s long-term investment strike, in favour of short-term dividends. But since the 2007-8 economic crash, that approach has not been available – and austerity has, wholly predictably, made problems worse. And one key reason for Labour’s defeat in 2015 was that it did not understand the political ramifications of that and could not break free of the austerian narrative. It never had the confidence – perhaps even the will – to challenge the myth that Labour overspent in office.
And it was that lack of confidence and will that led to the outcome of the 2015 leadership election. The Corbyn leadership has been an unmitigated disaster, but his victory in 2015 represented an authentic and profound moment in Labour history – the moment when the party, collectively, realised that to continue with the economic narratives advanced by the other three candidates simply did not deal with the underlying economic and political issues. But, as we have seen, that result has simply led Labour down an ideological cul-de-sac, one that led to the absurd spectacle of Labour MPs being whipped through the Parliament to vote for a Brexit they knew to be economically disastrous, most of all for the parts of the UK they mainly represent.
Yes, those parts of the UK did vote for Brexit. The question for the political class has been why some of the poorest parts of the UK, like the South Wales Valleys and Cornwall – which had received substantial EU funding – voted for Brexit. One reason, surely, is that areas like industrial South Wales had been so decimated by Thatcherism in the 1980s – which not just destroyed whole industries but the cultural and social fabric of societies built around those industries – that voters were quite rational to question whether that EU funding had achieved very much.
To argue that we can simply rerun the economic and policy choices of the 1960s is to fall for the same nostalgia trap. But we need to look at what the conditions where that led to the social achivements of that period. I think they rest on rising standards of living, supported by good services; but also on principles that Labour has consciously moved away from, like universal benefits, steeply progressive taxation that is regarded as fair and state provision of housing (although signs are that Labour is recovering the latter). It needs a return to the view that state support is a universal right, not a fall-back for those who cannot afford private provision. Horrified by what seems to be the growing brutality of our society, and the hate that has been unleashed by the Brexit vote, we need to understand that Britain has been at its most progressive when living standards are seen to be rising in real terms and the rewards in society seem to be distributed more fairly. It needs to understand that there were respects in which Blair – and more particularly Gordon Brown – actually achieved some of that, and to understand that Blair was at his weakest, over Iraq, when he rejected Labour’s traditions of internationalism in favour of post-imperial delusions of policing the world for democracy; or when he used “reform” of public services as a cover for privatisation; or when he advocated workfare (which actually destroyed jobs in the poorest communities) and used the language of entitlement.
There are huge lessons for Labour to learn from both the successes and failures of the past. But issues like job security, decent housing, universal benefits are at the heart of Labour’s tradition and politics. After nearly two decades of abdication on these issues, it’s difficult to find the way to articulate these (and what is absolutely certain is that the current leadership is further from ever than building a consensus around them, to the extent it understands them at all). As ever, it is worth looking to Wales, where the current First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has won two elections on the basis of a combination of promoting high-quality skilled jobs through inward investment, alongside social justice.
But it appears to me that some of the issues at the heart of Brexit are Labour issues. We need to understand this and make policy accordingly. The question – with Labour’s opinion poll ratings hitting the floor and a leadership that appears incapable of understanding the difference between policy and slogans – is not whether it can afford to do this, but whether it can afford not to.