Three months from today Britain will hold a referendum on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. Two of the primary concerns of those who favor leaving are immigration and terrorism, and so yesterday’s terror attacks in Brussels provided an opportunity for cries of “Brexit!” Allison Pearson — columnist for the conservative Telegraph, best-selling novelist, and wife of New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane — put it plainly in a tweet: “Brussels, de facto capital of the EU, is also the jihadist capital of Europe. And the Remainers dare to say we’re safer in the EU! #Brexit.” Among her 1,500 retweeters was Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing nationalist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), who in his own tweet on the matter was more tastefully vague: “I’m very upset by events in Brussels today and even more depressed for the future.” Party spokesman Mike Hookem elaborated in a statement: “The head of Europol said in February that 5,000 jihadists are at large in the EU having slipped in from Syria. There are 94 returned jihadists currently living in Molenbeek, Brussels. This fact alone should alert people to the fact that open borders are putting the lives of European citizens at risk.” From the EU-friendly center there were the usual denunciations on grounds of shamelessness, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, who said it was “not appropriate” for UKIP to make such a crude link between immigration and terrorism — at least not so soon.
I was an immigrant in Britain when I was living in London as a sort of literary guest worker, with an editorial job and a visa, for four years and two weeks, from May 2011 to June 2015 (I never stopped counting the days). But not an immigrant of the sort that alarms UKIP and its supporters. Those would include radical Islamists uninterested in integrating into British society (i.e. those who “want to take us over”); immigrants with criminal records or HIV; and Romanians, Bulgarians, Poles, and others “from countries that haven’t fully recovered from being behind the iron curtain.” Preferable are immigrants from the former British Empire: New Zealanders, Australians, Indians, and so on, who “are in some ways more likely to speak English, understand common law and have a connection with this country,” as Farage put it in the run-up to last year’s election. Farage and UKIP have risen over the past three years by pandering to the sense that British identity is in crisis and a Brexit would bring that crisis to an end.
But I’ve never taken the prospect of a Brexit very seriously, at least not until recently, and I still don’t take the multivalent British “identity crisis,” which might bring it about, very seriously at all. Like most of the foreigners I knew in London I was not infrequently reminded that I was a foreigner, and the constant British fretting over the crisis of Britishness seemed to me part of a core British identity whose integrity is in no danger at all. That crisis seems to me threefold. First, nostalgia for the lost days of empire and a regretful, or resentful, afterlife in which Britons on the world stage have become “America’s streetwalkers,” in the phrase of Bill Hayden, the Kim Philby-esque double agent in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But that ship sailed as long ago as the Suez Crisis, and whatever bitterness lingers in the special relationship is soothed by disproportionate pop-cultural victories across the pond by the likes of Adele and Eddie Redmayne. Second, there’s the xenophobia at play in UKIP’s rhetoric about immigration: Farage has said he’d be “concerned” if a family of Romanians moved in next door (no doubt because they still secretly support Ceausescu). But generations of immigrants whose offspring are now thoroughly British (Farage himself is descended from French Huguenot refugees and Germans, has a German wife, and half-German children) signal that this xenophobia is a flimsy one. The third and most powerful element of the identity crisis is what the novelist James Meek, writing in the London Review of Books, has termed “UKIP’s general proposition that local power is being diminished while the power of remote, faceless authorities is growing.” Working-class Britons are used to seeing the country run by high-cheekboned toffs like Cameron; the Queen sits above them all. The faces of the faceless in Brussels might very well be German or French, the traditional national rivals, some of whom might not share certain Anglo taboos.
The British, for example, have a horror of horse meat, but the French incorporated it into their haute cuisine during the 1870 Siege of Paris, and some Germans eat it like meatloaf. The horse-meat-adulteration scandal that exploded in January of 2013 — horse and pig DNA discovered in products marketed as beef in England and Ireland — is more useful to thinking about the possibility of a Brexit than the opportunistic reactions to the attacks in Brussels. In London for some weeks the panic over frozen equine lasagna on supermarket shelves dominated the front pages and the airwaves. (It also coincided with a dip in the stock valuation of the chain store Tesco to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.) But though there were genuine health concerns and violations involved — including the presence of prohibited veterinary medicines — in the public mind the scandal was less a matter of any risk of illness than of the murkiness of a food chain that extended from France and Luxembourg to, of course, Poland and Romania. At the time of the panic Farage was on the march. He’d been elected a minister to the European Parliament in 1999, and leader of UKIP since 2010, but was only now emerging as a figure of national prominence. UKIP scored its biggest-ever victory in the local elections of May 2013. From here Farage and his cohort would launch their first legitimate campaign for seats in the British Parliament.
Not to say the rise of UKIP was simply a matter of tainted fast food. As much as he exploited Britain’s identity crisis, Farage was also rising because of general dissatisfaction with Britain’s three largest parties. Labour hadn’t recovered from tagging along with the U.S. to Iraq and presiding over the financial crisis. The coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in power had put in place an austerity regime that only extended the suffering. UKIP dominated the national media for two years, and put a scare into all three parties. (There were frightening goings-on in Scotland, too, but that’s another story.) In advance of the 2015 election, Labour — which during the Blair years had been so enamored of the EU that it was ready to ditch the pound — incorporated immigration restrictions in its five major pledges, which party leader Ed Miliband hawked on a ludicrous stone tablet in the week before the election. (Perhaps more embarrassing was a red party coffee mug with the slogan “Controls on Immigration” that became a minor meme.) Each party acquiesced to promising a Brexit referendum if elected in 2015. (Cameron had done so in January 2013, while the Tesco shoppers were eating cheeseburgers ground out of downed thoroughbreds.)
For Cameron the strategy worked in the near-term. He managed to cut off UKIP on his right flank, and UKIP ate up disaffected former Labour voters on his left, while the Scottish National Party routed Labour in its former stronghold. The Lib Dems, formerly the protest party but now tainted by five ineffectual years sharing power, were effectively wiped out. But now the Brexit bill has come due, and, besides the shameless Farage, Cameron faces an insurgency within his own party.
It’s an intra-party war long in the making. It was the Tories who led Britain into the Common Market in the 1970s under Edward Heath. Their earlier attempts to join had been thwarted by Charles De Gaulle, who saw the British as a Trojan horse for inserting American interests on the Continent. (It’s a thesis that still holds up: Barack Obama will soon be visiting Britain to urge against a Brexit.) The Tories remained the “party of Europe” in the 1980s, but membership exposed the contradictions in Margaret Thatcher’s outlook as the power of the European Commission in Brussels swelled. She was all for open markets, but the price of membership in Europe was diminished national sovereignty. Neoliberalism always corrodes its nationalist guises.
Her successor John Major was softer on Europe, and it was during his administration that Farage and other disaffected Tories formed UKIP. But under Tony Blair, New Labour became the “party of Europe,” and the young Conservatives who entered office in opposition, like Cameron and his austerity-drunk wingman George Osborne, came up playing the euro-skeptic card for short-term political advantage. The most prominent defectors to the Leave side are former Education Secretary Michael Gove and outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson, now an MP and a principal rival of Cameron’s for party leadership. If voters decide for a Brexit, it would effectively be a vote of no confidence in Cameron, and Johnson would stand a strong chance of becoming prime minister — probably the main reason he stopped sitting on the fence and threw in with the Brexiteers this winter.
What would a Brexit mean beyond the Conservative Party? No one is certain, and that’s why the finance industry in the City of London prefers to remain. But the current political climate doesn’t encourage the bankers to raise their voices. New trade agreements with the EU and with the dozens of countries to which the EU is bound in treaties would take an army of lawyers and years to negotiate. (Maintaining access to the single market would mean continuing to play by rules set in Brussels; its failures notwithstanding, Brussels is probably the most effective force in the struggle to keep horse meat out of British patties.) Restrictions on immigration could come quicker, but they might incur penalties in deals on trade with a spurned Brussels. Would any of this mean reining in “the power of remote, faceless authorities”?
Probably not. As Meek writes, UKIP’s appeal — and the thirst for a Brexit more generally — derives from a sense of helplessness that actually “has little to do with Brussels. It has to do with global business and chainification. It has to do with the neoliberal political agenda: privatisation, jurisdiction-hopping, protection of inherited wealth and a shift of taxation from rich to poor.” These are policies common to the Conservatives and New Labour over the past 35 years. Beginning the process of rolling them back would require kicking out the Tories and putting into power a party that looked very different from New Labour.
Of course, as it happens, Labour is under new leadership: Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the party after his insurgent populist campaign drew energy from the left to overwhelm his Blairite competitors. (This was in part the result of new election rules meant to weaken trade unions in favor of centrists. It backfired: Under the new guidelines, anyone who wanted to pay dues and join the party was allowed a vote, and the centrists crumbled.) Think of Corbyn as a figure analogous to Bernie Sanders if he were set to contend as the party’s candidate in a national election.
Corbyn is no ally to Cameron in the Remain campaign. It’s believed that he privately supports a Brexit. Last summer in the New Statesman, John King set forth “The Left-Wing Case for a Brexit”: The EU is fundamentally a corporate-oriented, anti-democratic body that has turned the likes of Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Cyprus into vassal states at the mercy of the Troika (a makeshift overlord run by officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF) while accelerating a housing crisis in the U.K. that has pushed working people from centers like London to the peripheries as housing stock increasingly becomes just another set of assets for foreign investors to park their money. Though he doesn’t mention the Brexit, David Graeber, writing in the Baffler, makes a similar, and quite powerful argument about the Conservatives’ austerity regime, the housing market, and the selling off of London real estate to the global rich:
“[T]he historical defeat and humiliation of the British working classes is now the island’s primary export product. By organizing the entire economy around the resultant housing bubble, the Tories have ensured that the bulk of the British population is aware, at least on some tacit level, that it is precisely the global appeal of the English class system, up to and including the contemptuous sneer of the Oxbridge graduates in Parliament chuckling over the impending removal of housing benefits, that is also keeping affordable track shoes, beer, and consumer electronics flowing into the country. It’s an impossible dilemma. It’s hardly surprising, then, that so many turn to cynical right-wing populists like UKIP, who manipulate the resulting indignation by fomenting rage against Polish construction workers instead of Russian oligarchs, Bangladeshi drivers instead of Qatari princes, and West Indian porters instead of Brazilian steel tycoons.”
I’ll never be a British subject, and I’m no longer a British resident, so I don’t have any skin in the Brexit game. I suspect that, without a full-scale political realignment that brings to power someone very different from David Cameron or Boris Johnson, Brexit would amount to EU membership lite. But that doesn’t mean the champions of the status quo aren’t scared. On Monday, in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman worried that the forces of Brexit had taken on a momentum akin to that of Donald Trump, that the Establishment had been feckless in its resistance, and that the “closet Brexiteer” Corbyn would be no help. Polls from last week show something between a statistical tie and a 52-47 Brexit advantage when accounting for how likely respondents are to go out and vote. I doubt that terror attacks like yesterday’s will be the deciding factor. Whatever the outcome, as long as they remain on their island, the British will never escape being British.