John Rees on how Brexit is an expression of a crisis for one set of establishment ideas
In the middle of the swirling political chaos that is Brexit, the establishment is losing much more than a trading relationship with Europe. It is losing something that has been central to the ruling ideology of Britain since it became a modern unified nation state in the middle of the 17th century.
From that time onwards the UK has had as an important part of its self-image the view that the population is an especially favoured race destined for global dominance and market superiority. The first industrial revolution, the birth and growth of empire, relative domestic political tranquillity, all bolstered the view that this island nation had a special place in the history of the world and a special place in global politics.
When the Marxist critic Christopher Caudwell, from whom I have borrowed for the title of this essay, was writing in the late 1930s, he imagined an archetypal non-union shop assistant working seven days a week in Houndsditch. He described such worker’s ideology in the following terms:
‘He knows nothing of art, science, philosophy. He has no culture except a few absurd prejudices, his elementary school education saw to that. He believes in the superiority of the English race, the King’s wisdom and loving kindness to his subjects, the real existence of God, the devil, hell, and sin, and the wickedness of sexual intercourse unless palliated by marriage. His knowledge of world events is derived from the News of the World, on other days he has no time to read the papers’.
Now, no ideology is ever completely dominant or uncontested. But, there is for a sizeable section of the working population, some truth to Caudwell’s characterisation. The evidence can be found in a thousand films and in popular novels stretching from John Buchan to Ian Fleming.
That ideology had survived the First World War and something of it remained powerful after the Second World War, indeed it was in part bolstered by victory in that war. It remained a central part of ruling ideology in the 1950s, despite the era of decolonisation.
The 1960s provided the first serious challenge to its hegemonic character. But even then, challenges to the iconic power of the Union Jack, as various as the Beatles’ irreverence and the iconoclastic Monty Python’s Flying Circus, were merely a counter-cultural rejection of that ideology, highly effective amongst a minority but not successful in dislodging the ideology as a whole. It was in the countercultural 1960s that the Labour government of Harold Wilson could happily launch the ‘I’m backing Britain campaign’ with its tiny Union Jacks identifying participating brands.
Margaret Thatcher, of course, relaunched this whole nationalistic ideology in a tin pot empire form, most notably in the Falklands war, and tied it decisively to the fate of the neoliberal market project.
What the Brexit negotiations have achieved is a decisive weakening of this ideological prop of the ruling class. The two-year humiliation of the British ruling class by their continental neighbours has exposed before millions of the island’s inhabitants the fact that they no longer occupy any special place on the continent of Europe, never mind about on a wider global stage.
It has now been demonstrated in the most public and irrefutable way that Britain is merely a second rank economic power located on a small island off the north-west coast of continental Europe. We British are palpably not a special island race, and have no special gift or special right to dictate terms to other parts of the world.
The demonstration of this fact in the Brexit negotiations, of course, comes hard on the heels of the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and in the midst of the widely unpopular Saudi attack on Yemen.
It comes while the American presidency is in the hands of a self-declared isolationist whose interest in the supposed ‘special relationship’ with the United Kingdom is virtually zero.
Moreover, the Brexit negotiations have put at risk the very basis of this kind of British nationalism - the existence of a unified nation state which includes Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Already in the last 20 years, the Union Jack has been replaced by the St George’s Cross in England and the Saltire in Scotland as the national flag of popular choice. The degree to which Northern Ireland is in fact, if not in name, a dependent part of the southern Irish economy has simply been underlined intractably by the broader question of the Brexit negotiations.
All this means that a simple racial superiority, King and country nationalism simply no longer works as a hegemonic ideological strategy.
Of course, it still operates in various fringe political environments. It works for Tory backwoodsman and backwoodswomen, including some MPs. It works for the far right and the fascists, at least to a degree. But this merely underlines how far these views have fallen from their previous elevated position as an ideology which could command mass support among working people.
And, of course, while as a positive unified ideology this set of ideas is in crisis, the various component parts of which it was assembled are still powerful. Belief in the monarchy still exists, deference to authority is very much still with us, as indeed is racism.
But what has changed is that these elements are no longer bound together in a more systematic, confident, view of Britain’s place in the world. And nationalism without a global perspective is bound to be a much more inward-looking and less effective ideology.
Indeed, the erosion of a popular global nationalism begs the question what are the effective and hegemonic elements of ruling class ideology today? Neoliberalism, the basis of Margaret Thatcher’s popular nationalism, is as disgraced as the ideology underpinned.
So, in two important areas, global national and economic ideology, the ruling class’s ability to project its views over the rest of society has declined sharply in recent years.
This is of course simply another way of saying that various forms of what the mainstream media call populism have replaced hegemonic ruling class ideas in at least some important sections of the population, or at least to some degree.
International social democracy, an essential conveyor of ruling class ideology into the working class, is at an all-time low ebb. Right wing populist ideas involve a rejection of neoliberalism in favour of protectionism and a rejection of global nationalism in favour of isolationism.
In response, much of ruling class ideology has been reduced to a defensive attempt to rebuild centrist liberal notions in the current crisis. From Tony Blair to Hillary Clinton the major figures of the establishment offer nothing new, but simply old neoliberal and global national notions which were in the first place at the very origin of the crisis of that ideology.
This is not, of course, a happy picture. Crude xenophobia and protectionism will not provide a viable alternative to the discredited centrist ideology of the last two generations.
What is required is a rebirth of a radical left on a wholly new scale.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.