How Did We Get Here?

Some of my earliest memories are of being a small child watching the television news with my father. There had to be quiet when the news was on. I learned that politics was important.

Politics was important, because it was rooted into people’s lives.  Britain had an industrial economy and stable institutions which provided mass employment.  Most of these jobs could be ‘jobs for life’, with security, the hope of regular pay rises, perhaps even a company pension in retirement.

This sense of ‘social security’ was explicitly political. People expected governments to serve their interests in a very direct way.  From the cradle to the grave wasn’t just a slogan.

Democracy was lived in other ways, too. The two main parties had mass memberships, and they weren’t just for political anoraks.  From Young Conservative dances as ‘marriage bureaux’ to Labour Clubs where a pint was affordable and the fellowship good, people had little cynicism about politicians as a group, even if there were always a few rogues around to add colour. Turnout in elections was high, because politics mattered.

Things don’t look much like that anymore. That old world, of which I saw the tail end, is long gone.  The landscape today is utterly different.


That’s the easy question.  The economy is radically different.  The world is both smaller, and bigger, the nation-state of decreasing significance.  Technological change has been massive, as epoch making as the industrial revolution.  Social relations are different, too.  These things can be experienced as unsettling, or as liberating. And there are, quite clearly, winners and losers.

One of the things we seem to have lost in all this is the culture of democracy.

Think of some of the follies of our political leaders.  Blair and Bush invading Afghanistan and Iraq.  Cameron’s “me, too” Libyan adventure.  ‘Liberal interventionism’ which was meant to usher in a democratic future in those hapless countries.

I think they believed their own rhetoric.  That democracy would flower in the bomb sites.

This fatal misapprehension was because they thought that democracy was something that came with a technocratic blueprint. Democracy, they believed, was a constitution, a voting system, an elected government, political parties, and honest bureaucrats to run a functioning state.

But those things are the exo-skeleton of a real democracy.  Democracy is a culture, organic, rooted, built from the ground up, and always a site of contest, but one with clear rules, whatever the disparities in power.

Britain’s democracy was rooted in social institutions – trades unions, voluntary organisations, mass parties, lively and countervailing presssure groups, a 4th Estate holding power to account – which are either long gone, or in poor health.

You can’t impose a stable liberal democracy on a country whose traditions and allegiances are rooted in kinship groups and religious observance, with relatively weak urban middle classes – such countries have to fight their own battles for modernity, and in their own ways.  And, alas, you can’t assume the continuing health of democratic culture in what have become, in part, our post-democratic societies.

That’s why we are here, in Brexit-Britain, or in Trump’s America, or elsewhere where the populist, nationalist right is rising.  The things which once underpinned democratic culture have been weakened, badly.

The professionalisation of politics (as a business, like marketing, or public relations) effectively deracinated the political class.  The voluntary institutions which socialised and educated the general public into an instinctive understanding of democracy have withered.  Visible pressure groups have no traction compared to the hidden hand of lobbyists.  The 4th Estate is now shrunken and degraded, almost entirely the playthings of oligarchs, except for the poor, cowed BBC.

In this context I have some sympathy for those seeking a return to ‘older’ ways of doing politics, from Corbyn’s wish to renew and empower a mass party membership, to the Lib Dem rediscovery of doorstep ‘community politics’ to rebuild from local government upwards, or even to Philip Blond’s fond hope that Theresa May will revive his communitarian ‘Red Toryism’.

But these are all puny ideas in the face of where we are.

We need a road map to renew democratic culture, to ensure that political socialisation and education reaches everyone, and we need new or revitalised institutions at all levels from the hyper-local to the international.  It is a huge task. But one way or another, it must be done.

The alternative is unthinkable.

Brexitism – A Sad, Sorry Thing

Yesterday in Parliament, the new Minister for Brexit revealed the hitherto elusive meaning of Brexit. ‘Brexit,’ he announced, ‘means leaving the European Union.’ So that’s cleared that up, then.

But Brexit doesn’t really mean leaving the EU. If we do leave the EU, those who voted Leave will not suddenly find joy and happiness. Unless their Japanese or German employer abruptly relocates to the Czech Republic, they won’t notice any difference at all.  For Brexit is not an answer to a question, even if seventeen million people thought it was. The lack of a plan was not mere incompetence; the void is the point.

Or do I mean, the void is the mood?

Which brings us to the thing that, unlike Brexit, has a meaning, a shape, a definition. Brexitism.

It was reading Anthony Cartwright in Granta that made me realise that Brexitism is real. Cartwright is a fine writer of literary fiction who knows and understands his Black Country, even as he observes it from North London.  And the Black Country voted to leave the European Union by a hefty margin.

It’s not ‘typical’ Brexit-land.  What is? Each region has its own distinctive history and character. If I look up from my laptop, framed on the wall in front of me is a photograph of a Black Country chain maker.  They are metal bashers in the Black Country, and my photograph was from a project in which Black Country museums and galleries commissioned Martin Parr to capture the region’s life and times.  I don’t know whether Parr has photographed Swindon or Sunderland, let alone Cornwall or the South Wales valleys, but however singular Parr’s sly artistic eye, each region would look utterly different.

For what binds the Brexit regions is not voicelessness, or marginalisation, or a sense of being ‘left behind’. It is not a ‘big cities’ Vs ‘small towns’ thing, either. Brexit voters can be “jag and gin” prosperous, or zero-hours desperate.  Many are homeowners, free of mortgages, enjoying pensions, who must have seen their votes as positive and rational.  Something else, something not material, moves them, motivates them.

That motivation, that feeling – for the vote was primarily about feelings – is Brexitism.

Brexitism is real. Visit a Brexit area, and you can see it, taste it, touch it.

Whilst Brexiteer politicians shout rhetoric about being outward-facing, buccaneering, and proud, Brexitism is the very opposite.  It’s about putting up barriers, a mindset of defensiveness and fear, and a reliance on ‘someone else’ to make decisions about anything bigger than what colour you paint the front door, or which economical hatchback you drive.  Brexitism is deferential; far from wanting to ‘take back control’, the Brexitist wants someone to ‘be in control’ – and even more, to be seen to be in control.

Cities, or places with the qualities of cities, tended to vote Remain. The qualities of cities are liveliness, nightlife, arts venues, cafe culture, restaurants, plenty of places to occupy outside the four walls of one’s home.  Cities constantly surprise with the evidence of individual enterprise everywhere, from the art galleries and bistros of the prosperous areas, to the food shops and balti houses of the poorer, more diverse areas.  Many small towns have this quality,too; little Bohemias with thriving High Streets.  The point is that these are places of can-do optimism, filled with people who don’t wait for others to provide things for them, even when they haven’t got very much. (This is also why migrants are so productive and beneficial.)  Brexitism has no appeal to lively places.

But in Brexitist areas there are homes, and cars, and schools, and job centres.  There are ‘out of town’ shopping malls with the same stores (Next, Sports Direct, Matalan, Brantano).  Want a cup of tea when out shopping? In Brexitist areas, that’s more likely to be the cafe in the giant Tesco, than an independent cafe run by a local.  Brexitism is the absence of agency.  It is boring.

People don’t enjoy being bored, but they do get used to it. The comfort of the familiar, the unchallenging.  It’s a kind of passive unhappiness.

But there’s a paradox in all this.  The discussion stirred up by the referendum, even where it was ill-informed and sometimes unpleasant, was a form of social engagement not usually found in Brexitism. People got organised, discussed politics, some individuals discovered that they could be articulate, could provide leadership.  These are transferable skills which, if not now left to fade, could transform their communities.  It is imperative that it is not just parties and movements of the populist right who seize the opportunity this presents.

Half the country is dying of boredom. The task of politicians – and the rest of us – is to offer them something else, but gently, slowly, working with, not against their Brexity fearfulness.  Sadly, I don’t see much chance of this happening any time soon.