Even Theresa May is growing wary of the gnomic phrase “Brexit means Brexit”. And yet, slowly, despite the Prime Minister’s reluctance to let the slightest ray of light into the room in which the Brexit Masterplan lies hidden, we are beginning to discover what Brexit means. And it is not pleasant.
Let us be clear, even if our government can’t. Brexit does not mean “leaving the European Union”. We probably will leave the EU, a pointless act of vandalism which will scar our country for decades, but that is a side effect of Brexit, not its substance.
Brexit is an ugly new word for a nascent political movement, or movements. Its character is growing clearer by the day.
Brexit is both thoroughly modern, and mawkishly nostalgic for an imagined past. It reveres ‘strong leadership’, often manifested in ways which appear comic to Brexit’s detractors. It seeks some kind of close accommodation with corporate interests, whilst using a rhetoric of workers’ rights. It has heroes and demons, drawn in stark, crude, primary colours. Its heroes are lifted heavenward in golden elevators, whilst its demons are cast into dark perdition, beyond a wall, or trailing through a border post, their rights stripped away by statute or decree, or interned, imprisoned or categorised as the wrong ethnic group or religious affiliation.
The new Marinettis of the Alt:Right, the religious sentimentalists of the new Falange; the ‘Whitelash’ – all are in many ways unlikely bedfellows, yet they meld into a movement, a movement which takes specific local forms, but which understands instinctively that they share many political goals. As Nigel Farage, a far more comic figure than Mussolini could ever cut, said the night before President Trump’s inauguration, “Trump is Brexit plus plus plus.” And don’t forget that at the same time, the far-right International in Europe was meeting in Germany, where Marine Le Pen used the Brexit word to describe their aims.
There is no need to call the international Brexit movement fascist, or to invoke the name of the more terrible forms that a democratically-elected right-wing, racist populism took in the past. To say that was then, and this is now is important.
It is important, because ‘this is now’ means that we have agency. We don’t have to “suck it up”, “get over it”, or any of the other surly insults shouted by the sore winners who surely resort to aggressive discourtesy because somehow they sense the dark heart of their project. Winning a vote doesn’t confer the right to dismantle democracy – a system founded in stable institutions, the rule of law, and respect for minority rights. The point about democracy is that yesterday’s losers are permitted, even encouraged, to keep up their arguments, and criticisms and campaigns, for they can quite legitimately become tomorrow’s winners. All democratic victories are contingent, not absolute.
There is something else about Brexit as social mood music, as ideology, as movement. You can be for it, or against it. You can speak for it, or you can speak against it. There can be no middle way.
It is understandable, in the British context, that the Labour Party finds itself in an uncomfortable place. Most of its MPs and voters voted against Brexit; but most of its constituencies, due to the vagaries of our electoral system, are in Brexit territory. Some of the Parliamentary party thinks this means they must tack to their voters’ fantasies about immigration. Other think they must try to “see both sides” and “bring people together for a Brexit that works for everyone”.
Understandable, as an impulse, impossible as a political strategy. If Brexit is less a vote to leave the EU, and more a political movement, Labour must make a choice. They once had a charismatic Oswald Mosley (MP for Smethwick, by the way) in their ranks. The seductiveness of fascism was that it was perceived at the time as being capable of moving in either left-leaning, or right-leaning ways. Trying to spin Brexit in this way is to fall into a trap Labour avoided in the 1930s. Brexit cannot be fudged.
The USA, fortunately, looks to have a robust movement to resist Trump’s Brexitism; Europe less so. But it can change.
So Brexit is now a known quantity. It is an extreme right-wing populist political movement. Many of those who voted for it, or who will vote for it, in its various manifestations, are not bad people. They are voting for the signals Brexit sends out, of imminent and radical change, of gaining control in an insecure world, of improving their own lives. Those of us who see that Brexit will deliver none of those things need to start offering something equally alluring – and fast.