Just now it’s hard to avoid the subject of Brexit, which – irrespective of your referendum choice – is a tale of government ineptitude so great that it inspires a kind of awe: misbegotten in concept, disastrously managed and losing no opportunity to make things worse as it went along. And behind Brexit lurks something even more worrying than our fate within or without Europe: an atrophy of the idea of the state that not only makes a mockery of the notion of taking back control of anything, but makes one fearful for our ability to preserve a functioning democracy.
In fact, the Brexit tale starts well before the referendum was even a mention in a Tory manifesto – and ironically, except in the fevered nationalist imaginings of the European Research Group, it has very little to do with Europe. In this version, the origins of Brexit are to be found in the backwash from the 2008 financial crisis.
The reasoning goes like this. The GFC – a banking, not a spending crisis, itself the result of policy failure to rein in the financial sector – severely dented the UK’s public finances. That triggered austerity, the huge brunt of which (89 per cent) fell on public expenditure, in particular local authorities in already deprived areas, whose citizens responded by enthusiastically voting UKIP in local elections. This in turn frightened Conservatives into promising a referendum in the election of 2015, with the results that we know. The correlation between votes for UKIP in elections and Leave in the referendum, suggests that without austerity – and the sadistic form in which it was administered – the referendum result would have been different. So there is a straight line from the Great Financial Crash through austerity to Brexit that never touches Europe, except of course as collateral damage.
The story of Brexit post-referendum is just as hapless – as far fetched, although not as funny, as a Gilbert and Sullivan plot (martial law and the evacuation of the royals after a crash exit, anyone?). Dsplaying what can only qualify as reckless negligence, the government appears to have done no due diligence on either the external or the internal consequences of its actions, underestimating the negative effects on its own integrity (Northern Ireland, Scotland) as much as it overestimated European willingness to satisfy our notorious appetite for cake both to scoff now and to hoard for future midnight feasts. There was an advisory referendum on the most important political decision for a couple of generations that somehow morphed into the will of the people despite possible manipulation and a majority that wouldn’t have sufficed to alter a local golf club’s membership dues. Then there were negotiations not with the EU but between different governmental factions, and when government members now disingenuously warn of social unrest the opposition is again not Europe but internal. Brexit has turned into a nightmare Catch-22: if we knew our history, including that of two world wars in the last century, we wouldn’t do it in a million years; so the only way to do it is by ignoring history, which of course guarantees that we shouldn’t do it. We’re reliving history without learning its lessons.
That, however, is not all. Writing in The Guardian, Fintan O’Toole, one of the sharpest commentators on the whole saga, noted: ‘Brexit is really just the vehicle that has delivered a fraught state to a place where it can no longer pretend to be a settled and functioning democracy…It is time to move on from the pretence that the problem with British democracy is the EU and to recognise that it is with itself.’ Part of the problem, as O’Toole notes, is about what to do with English nationalism. But that is compounded by the fact that the UK no longer believes in its ability to carry out many of the traditional roles of the state, which it has meekly abandoned to the market and business. It is a self-hating state which now finds itself almost completely bereft of its traditional defences and competencies at exactly the moment, with danger and turmoil swirling around, when statecraft is most needed.
In retrospect, the extent and urgency of these failings had been brought into sharp focus in a forthright presentation by the FT’s Martin Wolf at last November’s Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna. In a good session on ‘Beyond market failures: how the state creates value’ (you can watch it here), Wolf laid out some basic home truths. The state, he asserted, was ‘the most important institutional innovation in human history, as essential now as it's ever been’ (the idea that we would all be in heaven if it only got out of the way, he added, was ‘only possible for people who are so used to strong and powerful states that they cannot imagine their disappearance’). Leaving aside taken-for-granted aspects like security, the justice and legal system, and the laws governing the roles, purpose and legitimate operations of business, all of which just happen to be ‘a total mess’ – ‘and if this isn’t important I don’t know what is’ – all our current priorities of broadly shared and sustainable prosperity, financial stability and environmental protection require the active intervention of a state that is ‘ambitious, effective and … under democratic control’. For many states, perhaps especially our own, that is a very big ask. Yet without it, and without states and governments getting better at cooperating with each other than they presently are, said Wolf, we face a crisis in which the brave new technologies that we set such store by ‘will in my view destroy us.’
Those, in the words of the FT’s chief economic commentator, are the stakes. It is little comfort to know that Brexit in that perspective is just a taster of bigger tests to come.