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From the writer and co-founder of openDemocracy, a forensic and sweeping polemic

Brexit was a wake up call - but a wake up to what? A nightmare of Farage proportions that drags Britain further into an Atlantic of fear and chronic isolation? Or a wake up to mend our broken democracy and heal a profoundly torn society? If you agree we want a society where ‘taking control’ means our being capable of shaping a future with the rest of the world, not one where we are ‘controlled’ by our past like a straight-jacket, then we need to understand, I mean really understand, why Brexit happened, what it means and how we build a future we want.

On the night of 23rd June the country signalled a democratic intent to stop being a member of the European Union. It did not stop being European – and Europe’s positive ambitions of cooperation, civility, progress and enlightened hope lives on. As Europeans we can still keep this flame alive. If this is what you want – then this is a book for you.

As both a passionate European and a long time campaigner for democracy and liberty, I analysed the referendum in openDemocracy, writing a weekly overview, Blimey, it could be Brexit! Now, I’m building on this to write a forensic explanation of why Brexit happened and a call to action: THE LURE OF GREATNESS.

I’ll show how the forces that lay behind Brexit, each explosive in its own way, shook the world and have started something like a democratic civil war here in Britain. I’ll argue this creates an extraordinary if painful opportunity. The forces include: the English question of voice and identity; the intensely unequal nature of the neoliberal economy and its mantra that ‘there is no alternative’; a venal political class personified by Blair and Cameron; the cartel character of the EU itself; the strange absentee weakness of the left and the rise of new, mass movements of all kinds.

The immediate result is paradoxical and contradictory. Immigration was attacked but England itself is now like an asylum seeker on the world stage looking for partners. EU regulation was spurned but ‘Take Back Control’, the slogan of the Leave campaign, is a call for more government not less. A fundamental pillar of the unwritten constitution - that our legislators decide what is best – is shattered. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe and may separate from the English and Welsh.

The last months of 2016 are likely to be the phoney war before the real battle over Brexit begins. Can the people of these European islands regroup to create an honest democracy, environmentally balanced, economically fair, institutionally inventive and politically free?

Help me show how we can. Please subscribe to THE LURE OF GREATNESS. We aim to have finished copies early in 2017. Thank you.

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Anthony Barnett was the first Director of Charter 88, the campaign for constitutional reform, from 1988-95. He co-founded openDemocracy in 2001, was its first Editor and writes regularly for it. He co-directed the Convention on Modern Liberty in 2009. His books include:

· Iron Britannia, Why Parliament Waged its Falklands War (1982)

· Soviet Freedom (1988)

· This Time - Our Constitutional Revolution (1997)

· Iron Britannia, Time to Take the Great out of Britain (Faber Finds edition, 2012)

· Blimey, it could be Brexit! (2015)

And with others

· Aftermath, Vietnam and Cambodia (1982) with John Pilger

· Debating the Constitution (1992) with Caroline Ellis and Paul Hirst

· Power and the Throne (1994) the Charter 88 monarchy debate

· Town and Country (1999) edited with Roger Scruton

· The Athenian Option, Radical Reform of the House of Lords (2008) with Peter Cary


If you are young and British you have had your freedom to move, live, love and work in another country of our continent taken away from you by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Your right to be a European and, just as important, your right to welcome Europeans to live with you, has been removed. Perhaps your expectations were unspoken and it is only now you realise something precious has been lost that is akin to bereavement.

Since the end of the Second World War we have seen both individual freedoms and shared human rights develop and strengthen across Europe. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany behind the wall that literally divided her country. No one was at liberty to cross it without permission or they put their life at risk. For her in an extreme form, but also for hundreds of millions of us, freedom to move means the end to a kind of imprisonment. Even if most of us decide to stay in our own country, this is a chosen destination when we have the freedom not just to travel but also to settle, temporarily or permanently, anywhere across the EU. Now, a new wall has been thrown up across part of Europe. At the moment the barrier is just a declaration. Perhaps it is all the more alarming because its meaning and consequences are still unclear.

Put the pain to one side for a moment. When 17.5 million people voted to take the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland out of the European Union by a majority of one and a quarter million, they did at least three things: they repudiated their governing elite; they challenged the oligarchy of the European Union and its associated network of global power, even if they did so by walking away; and they tore our country apart from our neighbours in a dangerous fashion that risks turning it into a closed and bigoted place.


The Convention on Brexit

Monday, 24 April 2017

Hi everyone, this important CONVENTION ON BREXIT: Think Anew, Act Anew, Brexit and the Political Crash, is taking place in Westminster Central Hall 12/13 May. Do join us if you can. It's all the more important with the election as it will ask, What is happening to our democracy? Many of you are speaking. As you can see. Update shortly on Lure. Hope to see you at the…

Why is she Frit? May's cut & Run election

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Hi everyone, I was just plannign an update when up popped the latest suprise. You can read my explanation of May's decision here in openDemocracy and reproduced below. If all goes to plan, subscribers will get LURE in June and it will be published and in the shops in late August. But I'll keep you posted.

The headline reason for Theresa May's 'cut and run' general election does not convince. The…

The Lure of Brexit

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

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Hi all, the ms is with the Unbound copyeditor. I have published a response to May's trigger of Article 50 here in openDemocracy. It gives you a taste of some of the argument in the book. You can read it here below as well. I'll send you an update about publication dates shortly. Thanks for your patience, Anthony


As the UK government hands across its letter to the EU triggering Article…

Parliament and Trump and a Putney debate

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hi everyone, I talked with Adam Ramsay, editor of openDemocracyUK about yesterday's Brexit vote and also the impact of Trump. He wrote an article and kindly made me the co-author. This is a link to it. The Abdication of the Commons... I am also taking part in the Putney Debate on Friday, More information here: 

Greatness rebranded as 'Global'

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Hi everyone, I have published a quick analysis of the domestic significance of the speech the Prime Minister gave yesterday. Here is a link to it  and I'm copying it below. Anthony

Theresa May’s historic speech at Lancaster House will go down as one of the last manifestoes of English imperialism and perhaps its final call. The latter depends on the response of the other European powers as well…

John Berger

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

John Berger was a close and important friend and sometimes collaborator. He died after a short illness on 2 January and I wrote a salute to him the next day. You can read it here: I'll be going to his funeral in France over the weekend. I will let you all know when Lure is finished, thank you for your patience…

Brexit has killed the Sovereignty of Parliament

Monday, 5 December 2016

420px the seven bishops committed to the tower in 1688 from npg

As the UK's Supreme Court gathers to consider whether the government can trigger Article 50 and start the process of leaving the EU using its royal prerogative power, or whether only parliament can do this, I have look at what is really going on. The article was commissioned by the Guardian who published it last week. A slightly longer version is here. It is a theme I will cover in the book.

The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit & America’s Trump

Friday, 25 November 2016

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Whoops! A change of plan. The election of Trump was very painful to witness. First because of its likely impact on the fate of our planet, second for the consequences for everyone in the United States, especially non-whites. I had a small, additional sense of loss. A key argument in my book is that Brexit came about thanks to the exceptional history of England, a country without its own voice…

A Choice of Violence: 12 takes on today's US election

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

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The US election is not about Brexit but Trump has made it a symbol of right-wing, insurrectionary, white-nativist change. I was in the US for family reasons and watched two of the debates there. Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy's Editor-in-Chief and a supporter of the book insisted I write something which she published yesterday. I'll draw on the argument in the book too, and so the Unbound editors…

The press as a despotic monarchy

Monday, 7 November 2016

Papers v judges

openDemocracy asked me to respond to the High Court judgement that Parliament not the government must authorise triggering Article 50 to take the UK out of the EU. Here is what I wrote. It sure is making writing the book interesting! It also makes it easier for me to argue that Brexit poses fundamental constitutional questions. If you enjoy it please forward to anyone you think would also like…

Oxford workshop next week

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

St Anthony's College European Studies Centre are kindly hosting a workshop for the book on Wednesday 2nd November from 12.30 to 14.00 with a modest buffet lunch available from 12.15 to 12.30. It will be chaired by Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis in their seminar room at 70 Woodstock Road. If you want to come please register with Ellysia Graymore by emailing her,  She…

The Daily Mail Takes Power

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

To celebrate your help in getting WHAT NEXT fully funded and under steam I decided to write a note about what our new Prime Minister represents. Solving this will be crucial for my argument. It has turned into a longer piece than I expected, as is often the case with work in progress. Any comments and suggestions are most welcome. 

What kind of Tory is Theresa May? She has driven her predecessor…

Lies in Politics: Was Cameron just bad at being Machiavellian? Or is something new taking place?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016


I’ve been told that when pre-orders pass 75%, it’s time for a report to all my backers so far. In the first part of WHAT NEXT I’ll look at how people have responded to the referendum outcome. This has led me to reflect on lies in public life. Are they getting worse? Have we entered a ‘post-truth’ era as it is claimed?

I’ve a specific starting point: the sheer venom of many on the Remain side…

Picking a Title

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

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It is best to give a book a working title and then finalise it when it’s done. But to crowdfund I have to pre-announce a title and it feels definitive. This has caused me grief. My original long synopsis I called The Work of Fools. This was lifted from a great protest banner after the referendum, which quoted the full line from Patti Smith’s The People have the Power. I liked it as a title. But…

Graham Hewitt
Graham Hewitt asked:

What do you mean by Britain? Is the focus predominantly on England with a few footnotes for other parts of the UK or is equal space given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett replied:

Hi Graham, I'm planning to go to Wales, Northern Ireland and Dublin too, and Scotland, and they will be an integral part of my account. There will be an early chapter on England, as it was an English vote that drove Brexit, and the unique issue of English-British identity and voice will be an important part of the investigation and resolution.

Beverly Anderson
Beverly Anderson asked:

Dear Anthony,
This is only sort-of a question. Here goes:
Disappointing as it has been to watch the decline in the quality of journalism over the last few years, both in print and on television, I am both amused and annoyed by the new habit of referring to some people (the Other,usually) , as “populists", lumping together people as different as those who support Corbyn, Sanders, LeFarge, or Trump, and themselves, ( the journalists/commentators) as “liberal internationalists”, unless they are openly Right Wing or Conservative.
A populist is defined as “a person who holds or who is concerned with , the views of ordinary people.”
Here ,here; that includes me, right here, right now, and ever since I learned what voting was..
Why not just say “some voters”, "some citizens “, or even *some people” ? No chance of them writing “some of us”, of course!
It gets my goat because of its snobbish, excluding tone, even when the writer is acknowledging the irresponsible behaviour of the elite.
Hope you plan to give some space to this in the book.
Love meantime,
Populist Beverly (Anderson)

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett replied:

Thanks Beverly, your are certainly popular with me! A key aspect of the technical meaning of 'populist' is using the notion of 'the people' as singular and having only one-voice. It's a device for authoritarianism and very different from being popular which includes a sense of the many and the plural. This is even implicit in the words. For something or someone to be popular implies there are others who are unpopular or have unpopular views. For someone to represent 'the people' or 'the popular' in the manner of a populist implies that those who are against are nothing - are outside the acceptable. I'm going to try and write something about this. thanks again xxAnthony

Rafe JAFFREY asked:

Dear Anthony,
As for many people Brexit has awoken a lot of passions in me and this is a bit of an essay but there are a couple of questions in there!
Ever since the rise of UKIP I have been thinking about the the question of troubled English identity and its relation to Britain's colonial past. What do you think about the following idea? The British empire became the largest in the world since the Romans and its people were, over many generations educated to believe that they were better than anyone else in the world. As the dominant culture within Britain, the English by and large came to believe this more than the Scots and the Welsh did, and it became embedded within their cultural identity even if it did not necessarily match people's own economic and class status in society.
With the decline of empire and loss of worldwide power sections of English society have been left with an identity which no longer corresponds to reality in any way. This coupled with a loss of manufacturing brought about by Thatcher has left whole swathes of England with a kind of inferiority complex: We used to be great and look at us now sense of victimhood, which has been compounded by seeing immigrants come into their communities who are able to just get on with life in a more independent way. Looked at in this way it's easy to see how the EU has become a sort of Quixotic enemy imposing itself upon "free born Englishmen" telling them what to do when once it was the English telling the world what to do!
If you accept the notion that English identity became (and still is for some) too intertwined with empire do you think it could be possible for English to undergo a rebirth? By this I mean that for me this situation is somewhat tragic given the levels of art, culture and science that England has produced of the ages. The Scots and the Welsh, it seems to me have a more benign form of nationalism based on the love and respect of ancestors rather than dominating others. Given its cultural richness, from Chaucer to modern music, could the English adopt a less aggressive form of nationalism rooted in art, culture and science rather than military conquest and domination?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett replied:

Dear Rafe, Many apologies for the long delay in my reply. I agree with a lot of this, very many of the English are at a loss and feel this acutely given the loss of Empire. It is mixed up with Britishness, they still see themselves at 'Great British' so the fact that Scotland has a parliament and is getting 'uppity' rubs salt into the wound. There is a great deal of projection of discontent onto the EU. Can there be a rebirth? Yes, I will argue there can be. But it will mean becoming European... thanks and apologies again for the delay

Jeff Gleisner
Jeff Gleisner asked:

It's not quite true that the Left has been silent. Blue Labour, which I broadly support, has expressed views.

On Empire, I am sceptical of your view that the English are at a loss because of its absence. On the contrary, the English seem to be quite secure in their identity.

On Europe I do not feel one whit less European due to Brexit. I am genuinely puzzled why anyone should feel otherwise. Europe is a civilisational, not a political, identity,

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett replied:

OK, well I will take on these points in the book. The left talks a lot to be sure, but are its many voices being heard - speaking in a way that is not heard is a form of being silent.
The English are secure in their identity? Are they British?
Being European, or anything else, is not just about feeling. Important though this is. Institutions are more important. Europe is also a political identity, how could it not be?
Thanks for your questions, all very to the point.

Peter Thompson
Peter Thompson asked:

Will your book allude to the persistent class divides pervading Englishness? To a society which perpetuates this by educating 7% of its students, selected by wealth, with, arguably, the best system in the world, whilst the other 93% are left struggling? To governance which talks about 'social mobility' while pursuing policies which impede it? To the propaganda of 'equal opportunity' when we have nearly the highest inequality in the developed world? To housing, where now a majority of the population are the tenants of a property-owning oligarchy which regards them only as an investment income stream? To the planning system which sees landowners walk away with 1000-fold increases in wealth as housing sites are designated? To the communities living with Assured Shorthold Tenancies and no security of a roof over their heads in 12-months' time? I believe these are all part of the failed society of Britain. Is the EU a scapegoat for the discontent and hopelessness arising from this failure? Will leaving the EU remedy matters? If not, what will? Sorry, rather a lot of questions!!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett replied:

These are very good questions! There is something about the deep inequalities of English society that is now being questioned more widely. Whereas many were being brought into the country's wealth, they are now being actively excluded while the rich get even richer. Your example about the staggering fortune that can come from land-ownership highlights this. And the intensity of this inequity is recent. It is also unacceptable. Was Brexit a protest against it? Can it lead to a reversal? I'm going to ask this for sure, and attempt an answer.

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