From the writer and co-founder of openDemocracy, a forensic and sweeping polemic
The Lure of Greatness: the best book about Brexit so far
Fintan O'Toole on how the failure of Britain was deflected on to the EU from The Irish Times, first published 16 September 2017, Original piece here
The Brexit referendum vote last year was one of those events that is utterly shocking but not really surprising. There was a deep malaise in British politics, indeed in the whole idea of Britain itself. It was not articulated fully by any political party, but it was lurking there, waiting for its moment, a moment that David Cameron, in all his smugness and cynicism, duly provided. It is apt, therefore, that the best book about Brexit so far comes from one of the few political thinkers who has been writing and talking about that malaise for decades and who long feared that, if this “long drawn-out constitutional and political impasse” was not resolved in a progressive way, it would find a reactionary expression.
Anthony Barnett is a veteran campaigner for democratic reform in Britain. He was director of Charter 88, which proposed radical changes in the system of government to sweep away the powerful remnants of unaccountable privilege. He organised the Convention on Modern Liberty in 2009 with Henry Porter. He co-founded and edited the excellent openDemocracy website which flies the flag for transparency, reform and genuine popular power. If there are occasional tinges of “I told you so” in The Lure of Greatness, they are entirely justified. He did tell them so.
What he was telling them – which is to say the establishment he labels “the political and media caste” to emphasise the fluid movements of its members between journalism and PR and Westminster – were, in part, things that any sane observer could have said in any western democracy: that the disruptions of neoliberal globalisation and its rising inequalities would have profound political consequences. But he was also telling them something very specific to Britain: that English nationalism was on the rise and that it had to be given a political form in keeping with its best democratic and egalitarian traditions. Otherwise, it would become an enormously disruptive force.
Breaches of trust
This history gives Barnett a unique perspective now. He is (to adapt with all due irony the kind of Blairite language he despises) tough on Brexit but also tough on the causes of Brexit. He takes those who voted to leave the EU very seriously and treats their anger and frustration with genuine sympathy. He traces that anger back to the great breach of trust that was involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Interestingly, he points out that this breach of trust affected conservatives who supported the war as much as it did left-wing peaceniks: “many who came from the working classes that provide the bulk of the armed forces were less troubled by the illegality, provided the strategy worked.” But of course it didn’t work: British forces were defeated in Basra and also in Helmand in Afghanistan. The most potent symbol of Britishness – the ability to project military might around the world – was shown to be illusory.
More obviously, Barnett traces the other breaches of trust that created the disillusion with the existing political order: the blithe indifference to the victims of neoliberal globalisation, the replacement of public values with the fetishizing of market forces, the bailing out of a reckless and amoral financial industry. His critique encompasses the entire era of what he calls the CBCs – the Clintons, the Bushes, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. But his most original argument is that Brexit is primarily a response to England’s loss of faith in the once-glorious British project.
The drift away from Britishness is generally associated with the rise of nationalism in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales. But Barnett points out that census figures have shown a large majority of people in England choosing “English” as their sole national identity (38 million people did so in the 2011 census, 70 per cent of the English population). His argument is that, deprived of a national democracy, the English took out their anger on the EU, an institution relentlessly vilified by Rupert Murdoch’s empire and the rest of the Tory press. (He quotes the Evening Standard journalist Anthony Hilton: “I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy’, he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’”)
Failure of Britain
The core of Barnett’s thesis is that the Brexit vote was a form of displacement, rage at the failure of Britain being deflected on to the EU: “English hostility to the European Union is based on a delusion of its influence, linked to a nihilistic sense of the futility of Westminster… being deprived of a credible, representative power that clearly belongs to you leads to anger with the most remote authority of all, which is blamed as the source of your powerlessness… Unable to exit Britain, the English did the next best thing and told the EU to ‘fuck off’…”
And it was the English, or rather the non-metropolitan English wot won it – Barnett points out that while Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted remain and Wales narrowly supported leave, what he calls England-without-London voted leave by a whopping 11 per cent. Even more importantly, support for Brexit in this non-metropolitan England, contrary to so much glib analysis, was not confined to the “left behind”. It stretched from the comfortable Home Counties to the hard scrabble former mining valleys, encompassing both rich and poor. It was a genuine nationalist revolt. And, he argues, it has doomed the old tolerant and humane Britishness: “Britishness is now Brexitness.”
Barnett is scathing about Brexit itself and predicts that when the break-up of Britain has eventually played itself out in “the end of the empire state” and England has emerged as a reimagined democracy, it will rejoin the EU: “Eventually Brexit will collapse… Then Britain’s separate nations, England especially, can recover as themselves, to put their admirable qualities and pugnaciousness to good use in collaboration with their neighbours – for the road back to our European identity lies through England gaining its independence and therefore the confidence to share power without feeling shame.” If this seems an overly optimistic conclusion to a brilliantly caustic book, there is some comfort in the fact that Barnett has been right about so much before.
INTRODUCTION: THE REVOLT OF THE NATIVES
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.
Tuesday, 4 September 2018
I'm giving a lecture on the lure of Brexit! 19 September at 5.30 in King's College London, get your free ticket here. I support A People's Vote and will talk about how to make sure that, if we get a new referendum it will not be a repeat of the last one. All the best, Anthony
The Brexit Civil War
Wednesday, 6 June 2018
I've just published an open letter you can read here to my fellow Remainers. I predicted in the book that "Brexit will collapse. The sooner, the less excruciating the pain". This opens a mini-series on speeding things up! I also replied to David Edgar in the LRB. Thanks again for your support, especially if you are a Brexiteer. Anthony
Join me in London and Winchester
Tuesday, 27 February 2018
"One of the most important political books of 2017"
Tuesday, 2 January 2018
Dear subscribers, you may have noticed that no London newspaper reviewed or engaged with Lure of Greatness in print. Now, the Guardian has redeemed the situation with a magisterial leader. You can read it here. All the best for 2018! Anthony
A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis.. easily the best of its kind, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking
Friday, 1 December 2017
Dear all, here is the Guardian's online politics editor's wonderful short review of Lure (in full below). I'm launching Wales for Europe in Cardiff on the 5th, already sold out. Labour Tube have a 50 minutes interview starting with longest "brief answer" in history (12 mins!) as I summarise the book. And the video of last month's meeting with Caroline Lucas, Clive Lewis, Suzanne Moore and me with…
Reframing the opposition to Brexit
Monday, 30 October 2017
Last call for the meeting tomorrow, Haloween Tuesday 31 October, from 7.30, book here. I'll join Caroline Lucas, who has a piece about it in the Guardian online. Also Labour MP Clive Lewis, Suzanne Moore and John Harris. Tickets from Eventbrite. It will be filmed if you can't get to London. Plus, I replied to a critic of my analysis of the English nature of Brexit in openDemocracy. Which then ran…
Opposing Brexit with a Twist
Friday, 6 October 2017
The wonderful Caroline Lucas and Labour’s Clive Lewis, who resigned from the shadow cabinet to oppose Brexit, join me and Suzanne Moore on Tuesday 31 October at London’s Emmanuel Centre (tickets here). The Guardian’s John Harris will moderate. It will be a discussion of Brexit with a difference. A panel of Remainers exploring how to reverse the outcome.
Because most Remainers…
Lure THE VIDEO!
Thursday, 21 September 2017
We have made a video to get out word of the book. Its getting lots of views and has a terrific cast reading from it. You can see it here. It is also on Facebook being widely viewed. Please share it if you are also on Facebook. There will be a public meeting on 31 October around the book with Caroline Lucas, Suzanne Moore and others. Tickets here. A cracking review of Lure by Fintan O'Toole enlived…
Close to and Grenfell Tower feels alive...
Wednesday, 5 July 2017
Before signing and Unbound sending off your copies I went to Grenfell Tower. This is my photo-essay on what it is like (also a comparison with visiting the World Trade Centre after 9/11).
Corbyn catches the Brexit Breeze, then terror
Sunday, 4 June 2017
LURE is now at the printers. If all goes well subscribers will have copies before the month's end. Might the election upset the book's analysis? More important, what is going on as it swings? I answer both questions in this article on openDemocracy. https://opendemocracy.net/anthony-barnett/jeremy-corbyn-catches-spirit-of-brexit
Last chance to buy LURE
Friday, 19 May 2017
Hi everyone. The Lure of Greatness is about to go to press. This is a final call for those who want to get a beautiful Unbound hardback in June. Otherwise, the trade edition hits the shops at the end of August.
The Convention is this week & LURE is June with a fair wind
Monday, 8 May 2017
The Convention on Brexit takes place on the 12/13th. I'm speaking on 'Is England the problem?' on Saturday afternoon. Link Here for the programme. LURE should be in your hands in late June / early July and in the shops late August. Here is a very generous response from John Mitchison. By all means tell friends & colleagues they can still buy an early copy.
"Hello, I’m John Mitchinson, the publisher…
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. http://www.theconvention.co.uk/ 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
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: http://www.putneydebates2017.co.uk/putney-debates-2017-programme-details?
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…
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: https://opendemocracy.net/anthony-barnett/john-berger-witness-to-human-condition-1926-2017. 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
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
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
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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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…
These people are helping to fund THE LURE OF GREATNESS: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump.