THE LURE OF GREATNESS: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump

By Anthony Barnett

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

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Publication date: August 2017

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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.


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  • Anthony Barnett avatar

    Anthony Barnett

    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.

  • Anthony Barnett has written 7 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    7th June 2020 Not about Brexit

    The virus is both terrible yet creates hope, as kindness and a sense of humanity come through. How is this possible? I wrote my answer under lockdown. As well as proposing what to do now it turned into a history of the past 50 years: I show how a humanisation grew inside the global disorder. It's pamphlet length at 23,000 words and there is a pdf for easier reading. Also an openDemocracy video debate…

    4th September 2018 ALBION'S CALL

    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


    6th June 2018 The Brexit Civil War

    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

    27th February 2018 Join me in London and Winchester

    I'm talking about Brexitannia at King's College London this Thursday at 5pm and in Winchester a week later. All welcome. In Lure I said Brexit will happen and will fail. Time to test the argument!

    2nd January 2018 "One of the most important political books of 2017"

    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

    1st December 2017 A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis.. easily the best of its kind, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking

    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…

    30th October 2017 Reframing the opposition to Brexit

    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…

    6th October 2017 Opposing Brexit with a Twist

    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.

    Why different?

    Because most Remainers…

    21st September 2017 Lure THE VIDEO!

    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…

    5th July 2017 Close to and Grenfell Tower feels alive...

    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).

    4th June 2017 Corbyn catches the Brexit Breeze, then terror

    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.

    19th May 2017 Last chance to buy LURE

    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.


    8th May 2017 The Convention is this week & LURE is June with a fair wind

    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…

    24th April 2017 The Convention on Brexit

    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…

    18th April 2017 Why is she Frit? May's cut & Run election

    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…

    29th March 2017 The Lure of Brexit

    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…

    2nd February 2017 Parliament and Trump and a Putney debate

    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: 

    18th January 2017 Greatness rebranded as 'Global'

    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…

    4th January 2017 John Berger

    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…

    5th December 2016 Brexit has killed the Sovereignty of Parliament

    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.

    25th November 2016 The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit & America’s Trump

    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…

    8th November 2016 A Choice of Violence: 12 takes on today's US election

    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…

    7th November 2016 The press as a despotic monarchy

    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…

    26th October 2016 Oxford workshop next week

    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…

    5th October 2016 The Daily Mail Takes Power

    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…

    20th September 2016 Lies in Politics: Was Cameron just bad at being Machiavellian? Or is something new taking place?

    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…

    6th September 2016 Picking a Title

    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…

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  • 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
    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.

    Graham Partridge
    Graham Partridge asked:

    Having joined in the collective sponsorship of this book partly on the grounds that this method of publishing would help to get it published urgently, and having now received my hardback copy and begun to read it, I wondered if there was still to be a special launch event and, if so, if there might be any provisional date of this?

    Anthony Barnett
    Anthony Barnett replied:

    Hi Graham, thank you! The book is officially published on 24 August and launch events are being discussed for September. You got your hardback copy early. If you sponsored the event with Suzanne Moore and Caroline Lucas you will certainly be invited. No provision dates yet!

    Graham Partridge
    Graham Partridge asked:

    Dear Antony Thanks for your helpful reply One other question - I want to send a copy of your book to a friend What is the mechanism for ordering further copies? I can't see this information - is the book available through bookshops now? Or?

    Anthony Barnett
    Anthony Barnett replied:

    Dear Graham, Thank you. That's very generous. The book will be published on 24 August in paperback at £8.99 and should be in the shops and available earlier, I see Amazon say they will have it on 10 August. The hardback is a special edition exclusively for subscribers. Hope this helps.

    James Forbes
    James Forbes asked:

    Is there a recording of your recent talks (London/Winchester) available anywhere on-line?

    Anthony Barnett
    Anthony Barnett replied:

    Hi James, KCL have posted my talk at Kings There should be a video of the Winchester lecture shortly