Brexit was an intellectual failure. What should we do now?

The UK vote in 2016 to leave the EU was an intellectual failure, and now the intellectual class risks paying a high price. Universities in particular will lose many overseas students, and not just from the EU. Businesses will lose international employees similarly. Xenophobia and racism are encouraged by some powerful politicians and hate crimes are rising.

We need to understand the intellectual failures behind these changes if we are going to start to remedy the situation.

To start with, we have to go back a little. Eleven years before the Brexit vote the French people had voted similarly, but in classic terms the outcome was fudged.

In May 2005 there was a referendum in France on a proposed single text which would become the new constitution for the EU. The Parisian elite and the main parties were all for it. It had been drafted by a former president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. However the French people disobeyed their betters and voted No.

Of course, France did not leave the EU. Instead the idea of a constitution was quietly dropped and the powers-that-be pretended it had never happened.

In his analysis of this 2005 revolt, published a year before the Brexit vote, Sudhir Hazareesingh (an Oxford professor) sets out the main currents of discontent that washed across the land: xenophobia and racism concerning enlargement of the EU, hostility from the regions set against the capital elite, and a backlash against multiculturalism with it being seen as an attack on French identity.

Consider the following, exactly as it was published over a year ago:

“Indeed, what was most striking about the victorious ‘No’ vote was its effective aggregation of negatives. Upon the classic eurosceptic fear of loss of sovereignty was grafted a toxic combination of populisms: a xenophobic rejection of European enlargement, a progressive anxiety about the dilution of French social rights (represented by the figure of the ‘Polish plumber’) and a neo-Poujadist rejection of Paris-elites by grass-roots campaigners. As Jean Monnet’s star began to wane, the unlikely hero of the moment was Étienne Chouard, an economics and management schoolteacher who mounted a widely consulted campaign against the European constitution on his website. Libération hailed him as the ‘internet champion’ of the opposition campaign, and Le Monde devoted an article to the ‘Don Quixote of the “No” vote’. It was a measure of the impotence of the Parisian intellocracy (but also, conversely, of the growing power of the new horizontal age of internet communication) that the European project, the brainchild of Jean Monnet and one of the most distinguished creations of Gallic thought, was thus effectively pushed to one side by a blogger from Marseille.” (How the French Think, Sudhir Hazareesingh, 2015)

You rather wish someone had bought a copy and left it open on page 247 on the Prime Minister’s desk. Oh, what might have been…

But in truth by the time he could have read this book it was already too late. Promises had been made and changing course would have destroyed the Conservative party. Nor would it have helped the Labour party, which then still believed that ‘Europe’ would destroy the irreconcilable Conservatives either way, bringing Labour back into power using the buggins turn method of UK democracy. The intellectual strategy, in effect, was to sit, watch, and wait.

The Scottish National Party annihilation of the Labour vote in 2015 was more than a straw in the wind. Like a taser, that result sent an electric shock through the Labour party, collapsing it to the ground. And every time Labour MPs gathered in the House of Commons, the sight of so many SNP members sitting where Labour people used to be sat sent shudders anew. The strategy (if that) of watching and waiting was now replaced by one of twitching and fearing.

At a deeper level, the Labour party also became irreconcilable. ‘Europe’ was part of that mix, but much smaller than for the Conservatives. For Labour, the divide was over the EU’s legal privileges given to market forces and a fear this private sector bias will damage health, railways, postal deliveries and other public services, as well as holding back state help to firms in steel, coal and other stressed industries. New Labour grandees were worried about losing their reputation for being pro-business. Old Labour grandees similarly worried about losing their internationalist credentials if they criticised the EU.

But the main fault line was that many Labour leaders had lost their followers. The change in membership rules had created the largest party in western Europe, a new membership that was increasingly at odds with the old leadership. A leadership which had to fall back on the argument that half a million people were wrong, because the wider electorate would never support their policies. This was becoming mathematically a less sustainable argument as new members continued to join.

An this is where the intellectual failure bites. When Michael Gove now famously declared that “the British people have had enough of experts” it had the perhaps unintended effect of letting experts feel that at least they had done their bit. They had tried, they told themselves, but it was just unfortunate that they had been shot down.

But what had the experts, the intellectuals, actually said? The blunt truth is that most of the expert statements were from economists making predictions about the economic impact of a No vote, which was incorrectly but very effectively typecast as Project Fear. Which, incidentally, was forensically analysed in The European newspaper which tracked the UK tabloid front pages in the run-up to the referendum for relentless scare stories about immigration, entitled The Real Project Fear.

So we had expert economists, who to be fair did willingly enter the fray even though they left battered. But where were the rest of the experts, the intellectuals? There were a few round robin letters printed in the broadsheet newspapers, from university vice chancellors and the like, but nothing that frankly might really set the debate alight.

A lot of energy is now being given to speculating about the Brexit negotiations with the EU27. Perhaps we should save our breath. Basically, by March 2017 the UK will write a letter saying it is leaving, and by March 2019 it will be gone. There is a view held by some British people that there will be much to negotiate. However it is clear already that the EU27 think otherwise. UK politicians know that they are on the back foot, despite publicly denying it, so they resort to threats about EU nationals in the UK not keeping their right to remain. The Spanish government has already responded this week with claims for funding from the UK for the health care costs of hundreds of thousands of British pensioners currently living in Spain. Pensioners, by the way, who are ‘ex-pats’ and definitely not immigrants. Both the Daily Mail and the Express have print editions in Spain. Their contortions will be one of the few pleasures to be had from Brexit.

So intellectuals should enter the battle at last, bluntly, but not be drawn into the negotiations speculation sideshow.

The task instead is to start again with the case for internationalism, for peace, for solidarity, for equity between countries, between regions and between communities. This will mean a hard look at what is currently on offer: at globalisation, at the extractions done by financial markets including London, at the European Central Bank’s fights with eurozone countries, and at the priviledged position given within the EU to market forces. And it means doing this rebuilding and reforming of our shared institutions with people in other countries, not to them.

Finally, take heart. Remember the cotton workers in Lancashire who boycotted the pro-slavery southern US states even though it cost them and their families dearly – for justice and for international solidarity. Remember president Lincoln’s deep gratitude to them. Remember change can be argued for and won. And we have a good start at 48%.

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