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Brexit and the British Establishment

by Heather Watkins on August 29, 2016
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In the aftermath of the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union many commentators have expressed dismay at a result that is said to have rocked the British establishment.  Some blame the UKIP led Leave campaign for whipping up xenophobia, others blame Jeremy Corbyn for displaying insufficient zeal in seeking to convince traditional Labour voters of the benefits of Remain.  Either way, the general tone of liberal opinion has been marked by a scandalised tut-tutting against various strands of populism accused of disrupting traditional British values of good sense and moderation.

In my research with Maria Loreta Urbina and Jon Mansell, we trace how in recent years British political discourse has been coarsened by statements referring to: “swarms of migrants“; rediscovered National Front slogans calling for “British jobs for British workers“; and incendiary claims that “Muslims are incompatible with the modern world“.  And yet, these are not the statements of the populist rabble-rousers, they are in turn the statements of the last three Prime Ministers of the UK: David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.  For over three decades the British political establishment, taking its lead from the media establishment, has embraced the rhetoric of conservative nationalism, even as its policies have championed neoliberal globalisation.  Drawing on our ongoing research project into the discourse of Thatcherism, in this blog post we will suggest Brexit should, therefore, not be thought of as an aberration, but rather as the culmination of an inherent contradiction in the ideological project of British nationalist-neoliberalism.

For Thatcher, Britain during the 1970s was in the midst of a crisis of governability, the sick man of Europe, scarred by pervasive industrial conflict and shackled by socialist regulation.  This historic decline, she declared, was the result of the division of the national community between labour and management.  The restoration of British greatness would involve “heal(ing) the wounds of a divided nation” (1975) and famously “bring(ing) harmony where there is discord” (1979). This consensual rhetoric of national harmony, however, also implied a coercive set of policies aimed at suppressing those deemed to be agents of division and discord.  In particular, the Trade Union movement was targeted for coercive state repression as an enemy within, engaged in “a deliberate attack on our values, a deliberate attack on those who wish to promote merit and excellence, a deliberate attack on our heritage and great past” (1975).  The British national tradition was defined by a culture of “positive, vital, driving, individual incentive” (1976) and therefore all forms of collectivism were held to be inherently anti-British, illegitimate and alien.

The political logic of Thatcherism, therefore, involved a conservative appeal to the restoration of national community, based on Victorian values of order, hierarchy and deference to authority.  At the same time, the economic logic of Thatcherism unleashed a radical free-market liberalism that proclaimed “there is no such thing as society” (1987).  This latter logic involved a fundamental restructuring of the economy away from manufacturing, which had been the foundation of working class communities and cultural traditions for over a century.  In a matter of years large swathes of the north and midlands of England, Scotland and Wales were deindustrialised, abandoned to a managed decline, whereby formerly well-paid and secure industrial work gave way to mass unemployment and ultimately, unstable, low-paid and low-skilled service sector jobs.  At the same time the new economy was built on the restoration of the City of London as the liberal centre of global trade and financial speculation, ever more detached from any meaningful connection to the broader UK economy and society.

The ideological contradiction between conservative nationalism and neoliberal globalisation was, however, never fully resolved in Thatcherism.  It was only with the emergence of Tony Blair’s New Labour government that there was a full embrace of financial deregulation in the service of social modernisation.  For the Third Way ideologues of New Labour, the immense structural imbalances of the British economy could be mitigated through a virtuous circle in which the fully de-regulated financial sector would generate the untold riches by which to fund social welfare programs, particularly targeted towards the regeneration of devastated post-industrial communities.  As part of this evangelical faith in the benefits of free markets, the Blair government was the only major European economy (alongside Ireland and Sweden) to fully embrace the extension of the free movement of labour within the EU to the new accession countries of Eastern Europe in 2004. The Blair government was enthusiastic in making the case that free movement contributes to growth and is thus “absolutely essential to our economy” in recognisably Third Way language, that “lower growth means less individual and family prosperity, and less revenue to spend on public services” (2004).  However, Blair also channelled resentment towards these policies through a discursive division between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” migrants, “genuine” and “bogus” asylum seekers, the British public, Blair affirmed, will “accept and welcome migrants who play by the rules, but they will not accept abuse or absurdity” (2004).

The public were thus encouraged to distinguish between good migrants who play by the rules and contribute to the betterment of the national community and bad migrants who simply abuse the system.  This division could be sustained through the boom years of the 2000s but with the collapse of the deregulated financial sector in 2008-9 and the subsequent catastrophic cuts to social welfare programs, the good migrant / bad migrant division also collapsed.  In Austerity Britain, marked by recession and cuts, the argument that migration contributes to rising living standards has become untenable; all migrants have, therefore, become bad migrants, associated either with competition for low-paid and insecure jobs, or scarce social resources such as housing and school places.

Certainly, therefore, it is true that the massive vote for Brexit, focused on the issue of immigration, across the communities hardest hit by British neoliberalism, should be understood as a vote against the British establishment.  But the form this rejection has taken is not anti-establishment, on the contrary it articulates the conservative nationalism that has been present in British neoliberal ideology from the very beginning.  The political discourse of exclusion, of blaming and shaming various illegitimate and alien enemies within, introduced by Thatcher, developed by Blair and which has only intensified since 2008-9, reflects the inherent contradictions of British nationalist-neoliberalism, a project which appeals towards a consensual project of national harmony and renewal, but which is premised on a coercive project of exclusion and destruction.

Heather Watkins
Dr Heather Watkins is a Lecturer in Politics at Nottingham Trent University. Her academic interests focus on localism and decentralised politics in the UK, seen as responses to broader political crises and discourses. She has written on the impact of neoliberal and “Third Way” logics on post-industrial communities and understandings of citizenship, and on the development of political ethnography as a research methodology for capturing political agency. She also has a parallel research interest in pedagogy and the use of internationalisation to foster critically-engaged perspectives in students.

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