BY SAM HOOPER
Laughing at Britain’s Brexit woes might be justified if other countries were successfully tackling the pre-eminent problem of the early 21st century — reconciling meaningful democracy and self-determination with the imperative for global regulation and governance. But since no-one else has bothered to pick up the torch of destiny, maybe it’s time to rethink the self-satisfied mockery.
Spare a thought for poor Ryan Heath of Politico EU. He simply finds Brexit – and specifically Britain’s ongoing debate about the nature and timing of our departure from the European Union – too boring to deal with anymore .
At this point a half-competent developer could probably build an algorithm to randomly generate these generic, establishment media anti-Brexit Op-Eds disguised as Serious Analysis. Simply change the order of the sentences and the particular focus (elderly racists, evil Russians, young people having their futures stolen, glorious isolation, the end of Our NHS), crank the handle and out will come another cookie-cutter article ready to publish.
For those journalists observing from across the sea, the generic takes tend to be even more uniformly simplistic – former colonial power having an identity crisis, mid-sized country trying and failing to punch above its weight, lots of schadenfreude about loss of empire, lots of gloating over the humiliation of a country ranked by the intelligentsia alongside only America and Israel as uniquely evil and benighted, polished off with a smarmy, waggish lecture about chickens coming home to roost.
Ryan Heath gives us an absolutely perfect encapsulation of such an article this week in Politico. Headlined “Brexit Britain: Small, Boring and Stupid” it indulges every tedious trope ever to have emerged from the Remainer hive mind.
Brexit is the story of a proud former imperial power undergoing a mid-life crisis. The rest of the world is left listening to Britain’s therapy session as they drone on about their ex-spouse, the EU: When will they stop talking and just move on?
The promise of Brexit at the time it narrowly passed in a national referendum in June of 2016 was that it was a way for Britain to feel big again — no longer hectored by the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, no longer treated as just one of 28 members in an unwieldy confederacy.
“Britain is special,” the Brexiteers assured British voters, who cast their ballots accordingly.
The last two years have revealed something different: For the first time in modern history, Britain is small. Having sailed into the 20th century as an empire, the U.K. spent the second half of the century shedding nearly all of its colonies — and as a result much of its economic and military might.
For the first time in modern history, Britain is small? Isn’t that what they said after Victory in Europe, after Suez, during the Winter of Discontent and a hundred other, smaller national and geopolitical events? If Britain truly had shrunk in power and stature as much as has been claimed by the commentariat after each of these events, we would currently have the geopolitical heft of Burundi. Something doesn’t quite add up.
But it turns out that this was just the pleasant introduction, before Ryan Heath really dials up the condescension to 100:
While many Brits have strong emotions about the EU, they rarely have a strong understanding. I feel like a kindergarten teacher every time I speak on the issue.
It is fashionable to blame an irresponsible U.K. media (including the country’s most famous sometime-journalist, now leading Brexiteer MP Boris Johnson) for stoking misunderstanding about the EU for decades. Long before Macedonian troll factories and Russian bots there were the editors of the Sun tabloid newspaper.
But what about the millions of people who consumed those fibs and the spineless politicians who avoided the hassle of correcting them? We blame Greeks for blowing up their economy and hold accountable big-spending governments for saddling future generations with excessive debts. Britons don’t deserve a free pass: It’s time they reckoned with what they sowed through 45 years of shallow EU debate.
It is Britain’s unique ignorance that makes Britain so boring. Ignorant about its leverage and ignorant about the EU, the U.K. is coming across as clumsy and caddish.
On and on it goes – you get the idea.
Ryan Heath, you must understand, exists on a higher plane of consciousness than you and I. With his demigod-like, birds-eye view of geopolitics, instinctive grasp of democratic imperatives and subatomic knowledge of the technocracy underpinning global trade, Heath has conclusively determined that everything is great, there were no issues with the EU worth fussing over, and that Brexit was motivated by nothing more than a spasm of ignorance, racism and pining for lost empire.
But if anything is truly boring, it is not Brexit but rather this well-worn take on Brexit, echoed over and over again from the New York Times to the Atlantic to New York Magazine to Politico. Wherever self-described intellectuals of a center-left persuasion are gathered together, you can read exactly the same cookie-cutter take on Brexit, perfectly crafted to enable them to nod and stroke their beards while having all of their prejudices neatly confirmed.
It’s not new, and it’s not clever. Foreign journalists and media outlets have been writing the same old tired “humiliation of a former colonial power” since the end of the Second World War. Often, these articles pointedly incorporate Dean Acheson’s famous quote about Britain having “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, presumably in an effort to add some gravitas and borrowed credibility. And now as 2018 draws to a close, Ryan Heath has the nerve to draw a salary in exchange for churning out the same tired observations made by half a century’s worth of diplomats and journalists.
Words cannot express how profoundly Brexit has caused me to lose faith in our political, intellectual and media class. At a time when the prestige media is increasingly busy beating its collective breast, playing the victim and positioning itself as the last great bulwark protecting Liberal Democracy from the (white working class) barbarian hordes, at best they seem to have become fundamentally uncurious about the single most important political debate and experiment in the world currently taking place in Britain, and at worst they openly cheerlead for the status quo.
If Ryan Heath spent less time airily declaring his boredom, he might dwell on the fact that Brexit – in all its halting, stop-start awkwardness – is the first significant attempt by any country to answer the question of how a modern nation state can reconcile the technocratic demands of global trade with the need to preserve meaningful democracy. On this key question, Britain is currently the laboratory of the world. No other first-tier country has dared to touch the subject with a ten-foot bargepole. At best, some of the more forward-thinking opinion journalists are belatedly ringing the alarm bells, but nowhere other than Britain have these concerns generated any kind of significant governmental response.
Sure, it doesn’t always sound like anything so noble is taking place, particularly when you hear one self-aggrandizing MP after another parade their ignorance on the television news, or when UKIP’s leader du jour stands up to grunt about Muslims and evil immigrants. But the job of good journalists working for a vigilant press is to look beyond the obvious, superficial headline at the deeper, underlying story. Just as no one expert in any particular field can plausibly claim to speak authoritatively on the merits and drawbacks of Brexit, no one journalist can make authoritative sweeping statements about Brexit from the sole perspective of their own cloistered social and professional circles.
At a time when the EU is signally failing millions of its citizens, when southern Europe’s economy remains sclerotic, youth unemployment endemic, populist parties and authoritarian leaders are gaining traction everywhere and civil order has been restored in Paris only thanks to EU-branded armored personnel carriers, some introspection as to the EU’s flaws and capacity to overcome those flaws might be in order. Some serious interrogation of the political leaders who delivered us to this baleful moment might justifiably be expected. But don’t look for such searching coverage in the prestige press, which would rather unquestioningly take the side of the people whose lack of foresight and political courage pushed the campaign for Brexit over the finish line.
In what passes for my feeble magnum opus of 2017, I laid out some of these challenges as they pertain to Britain:
Automation, outsourcing and globalisation have incrementally, relentlessly eaten away at the idea of a steady, 9-5 factory or retail job being sufficient to raise a family or buy a house. Millions of people who in decades past went through an education system which prepared them for little else now find themselves having to learn new computer or service-based skills from scratch, with almost no support or coordination from local or national government.
Even university graduates find that their degrees are of increasingly dubious value, and are obliged to virtually fight to the death for a coveted place on a corporate graduate scheme. The losers go back to live with their parents or work in minimum wage drudgery, wondering why their BA in critical gender theory hasn’t proven to be the passport to the slick professional city life they crave. Call centres and giant Amazon distribution centres have become the new dark satanic mills of modern Britain. Our present education policy should be focused entirely on this looming precipice, yet we distract ourselves by arguments over grammar schools or whether boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and tutus in class.
Meanwhile, there is a huge global human migration underway, prompted by the fact that countless millions more people are connected to the world through the internet and have the means to move from struggling countries to new lands of perceived opportunity – sometimes legally, usually illegally. Political leaders have openly or tacitly welcomed and even fuelled this flow, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the required housing, infrastructure and services do not smoothly and automatically increase in direct proportion to a rising population – and then dare to act startled and affronted when the resident population complains about the impact.
At the same time, elites have preached a gospel of absolute tolerance and multiculturalism while refusing to promote British or Western values, or encourage new immigrants to assimilate, and then cry “racism!” when inevitable tensions occur. They have created a country where some British-born people feel more affinity and allegiance to a barbaric Islamist death cult than the country which gave them life and liberty – and then prove it by stealing away to join ISIS or launching terror attacks which kill and maim their fellow citizens.
[..] Each one of these issues forms part of a crumbling edifice representing the failed, discredited and obsolete centrist political consensus. Tinkering with the EU – to the limited extent that Britain could ever effect meaningful directional change in Brussels – was never going to happen, despite the constant disgruntled, exculpatory outbursts from Remainers that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!”.
What do all of these issues have in common? They are things that the Ryan Heaths and other establishment journalists of this world spend their professional careers furiously refusing to acknowledge as a significant problem in the first place.
In fact, with very few honourable exceptions, one has to look to the neglected and under-appreciated political blogosphere for the kind of analysis that household-name journalists are apparently incapable of performing.
Here’s Pete North, on typically good form, doing Ryan Heath’s job for him:
They think Brexit only happened because of “austerity” – not because we are utterly sick of the lot of them. They think they can once again dip into our wallets to dish out electoral bribes and we’ll be ok with them pissing on our votes. They reckon we didn’t really mean to leave the EU – and that it’s just the underlying issues *they* need to fix. It doesn’t occur to them that the underlying issue is the fact that we hate them and their EU vanity project. It’s all just a management and PR problem to them.
They genuinely think we’re too bovine to care about things like self-determination,. democracy and accountability – and we’ll pack up and go away if there’s a top up of regional funding. We all know nothing would change if we trusted them. As much as anything, we voted to leave precisely because we have an establishment that will continually do as it pleases and ignore the rest of the country when we protest. Even now they don’t get it which is why they can so casually talk about overturning a vote.
They don’t recognise that Brits genuinely want regime change and a change to reshape Britain – and all they offer us is more of the same – more taxes, more authoritarianism and more paternalistic meddling while they heap on the insults. The fact that these well compensated individuals parade Blair, Major, Adonis and Campbell on our screens honestly thinking it will win people over tells you everything you need to know.
Ryan Heath thinks that Britain has made a fool of herself by taking the plunge and voting for Brexit in an attempt to address these looming challenges. That may be so. But what has any other country done to address the pressing challenge of adapting democracy to work in a globalized world? What has the United States done under Trump? Germany under “leader of the free world” Angela Merkel? Or France under the establishment’s beloved Emmanuel Macron?
It is easy to laugh and cast judgements at Brexit’s many pitfalls and the…significant intellectual and personality flaws of those who claim to be leading and speaking for it. But it is much less funny when one is forced to acknowledge that other countries still have their heads in the sand and are not even attempting to answer these increasingly existential questions, despite facing exactly the same democratic pressures and rifts as Britain.
When Donald Trump or his Democratic Party opposition come up with a coherent plan to address these interlinked challenges (rather than ranting about making America great again or bowing down even further to the cult of intersectional identity politics), Britain might look legitimately bad in comparison. When Emmanuel Macron emerges from his hiding place brandishing a plan for national renewal more sophisticated than simply hiking fuel taxes by 40% and screwing the rural poor, Britain might rightly feel a degree of shame. When the European Union takes these issues seriously and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens rather than the completion of the covert federal project, Britain might seem like the ignorant and churlish party by comparison. Needless to say, that day has not yet arrived.
In the European Union we have a supranational, continent-wide political union of distinct nation states, unloved by its nominal citizens, sorely lacking legitimacy, seethingly antagonistic to anything more than rote, symbolic democracy and displaying a marked unwillingness to listen to its people or change direction. Britain at least attempted to resolve this impasse by voting to leave that sclerotic organisation, which is more than any other country has done, though the reasons for doing so and preferred modes of Brexit were many and varied. And so if you insist on laughing at Britain for taking this step, then you had darn well better have a bevy of superior, practical and politically feasible alternatives up your sleeve, ready to roll out.
But Ryan Heath has no superior answer to give. His preferred benchmark is the status quo. He clearly sees absolutely nothing wrong with the state of affairs which led to Brexit – the increasing political alienation and sense of powerlessness, a mode of governance which firehoses a stream of economic opportunity at the well-educated but rains financial and social desolation on everyone else, the rampant corruption of the European Union, the sinister drive to implement the project in defiance of any national referenda which stand in its way. All of which is unsurprising, since his professional history includes a stint working as spokesman for Jose Manuel Barroso at the European Commission. A more institutionally captured “objective” journalist does not exist on God’s green earth.
Brexit, in all its imperfections, is an historic opportunity, and one which deserves to be discussed as such at least some of the time by some of the prestige media – even if only as an opportunity missed – rather than the unmitigated, irrational, self-inflicted calamity that it is continually portrayed as by the likes of Heath. As I wrote when (not so implausibly) comparing the story of the hit musical Hamilton to Britain’s current predicament:
Through Brexit, history has gifted us the opportunity to imagine a new and improved form of government, one which strives to meet our future challenges rather than cower from them (all that EU membership offers, most telling in the rhetoric used by Remainers) or pretend that they do not exist (favoured by the more retrograde Brexiteers who envisage a simple rollback to the old nation state). We must seize this opportunity and be a beacon for other nations, all of which must ultimately grapple with the same issues though they may deny or postpone them for a time.
I’m very sorry that Ryan Heath finds Brexit so boring, and one country’s lonely attempt to address the preeminent challenge of the early 21st century a bothersome distraction from the true job of a Politico journalist – breathlessly reporting court gossip and revealing who was spotted dining with who at whichever Michelin-starred restaurant in Brussels or Strasbourg. Silly, selfish us for intruding too long on his consciousness with our concerns about representative democracy and self-determination.
Fortunately for Heath, it increasingly appears that he shall get his wish. The incompetence of Britain’s political class, the invidious dishonesty of the Tory extreme Brexiteers and the highly successful efforts by all corners of the establishment to obstruct and discredit Brexit has gradually increased the possibility that Britain never leaves the European Union at all – or that such a departure consists of nominally leaving the political union while remaining for all intents and purposes permanently bound to its key institutions.
And then of course, Brexit having been thwarted, all will be well with the world once again. Britain will reset to 1998 and a time when all of these pesky concerns about democratic deficits and a dehumanising macroeconomic policy focus were a low-level hum rather than a piercing, inescapable alarm. People like me will know our place, and once again defer to people like Ryan Heath and the soulless technocracy he so faithfully serves.