Trigger fingers and bombs away…
Take a good look at the opening picture on this post. Yes, it’s in monochrome, so it’s clearly not of the modern era. That aside, what’s the most recent reference point that it reminds you of? The debris, damage and sheer devastation is most reminiscent of pictures you might have seen of Syria today (or experienced, if you are a Syrian reader). The forceful destruction of urban environments that could only come from constant aerial bombardment is currently happening, according to the images that emerge from it and the tales of horror from those seeking refuge from it, in one of the oldest of human ‘civilisations’.
Comparable waves of destruction from above were delivered — within living memory — over London, and many other cities in the UK, in the 1940s. They were, of course, also delivered over the likes of Dresden or Berlin, and even further afield in places like Tokyo, but the reference point I want to open this piece with is the bombing of Britain during the Second World War.
I currently work in London, 76 years on from when the above photo was taken. London today — at least at its core — is stuffed with surreally-shaped steel and glass towers, clustered together as architectural bank vaults for invested capital, jostling with each other for breathing space. Many of these towers are built on or near the sites where the Nazis rained their bombs during that war.
The city now is an utterly different place from the broken state of the 1940s and 50s. This transformation has taken place over the decades that followed the bombings, much of which has included the economic successes that have come from British membership and shaping of the world’s largest integrated single market (much of which Britain also helped create). During the same period, the British economy has been transformed from being manufacturing-led — making stuff and selling it — to services led — selling more intangible stuff like financial instruments, ideas or hospitality.
In 1989, I went for an interview at Liverpool College of Art, dragging a large and heavy portfolio of paintings around the back streets of Liverpool. I distinctly remember walking down one particular back street while looking for the art college that was still an unreconstructed bomb site, with piles of rubble and wreckage seemingly untouched in the intervening years. Even 40 years after the Nazi bombings, which reached as far North in Britain as Liverpool and Manchester, these urban sites remained the wrecks that they had become for a long time after the act of bombing them. Without resources, effort and investment, rebuilding can take a very long time to happen.
When Britain entered the Second World War, the last and biggest of countless bloody conflicts that had taken place between the respective states of Europe over the centuries, it also commanded the largest empire that the world had ever seen. The Romans might have brought much of Europe under their control, the Spanish may have crossed major oceans and colonised much of another continent, but Imperial Britain amassed a controlling power over almost a quarter of all the world’s population, at its peak. In practice, this meant making other people make, grow, harvest or weave stuff — sugar in Jamaica, chocolate in Ghana, tea in India — owning this global ‘means of production’, selling that stuff to other states, economies or people, and keeping the profits.
Some of this wealth would have remained in wholly private hands (much of Britain’s Indian colony was run by the East India Company, for example), but whether private wealth enters state coffers as taxation or gets invested into public projects and infrastructure, the economics of empire meant that Britain became very wealthy indeed as a direct result of its global plunder. The ethics of imperialism aside (what a different post that would be), this would have meant having been able to draw on significant assets in order to be able to underwrite the war effort of the 30s and 40s.
After WWII however, a victorious but shattered Britain was essentially bankrupt and on the brink of undergoing several extensive waves of decolonisation as its colonies sought emancipation from their imperial masters. The only way it was able to rebuild the state was in the form of a very large loan from the United States, which was only finally paid off in 2006.
So essentially, I don’t think it’s too bold an assertion to suggest that Britain fought the last World War with the assets of empire and rebuilt itself off the back of American money.
Late last year and with perhaps uncharacteristic honesty, leading Leave campaigner Dominic Cummings described task of leaving the EU as the ‘hardest job since beating Nazis’. The same point was made, albeit with smaller terms of reference, by Dave Penman (the general secretary of FDA, which represents civil servants). Penman stated that Brexit represented ‘the single biggest task facing the civil service since the second world war’.
In these two examples, individuals that are either very much in favour of Britain leaving the EU or who are charged with (at least partly) implementing it, recognise that the most recent and only comparable task the British state has embarked on that can compare with a British exit from the EU is that of the effort that beat Hitler’s Germany in the war — a point seemingly missed by leading Cabinet Brexiteers most loudly advocating it. These two comments illustrate the sheer scale of the challenge of British extrication from the EU.
The point they make also leaves aside a major difference in that it was very rare to find dissent against the very idea of the war effort and with Brexit, roughly half the people that will be affected by it in multiple ways are resolutely opposed to the idea. Even WWII’s conscientious objectors were co-opted into playing a part in the war effort. One of my grandfathers refused to fight, on pacifist grounds, and he ended up being involved in the efforts to feed a nation devastated by the war and on food rationing stamps by playing a part in the electrification of farming. How many of ‘the 48%’ will simply refuse whatever Theresa May’s government ask of its populace for backing whatever they are able to come up with as an alternative to EU membership?
The search for metaphors in unprecedented times is understandable, as we seek to frame these situations in terms that we have at least passing familiarity with to make it easier to figure out a way forward. Another very useful one that I’ve come across recently (though I don’t recall the source), far less dramatic than Nazi-beating, is that Brexit will be like trying to unscramble an egg from an omelette. British society is now so fundamentally intertwined with the European project and on so many levels that not being part of it any longer without doing serious damage to the country is an almost impossible task.
In order to exit this arrangement without making a disaster out of it, I think it’s fair to suggest that this time around, Britain has neither the resources to do so nor the partners willing to help. During the war, Britain had the assets of empire to bankroll the effort, and after the war it had American loans to help pick up the pieces.
- The UK no longer has an empire, nor therefore its ‘spoils'
- The US (in the form of the Trump-led government) is increasingly isolationist and unstable
- There will not be any more American loans (see above)
- The EU is the other partner in this ‘divorce’ (and a divorce is a fair comparison to make – if divorce between two people almost always results in acrimony, that’s nothing compared to a divorce between 500 million of them), and needs any resulting arrangement to be less good than Union membership in order to discourage others
- From the public rhetoric espoused by the government’s Brexit proponents (the PM included), the UK is not prepared for any give (only take) in its trade negotiations, wanting, for example, to encourage more free trade with India but refusing to allow more Indians to work in Britain in return — the ‘having cake and eating it’ strategy
- There has been a massive transfer of wealth away from the state towards the ‘elite’, the ‘1%’, over the past 30–40 years via neoliberal economics and globalised capitalism
- None of the post-war international financing institutions (eg the World Bank, or the IMF, who did actually provide a loan to Britain when it was seen as ‘the sick man of Europe’ during the 1970s) would be likely to lend Britain the money either
- The British government’s economic narrative since the Conservatives were returned to power has been one of trying to present ‘fiscal responsibility’, so they can’t be seen to be borrowing for such an act of ‘choice’ anyway
Even if all of these conditions were not the case, such a huge undertaking will require vast sums of money and other supporting assets to be able to enact anything that looks better than EU membership (which nobody knows what that means anyway) and literally no-one can even say how much Brexit will cost.
How might Brexit affect different parts of the economy or society? Well, much of that depends of course on how things play out over the short to medium term. The signs don’t look very promising though.
The high street cafe chain, Pret a Manger, currently has 65% of its workforce coming from EU countries that are not Britain, while just one in 50 applicants for their jobs are British citizens. The British Hospitality Association expects chains such as Pret to need up to 10 years to replace EU staff after Brexit, given how long it would take to build a ‘future talent pipeline’ from within the UK. UK-based airlines have been advised to relocate headquarters or sell off shares to European nationals in order to continue to comply with European aviation rules and to be able to keep flying routes within continental Europe. A ‘reverse brain drain’ of academic flight is likely, with many staff in British universities of EU origin planning to leave the UK already — almost a fifth of UK academics come from the EU. With Brexit, British farmers face the triple prospect of lost subsidies, possible export tariffs and increased competition, as well as the potential repeal of key legal protections for the environment. Hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses of EU/EEA origin that work in the NHS may and already are leaving, while British retirees living in the EU may be forced to return to Britain, leading to an even greater demand on a health service that will be even less well equipped to cope with it.
This touches every aspect of British life and all British lives.
The current UK government — as most of them are — are a marriage of convenience. This particular marriage is between Brexit ‘true believers’, like Johnson, Fox and Davies, the converts that have sniffed the prevailing headwinds and decided to follow it by changing what they fundamentally believe in (May herself, for example) and the trapped ex-remainers who are torn between being required to support the first Tory majority government in a generation with betraying their core principles and a majority of their constituents. This is not a recipe for a united front moving forward, whatever the lack of challenge from a disunited opposition.
So, why do it? Why even try to attempt the ‘hardest job since beating the Nazis’, as a matter of choice and without such Nazi-beating conditions as Britain had last time? It’s easy to see the motivations behind the deer-in-headlight factions, who are too afraid to try and stop something so patently damaging to the national interest, but what about the ‘true believers’? I can only assume the following options:
- They genuinely believe that they can get Britain to a much better place than EU membership, in which case they’re clearly mad (Davies?)
- They blithely think it’ll be fine, in which case they’re deluded (Johnson?)
- Or they’re ideologically bound to Brexit and realise that this is the only chance they’ve got at this (in which case they’re plain nasty — Farage? Redwood?)
So, I’m going to be one of those pessimists that the arch-Brexiteers dislike so much and predict/assume that talks between Britain and the EU will fail to produce anything meaningful within the two year timeframe that Article 50 allows for, and expect that one of two possible outcomes will happen — either this utter fairytale gets kicked so far into the long grass that nothing ‘decisive’ actually happens and no-one’s happy with the result, or there’s a dramatic collapse of any possible relationship, talks break down, and that Wile-E-Coyote cliff edge ‘Hard Brexit’ happens, with the well-rehearsed warnings of significant, widespread and lasting social and economic damage.
So let’s take this further and imagine a British future in the run up to or not long after the likely failure of EU talks. It might involve any or even all of the following:
- The break-up of the UK itself. Scottish independence becomes unavoidable — Sturgeon has effectively snookered May right now — and that becomes a domino effect, with a united Ireland and even the possibility of an independent Wales.
- Increased national divisions/inequalities within England. (and any other parts of the country that continue to be part of the former UK). Add one of May’s signature policies into the mix, the scaling up of grammar schools, and expect a further entrenching of the wealth currently held in London and the South East, and those that voted for Brexit because they felt ‘left behind’ being left much further behind.
- Capital flight. As the global financial institutions that make up the concentration of wealth in the City of London rightfully accept that political and social vacuums are not stable environments for investment or planning, they start moving their businesses to other parts of the EU in order to better retain their existing access to the Single Market. Once the trickle begins, it naturally becomes a flood as European capitals fall over themselves to offer new homes for Goldman Sachs, Nomura or HSBC.
- Manufacturing collapse. With economic circumstances being so unstable and the sinews of the nation itself straining to hold together, a major economic crisis occurs, leading to a collapse in domestic demand as well as the reputation of Britain as a reliable trading partner. The remaining parts of the economy that still make stuff no longer have the demand to go on making stuff at anywhere near the same levels, so British manufacturing collapses.
- Domestic shortages and rising unemployment. In these circumstances and having gone over the cliff edge, food starts disappearing from supermarket shelves, fuel shortages abound and mass layoffs lead to rising unemployment. These are the sorts of conditions that have previously led to further societal breakdown, even rioting, in the past.
Doesn’t sound much like ‘taking back control’, does it?
Here’s a set of brief predictions that may or may not play out over the next, say, five years. Britain does actually go the distance and leave the EU. This causes the break up of the UK, while the EU integrates further and deeper. The pound collapses, speeding up the great English decline. The path ahead for Britain’s ‘cousin across the pond’ is either between vastly widening divisions in American society and the inability of the state to effectively function or the Americans doing what they’re pretty good at and committing some form of ‘regicide’, which leads to a short, sharp shock but which jolts them out of the Trump/GOP malaise. Lonesome England then has to choose between further decline/ostracism or of rejoining the EU and thus having to join the Euro, commit to a European Defence Force, a full commitment to the Single Market this time, etc.
If I’m a) still in the country at the time that that happens, and b) I’m actually offered a ballot box choice, I know where I’m marking my cross already.
Before the closing lines to this piece, here’s another picture of London during wartime. The picture shows British children who have been made homeless ‘by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders’. The kids in the picture would be around about the same age as some of my aunts or uncles that are still alive today. Following the bombing of their homes, they would have lost most of their possessions, maybe important family members too. They would certainly have been left homeless, and possibly resorted to refugee status.
With a pause for dramatic effect and to raise the blood of the true believers — with Brexit, we are choosing to bomb our own children’s futures. And for what?
I’ve been struggling since the referendum result to try to find a positive way to look at all this, to imagine a way out of the hole that we’re in. Last week, for the first time, I got that first faint glimmer of hope.
Yes, some of the abandonment of ‘Trumpcare’ — the Republican plan to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, which was suggested to leave over 20 million Americans without any form of health insurance — was down to the plan being not extreme enough for some Republicans. It was also down to the sustained opposition from thousands of American citizens, including those that voted for Trump, that made many politicians balk at the prospect of voting for Trumpcare and then having to face their constituents.
If a key plank of Trump’s agenda can be resisted and reversed, so early into his term in office, then other deeply regressive political acts can also be opposed, resisted and even reversed.
The triggering of Article 50 does not have to mean Britain’s inevitable exit from the EU. Surely, Brexit can still be stopped, as indeed it must be.
(by the way, if you’ve dug what you’ve read here, please click on the ❤︎ below so that others are more likely to see it too — thanks)