Really taking back control

The writer, Anthony Barnett, has a very good video on Brexit:

He actually starts with neoliberalism, which, I’m paraphrasing only slightly, he maintains, has depoliticised politics and presented its outcomes as fate whilst allowing government revenues and licences to be captured for private profit.

For a start, that’s a really incisive summary of neoliberalism, with which I wholeheartedly concur.

A Brexit referendum was an opportunity to shout out about the powerlessness that was the result of continuously neoliberal policies. Change, among those fighting for it, was seen as nigh on impossible –  so Brexit was a golden opportunity for some change – rather like an earthquake, change itself was needed.

Amoung radical minds none of this is particularly controversial.

He has interesting things to say on English nationalism which are quite at odds with the normal narrative of England’s delusions of grandeur and superiority to the small nations of the UK.

It is, he suggests, quite the reverse. Brexit was an absence of English Nationalism – there was a sort of retread of ‘Great Britishness’ precisely because of the sense of hopelessness – at least Scotland and Northern Ireland and even Wales have some sort of independence from this rabid cruel cutting government (he was politer than that). Most of England so called ‘local government’ has no defence at all and is ignored by central government. Outside the financial extraction zones of London and the South East, little attention is paid to the rest of Britain but in fact, even less so to a voiceless Rest of England. Whereas the smaller countries of the UK can, for sure, be less easily ignored. If this problem is laid at the doors of resurgent thoughts of Empire, it was just that this was all the English had to latch on to. (And it should not be forgotten it was not the English empire but the British –  Scots, Irish and Welsh were all part of it.)

At this stage I must emphasise that these are my feelings after watching the video so they should not be taken as in any way verbatim, but I hope I’ve given a broadly correct impression.

I did however have problems with the fact that “Britain is not a European country” – ‘les rosbifs’ are, for better or worse, the British- that’s English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish (in fact anyone with ‘GB’ on the back of the car!) so I fear, that for most of the European world, at least, Britain is indeed a country, European or not….

I do agree, nonetheless, that, within Britain, England itself is represented only in the one (British) Parliament. All other nations or countries (whatever the difference is?) are represented in two.

Anthony Barnett continues by suggesting that the ‘remainers’ need to claim the ‘democratic high ground’ (as in ‘taking back control’) with the EU. A Federal Britain, with which both I and, I think, he, is in favour, needs democracy in England. Remainers have to “reimagine Britain”.

So this is a plea to all UK (remember that?) members.

The argument for being English does not stem from identity but for a need for democracy. Democracy gets traction when it is linked to the renewal of the national imagination. Perhaps a sort of English cosmopolitan nationalism might cover it.

Thus he argues that Brexit supporters need to be persuaded to retain their opposition to their powerlessness.

Three cheers for that…

A better imagination is needed to counteract the reckless Brexit opportunists – who are, of course, by no means all English.

Then he suggests:

while changing their vote to crush its actual source, the now Brexit establishment [people], [need] to gain democratic control.
And to convince [Brexiters], Remainers have to show that [they] have changed their approach from the transactional defeatism of ‘stronger in’ to an imaginative call for modern European democracy that will empower us here at home.

He has further evidence in that in an increasingly complex society, the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary are now – in effect – he suggests, actually accompanied by Regulation as a fourth arm of government. It is distinct and effectively not entirely subordinate – because in a complex society regulation is complex. The EU has created an international regulated space, which is popular even amoung Leavers. As Ivan Rogers has christened it, the EU is a regulatory superpower.

The Brexit vote should have taught politicians to give better control to the people. But definitely not in a pained way to explain why you must follow the result. Leaders have got to have the courage to reimagine the institutions of Britain.

Diverging for a moment to David Allen Green, when in the Jack of Kent Blog he says that “referendums are part of the problem not part of the solution. This can be also be seen as the problem of duelling mandates…..But instead what you will have are two decisions – two heads of a dragon instead of one. And what if the further referendum is on a lower turn-out?  Or a different majority? Which mandate takes precedence?”

I fear ‘Jack of Kent’ has lost focus; this is seeing barriers where there are none. At least with a ‘People’s Vote’ there is a very much better chance that we actually know what we are voting about so there should be the opportunity for a more informed consent!

Anthony Barnett thinks that the Brexit vote should have taught politicians to give better control to the people.

That is of course, really taking back control.

That is what a People’s Vote should do.

Meanwhile concentrating on the constitution will be unlikely to get us out of this mess, but being practical and innovative just might.

And as Frances O’Grady has pointed out: If you have a strike you have a ballot and if you get an offer you put it back to the members. A People’s Vote would be saying this is the outcome of your decision – is it what you want?

That is actually, real democracy.



  1. Sean Danaher -

    thanks. I have seen the video a few weeks ago. Many of the themes are also discussed in Anthony’s book – the Lure of Greatness.

    It is a good summary. There is too great a disconnect in England between politicians and the populace. There is also much wrong with the UK and possibly England especially.

    I agree the governance structures are wrong. The UK does need some form of federal structure and a much better voting system. The FPTP system does not work very well.

    We had a referendum in the NE,_2004 for a local assembly which was soundly defeated – a big shame. I was very much in favour, but the results split 22%-78% which was really depressing.

    I agree a lot of the pro Brexit vote was a rejection of the status quo. I was also on the People’s Vote march and would indeed like a 2nd referendum.

    The vision set out by Barnett has a lot to recommend it – certainly a lot better than a Dystopian Brexit future.

  2. Samuel Johnson -

    Germany and Japan lost their exceptionalism only after self-inflicted (ultimately) catastrophe and total ground-up reconstruction. It seems this is the UK’s trajectory. It’s hard how to see how it can be avoided.

    The delusions of existing greatness are impregnable. It will be a poor consolation seeing the “wrexiters” on trial in future, at least in the court of public opinion, for having knowingly lured the country onto the rocks so that they could profit (a maritime crime known as wrecking, involving misleading lights that guide ships to their doom).

    It will be a tragedy as I have no doubt a vote held today would avoid it. At least the need to radically repair the fabric of society and the economy is inescapably clear, whatever happens.

    The Irish were empire conscripts. Thank heavens we escaped when we did. 1798 would have been better.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      i like the “wrexit” analogy. It’s interesting that Anthony’s book the Lure of greatness does indeed discuss English exceptionalism and thinks in the long term Brexit may well over 20-25 years make the English realise they are a normal European country.

      There is something about former imperial powers that give them a feeling of being the master race. I agree Germany and Japan and to some extent France have had a reality check. Brexit will do it to England.

      I do worry about the US – possibly less than I should, as I have said before Brexit has filled up my bandwidth pretty completely.

      It is indeed a shame 1798 went so badly. Had major French forces arrived as planned – England saved by weather again – things might have gone differently.

      1. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

        They might well have done so – but would the Irish have had another set of masters – Napoleon’s French? Probably more congenial than the Protestant English and Scots though!
        And the results of the Great Famine of the 1940s would have been very different, wouldn’t they?
        On the whole, I’d have taken the French and worked their way!

  3. Charles Adams -

    Good point about a union ballot. One vote to express your displeasure, another to decide on the revised offer.

    I think if the government had played it like this from the start, i.e. make us an offer that the people are happy with, they may have had a much better bargaining position.

    Now we have Italy as the new test case of duelling mandates, and whether the EU cares about what it citizens want or vote for.

    1. Peter May -

      Yes, the last is very interesting. I doubt Italy will be backing down and they are a much bigger country than Greece.

  4. Anthony Barnett -

    Thank you very much. I great appreciate the effort and excellent summary. I’d only add that there are lots of pictures and images and it is an effort to make arguments that remain very difficult for the English accessible and exciting. Oh and I’m proud of the passages about Delacroix and liberty on the barricades and Orwell and suet pudding. Did you grow up eating suet pudding like Orwell, Peter? Thanks again, Anthony

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I have never has suet pudding. But I did like the fact that food might express the essence of a nation.

      It is not an Irish thing. Barmbrack is probably the closest Irish equivalent.

  5. Peter May -

    Very happy the summary meets with your approval but not aware I’ve ever had suet pudding!!
    Agree that communicating abstract ideas is difficult but we should be good with constitutions – after all a great many were actually first written in Whitehall. But Westminster particularly under the Tories seems virtually incapable of changing itself. They cannot even agree on refurbishing the place – such that I sometimes fantasise that the wiring will fail and Parliament will burn down for a second time …Then surely they’ll have to do something.

    1. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

      I used to make a mean suet pudding – it was one of the first things our Domestic Science teacher taught us! Lots of dried fruit if you wanted it as a dessert – but best of all when made into a steak-and-kidney pudding! When I go to live in Wales, I’ll have another go at making that, if we’re near a good butcher.

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