2007 - 2022

Crossing the Brexit Borders

Contempt for the north of England, as well as the devolved nations is at the root of the Brexit crisis, argues Mike Small.

As the full-scale of Boris Johnson’s stupidity is unveiled at a ceremony in London at which he explained on behalf of the UK Government how the Irish Border amounts to no more than than crossing from the London Borough of Camden into Westminster, some Brexit truths appear.

At the heart of this comic-tragedy is a category error. We are expecting rationality out of fantasy and confusing liberation with surrender.

It is like expecting maths equations to emerge from Alice in Wonderland.

As the playwright Peter Arnott notes:

“Why is there no strategy for Brexit? Why can there be no deal? Because the entire thing is predicated on fantasy. The EU will continue to dictate the terms of UK trade, and we voted to SURRENDER what limited control that we had.”

To fight your way out of this morass we need to look beyond these shores and look back at the roots of the present predicament.

Benjamin Martill and Uta Staiger urge us to see Brexit as a European phenomenon not just a British one:

“Brexit needs to be understood as a manifestation of tensions prevalent across Europe rather than just in Britain” and Tom Hazeldine urges us to see Breixt as a manifestation of an English crisis of geographic-economics created by New Labour ‘The Revolt of the Rustbelt’.

Maastricht, collapsing financial security and wider fault lines of democratic credibility are part of a pattern identified by Staiger and Martill:

“First, there is the growing legitimacy crisis of European institutions, whose democratic credentials are under ever-increasing scrutiny. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty ended the ‘permissive consensus’ of previous decades, in which the legitimacy of the then European Economic Community (EEC) had been secured through the ‘outputs’ – largely economic benefits – secured for European citizens.

Second, the financial crisis of 2008-9 contributed to the rise of Eurosceptic and populist sentiment across the continent. The crisis exposed the inadequate design of monetary integration and the poor implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact, the EU-wide mechanism for regulating fiscal policy. Facing rising unemployment, economic stagnation, and ballooning public deficits, member states were unable to devalue their currencies because of the monetary union.

Local issues, such as British identity, media culture, and political institutions were necessary but not sufficient causes of Brexit. Without an understanding of Europe’s broader structural and institutional problems, we cannot hope to make sense of the Brexit vote, nor understand other challenges facing Europe in the EU27.”

In a masterclass of historical analysis and complexity, Hazeldine charts the roots of the Brexit vote back to the metropolitanism of New Labour and the subsequent Cameron government.

“To understand the dynamics that have produced this situation, the starting-point has to be a closer analysis of the pattern of Brexit. Like any popular poll, the 23 June 2016 referendum can be broken down in a variety of ways. But as the dust has started to settle, some facts stand out. Nationalist dynamics produced wins for Remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland, while Wales’s 80,000 net votes for Leave amounted to only 6 per cent of Brexit’s winning margin. Cameron met his Singapore closer to home: every part of England voted ‘Out’ with the single exception of London, the previous Conservative administration of John Major having designated the capital city—swollen in size, wealth and self-esteem—a region in its own right. There was more than enough support for the EU in London and Scotland to cancel out both the modest surplus of Leave votes in southern England and the strong Euroscepticism of eastern counties. But coming on top of these setbacks, the six million Leave votes cast in England’s historic industrial regions proved indigestible. Out of 72 counting areas in the North, fewer than a dozen answered the call from the Conservative government, the Labour opposition, Obama, Merkel and the IMF to support the European status quo. Had England’s three northern regions—North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber—and the West Midlands been excluded from the count, Remain would have scraped home by 200,000 votes instead of finishing 1.3 million short. In 2014 Vernon Bogdanor—a TVregular on the mysteries of the British constitution—confidently declared there was little regional feeling in England, assuring the New York Times that ‘the regions are ghosts’.If so, could Ukania still be haunted by them?”

Hazeldine understands the vote to be working across different set of “interlinked fractures”: national, regional, social, and ideological.

“National: the contraflow ‘In’ verdicts of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Regionalonal: London and the South East boast the UK’s highest economic output per head and delivered the best numbers for Remain—60 and 48 per cent respectively—outside the devolved nations. The Midlands, in sharp relative decline over the past two decades, voted most firmly the other way. Social: the ‘Out’ vote correlated with lower levels of education, income and occupational grade. At the same time, a racially charged Leave campaign denied Brexit the support of most black and minority-ethnic voters and many socialists of all backgrounds. Ideological: not regions, which were alive, but memories were the real ghosts abroad in England, ghosts of industry and of empire. Like the leading Brexiteers, affluent John Bull pensioners in the Tory shires prefer their shareholder capitalism wrapped in a Union Jack. But though the North–South divide isn’t England’s only fault line, it’s no accident that the deindustrialized periphery ranged itself against the London establishment in the referendum, sealing Remain’s fate. ”

There’s not much to debate here, though of course what is missing is the generational divide.

If Johnson’s contempt today can be added to the growing pile of insult and ignorance spouted by Tory leaders about Ireland over the past few weeks, there is a continuity between Boris and Blair that emerges from the ‘Revolt of the Rustbelt’.

Hazeldine reminds us of Blair’s claim that “It was in this constituency that we created New Labour” (at the Trimdon Labour Club in Sedgefield, Country Durgham in 1997).

It’s a claim Hazeldine explains is “not strictly true”.

He writes:

“Blair had been selected for the coalfield seat in the early eighties on the strength of boyhood connections and support from right-leaning party and union branches. For him it was a simple stepping stone to the capital. Life for Blair revolved around Islington, ‘flagship area for the embourgeoisement of north London’, where he sealed his leadership compact with Brown. ‘Don’t worry’, Blair reportedly told a Labour Londoner lined up to contest a northern constituency. ‘I only have to go up once a month. You can do the same.’”

As The City triumphs under Blair’s reign, the roots for Casino Capitalism are laid down, none of which benefited the North of England.

Hazeldine writes:

“In office, Blair extolled a forward march to economic globalization that gave short shrift to laggards—‘Those who will live with decline. Those who yearn for yesteryear’—who might resist it in his party’s working-class base. New Labour rode the long credit-driven boom centred on Wall Street and the City with delight. Brown’s first act at the Treasury was to burnish his credentials with financial markets by handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England, the Economistexulting that it was ‘free at last’. Threadneedle Street promptly raised rates from 6.25 to 7.5 per cent to moderate inflationary pressure in London and the South East, further over-valuing the pound to the detriment of exporters in manufacturing regions. ‘We were trying to bring about a slowdown’, the Bank’s governor Eddie George told provincial lobby journalists over lunch, explaining that ‘unemployment in the North East is an acceptable price to pay to curb inflation in the South’ Naturally there was an uproar. Sunderland council leader Bryn Sidaway dubbed Britain’s central bank the ‘Bank of South East England’. The North East Chamber of Commerce said it felt betrayed. Brown expressed his confidence in the governor, and support for the difficult decisions he had been obliged to make, George promising to be more discreet in future. Under New Labour, financial-services output increased at twice the overall growth rate, while the contribution of manufacturing to UK gross value added dropped from a little under a fifth (19 per cent) to just a tenth. In the North, manufactures declined from 24 to 15 per cent of regional output, with an even bigger drop in the metal-bashing West Midlands, tumbling from 27 to 13 per cent. The demise of Birmingham’s MG Rover, the last British volume carmaker, was followed by Peugeot’s withdrawal from its Ryton plant in Coventry as the French auto giant shifted production to Slovakia.”

These are the roots of Brexit and England itself is as shattered and broken as the idea of Britain itself is.




Comments (7)

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  1. Charles Gallagher says:

    Mike provides a lot of food for thought. However with shower I’m expecting any day to hear that one of the Brexiteers has a mathematical proof that 1 = 0

  2. Crubag says:

    If every area of England voted Leave, with the exception of London which isn’t very English anyway, then it sounds as though they are more united than divided…

    But the article makes the point about fiscal transfers. The regions that voted strongly for Leave, were also the regions that received most of the Structural Funds. Either the money wasn’t enough, or it didn’t benefit enough people to persuade them that the EU was the solution.

    In Scotland, there was a healthy majority for Remain, but the Highlands also a recipient of Structural Funds, including Convergence Funding reserved for the poorest EU regions, the margin was narrower.

    (I didn’t understand the Peter Arnott point “The EU will continue to dictate the terms of UK trade” – that would be the case at present, and if we stayed in the customs union, in which case we might as well stay in as a full member. The capacity of government to negotiate trade has certainly been eroded over the past 40 years, but that again there is important learning here for indy. In the case of the UK this governmental ability has atrophied because it wasn’t used. In Scotland it has never existed and will need to be in place before negotiations begin.)

    1. Alasdair says:

      Your comment that the Highlands region voted in larger numbers for Leave than other regions of Scotland- its likely that many of those voters would be English retirees. So that would again prove the same point made about the 2014 independence referendum result- maybe over 1 in 10 voters in Scotland are folks who identify themselves as English & they tend to make up a large % of the British unionist vote too.

  3. Indyvids says:

    I am an English retiree who moved to Scotland because it is a better country than England, less corrupt, the government is more competent and honest, the people are nicer and there is a fighting chance that we may throw off the shackles or English rule before much longer. Don’t put us all in the same basket, please.

    1. Gordon Benton says:

      The Scots will go the way of the Amerindians, Aborigines, Dayaks if the immigration of English is not controlled – by numbers and/or by visas withdrawing the entitlement to vote. The reality is that, whilst I believe Scots behave well towards the English (and all immigrants), 70% came here and voted ‘NO’ n the 2014 Referendum. Some hold the view that it is bad manners that immigrants vote against the wishes of the Scottish people. That is if you believe in the existence of a ‘Scottish people’, and accept that its people have rights of self-determination. It is, as your correspondent above has noted, no coincidence that most, if not all of the Tory seats are held in electorates with 10% English populations; hybridisation writ large.

      1. Charles Gallagher says:

        Gordon, I gain a lot of hope from the very large numbers of the ‘Anglo Irish’ who were among some of the stongest advocators of Iris Independence and who played a crucial part in their struggle for Independence 1916 – 1922.

  4. Somerled says:

    I’m not sure what the point of this article is, to be honest. Yes, lots of factors were in play with the Brexit vote.

    The Martill point seems a bit stupid when only The UK has had a vote on leaving. I’ll put that down as some vain attempt to rationalise the irrational.

    And Brexit is irrational in the classical economics sense.

    The most important issue that explains Brexit, as I see it, isn’t even mentioned in the article; because it wouldn’t show up in polls, for obvious reasons. I am referring, of course, to English jingoism, racism, and that background psychology that romanticises the days of Empire.

    The English (generally speaking) have this sense that they have never been militarily defeated and are therefor superior. Factor that in too.

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