On the Road to Nowhere
2nd March 2018
This was the Prime Ministers Road to Brexit speech, meant to be the crescendo of a series of public performances to put us all at our ease, clarify things and create a vision of the way ahead. Brexit as road movie has somehow been overlooked until today. But here it was: part far-out Kerouac; part McCarthyian dystopia, but ultimately this was David Byrne’s Road to Nowhere …
Well, we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Takin’ that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride
I’m feelin’ okay this mornin’
And you know
We’re on a road to paradise
Here we go, here we go
Theresa May’s speeches are met more with expectorant than expectation these days but even by her own dire standards this was a truly dreadful speech full of vague and meaningless lines delivered robotically from a podium in bland repetition. It was phlegm-free but also oddly contentless, like the words had got lost in the snow. In a week that saw two incidences of Blue on Blue action, with John Major stepping into the unlikely role of Remain Hero and the Bow Club joining the queue of people calling for David Mundell’s resignation (‘enough of the circus‘) May ended the week by not so much lowering the bar as stamping it into the icy ground.
Her #RoadtoBrexit speech followed a series of desultory performances by her ministers, now thankfully ended with us none the wiser. It completely ignored Scotland and body-swerved the Irish border issue in a speech that seemed about gently lowering expectations, oblivious to the fact of how very low those expectations already are. It will likely cause increased anxiety and anger among pro-European voices and apoplexy among Brexiteers still high on the prospect of ‘Liberation’ from imaginary foes holding this great nation back.
This was an exercise in managed decline.
As James Felton wrote: “A lot of you said I couldn’t do this. But here I am 30 seconds into the speech and so far nothing’s fallen of the wall, nobody has handed me a P45 and I haven’t coughed or shit myself.”
Speaking against a secure backdrop of a strangely greyed-out Europe – with the words ‘Our Future Partnership’ hovering somewhere about Kazakhstan she suggested, somewhat optimistically that:
“The approach I have set out would: implement the referendum result, provide an enduring solution, protect our security & prosperity, helps us build the kind of country we want to be, & bring our country together by commanding the confidence of those who voted Leave & Remain.”
The Prime Minister was wearing her now trademark heavy chain necklace round her neck as she she spelled out a sort of grim series of meaningless gnomic messages:
“What I set out in the five tests is the five tests we will be setting … ”
and the ominous …
“We won’t be thinking again.”
At the heart of it though is a strange aversion to embracing change. While her Foreign Secretary is full of wonderful hallucinogenic nationalism, her rhetoric is downbeat and desultory.
As Patrick Harvie pointed out:
“Throughout the speech, I lost count of the claims that the deal they want will be a deeper, closer relationship with Europe than we’ve ever before, all followed by clear examples of how it will be worse than what we have now.”
Ian Dunt was more succinct, offering: “Basically we’re all going to get quite badly twatted.”
A handful of people thought it was all great.
Iain Martin of The Times called it a: “Terrific speech from May.”
The Colonel suggested that the speech had been greatly received saying:
“Commentators from different parts of the political spectrum recognising this is a substantive, pragmatic speech which will create space for both sides in the negotiation.”
Living In the Shadow
It’s difficult to be serious.
A year ago Professor Richard Wyn Jones ( director of the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University) began to analyse the competing forces at play driving Brexit. He wrote:
“English nationalism is a curious concoction, combining a rather unlikely sense of grievance about how England was treated within the devolved UK with a sense of entitlement and even superiority about the UK’s place in the world.
But however improbable this combination may seem to those of us who live in England’s shadow, its potency cannot be gainsaid. English nationalism has played a key role in the two UK-wide votes held since.”
He goes on:
“In the 2015 UK general election the Conservatives made extraordinarily effective use of English fears about possible SNP influence over a minority Labour government.
The party’s opponents all testify to its effectiveness. Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg speaks of the “visceral fear” of the SNP that saw his party being swept away in its former strongholds in the southwest of England.
But it was about more than simply concern with the SNP. Nigel Farage speaks of how the Conservatives capitalised on “some quite vehement anti-Scottish sentiment” among the English.
It was, he said, a sense that “the Scottish tail has wagged the English dog in the most remarkable way”, with particular dismay at the way that Scots are “getting our money”.
“A strange form of unionism, you might say, but it makes more sense if you accept that theirs is emphatically not a union envisaged as a partnership of even near equals.
Theirs is rather a United Kingdom regarded, in essence, as a “Greater England”. Local differences with this Greater English state can be tolerated, but it is toleration within limits.”
It’s only in this sense that any of the Brexit speeches and disavowal make any sense at all. The Britain that is being ‘defended’ and ‘liberated’ has morphed and mutated from the one that was celebrated and for which we were Love-Bombed a few years ago.
It’s no wonder that the Celtic Fringe should be ignored, because in these peoples minds it doesn’t really exist. Brexit means a Borg Britishness in which resistance is futile.
Who cares if this causes a massive constitutional crisis in Scotland or re-awakes an Irish Reverent Army? Not the Prime Minister or her Cabinet. There is a ‘Golf clubhouse of the Mind’ in which ‘the Republic is pictured as a rural backwater – not vibrant globalist economy.’
The Scots? They’re just an amorphous bunch of recalcitrants from a northern outpost of little electoral value.
The Current Regime of Paralysis
But it would be wrong to see this just as a Scotland-England thing, or a Westminster versus the Celtic Fringe problem.
Even if the rhetoric of neo-colonialism grates daily in Dublin, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the problem is not just ‘national’ it is far deeper that that.
As Richard Seymour argues: “Brexit is probably the biggest threat to the integrity of the British state for some years, including the Scottish independence referendum.”
What we are witnessing is both an identity breakdown and change in the relationship between the capitalist state and the capitalist economy.
For Seymour all of this as ‘unpredictable consequences’.
“The crisis of representation in recent years, catalysed by the financial crash and austerity, is also the culmination of the transformations of the state over the last few decades, narrowing its popular basis. The resulting political backlashes — riots, indyref, Brexit, Corbynism — have tended to be grouped under the baffled (and self-justifying) rhetoric of “populism”. Such smarmy one-size-fits-all terminology gets at part of the reality, but it obscures the multiple lines of politicisation here, and therefore the various aspects of the state, from nation to economy to education, that are in crisis.”
He concludes: “We’ve been in situations before, where all the options for capital are different kinds of bad. Here, we’re in a situation where all the options require radical thinking in order not to be disastrous.”
This is bad news give that the one thing the Prime Minister was clear about today was “We won’t be thinking again.”
We really are on the road to nowhere, here we go.