Brexit ought to be Britain’s reckoning with its history, but also its deeply undemocratic constitution, argues Adam Ganz.
I still have a copy of the leaflet that was pressed into my hands a few days before the referendum. At first glance it looks official. “Your street is one of the most likely to Vote Leave in the country,” says the bold headline, although nobody connected with the leaflet knew where I lived and my area voted overwhelmingly to remain.
“78 million Turks are about to join the EU,” the leaflet warns. On a map, Turkey is pictured in vivid red on the edge of Europe with neighbours Iraq and Syria outlined in pink. The implications are clear – If Britain stays in the EU, a flood of Muslims will pour into the country from the East. This was no rational assessment of the benefits and disadvantages of remaining in the European Union. This was a scream of fury about identity under attack. We were at war again.
In 1945, Europe began to shape into the post-war world. There were intense conversations about how democracy should look in the defeated countries, but nobody paid attention to the victors. In West Germany, a new fundamental constitutional Basic Law (Grundgesetz) secured democratic rights and processes for a country that had just been defeated. It defined the fundamental values the democratic state would adhere to, perhaps best summed up in an English word: “fairness”. But Britain’s domestic political systems remained unchanged – and they have very little to do with fairness.
At that timse House of Lords was composed only of Bishops and hereditary peers. Only in 1958 would the British introduce their own constitutional change, meaning the queen could appoint Life Peers to the House of Lords (so called because they have the right to sit in Parliament for life). No wonder the British ruling class believes in its God-given right to rule. Great Britain has no written constitution but only a system of conventions that are all too flexible, as the Parliamentary procedural machinations and endlessly delayed votes in the Brexit chaos have shown.
Not Monty Python
The first-past-the-post system used in Britain (it’s different in Northern Ireland) meant that in 2017 the Scottish Nationalist Party won 35 seats with 3% of the votes whilst the Liberal Democrats won just 12 with 7.4%. The Tories minority government is kept in power by the 10 seats which the extremist Protestant DUP have in Northern Ireland, who are elected with just 0.9% of the vote. Outsiders justify this with English eccentricity, but behind this show is not comedy group Monty Python but the very real Boris Johnson.
In Germany, democratic structures and competition between Bundesländer means no city could dominate so completely as London dominates in England. Scotland and Wales now have their own parliaments. But, for the vast majority of the British population, there is only Westminster. The much cited English eccentricity is a distraction from the fact that most people experience is a democracy that doesn’t work at all. When Boris Johnson became Brussels correspondent for The Times for he began writing comic caricatures of EU regulations. Since then the EU has become a convenient scapegoat for all the UK’s own democratic deficit.
In the wealthy commuter towns around London, people voted overwhelmingly for leave. Many agree with colonialist Cecil Rhodes that as an Englishman, “you have drawn the greatest prize in the lottery of life.”
In The Leave Towns
In the other leave voting areas it’s a very different story. Infrastructure has been neglected. Libraries are closed, public transport expensive or non-existent and housing unaffordable. To keep basic services going local councils have been forced to sell off what’s not nailed down.– playing fields, community centres, youth clubs.
A friend from Wakefield in South Yorkshire told me everyone she knew had voted leave. “A bit like trying to reboot your computer when you’ve exhausted all other ideas about what is wrong.” In Wakefield people traditionally vote for Labour but in this town with a population of 300 000, the civic infrastructure has all but disappeared. The main police station closed in 2014. The nearest one is half an hour away. Citizens of Wakefield were immune to any threats of imminent disaster. All the terrors Brexit might bring have already happened.
Citizens of Wakefield were immune to any threats of imminent disaster. All the terrors Brexit might bring have already happened.
Plymouth, a Navy town 200 miles to the west of London, was also badly hit by cuts, and there the neglect takes other forms still. A friend told me about a school trip to Brittany he helped to organise in a poor area of the town on which the children would travel by boat to shop in a French supermarket. A group of teenage boys were worried, not because they couldn’t speak French or were worried about leaving their parents, but because they didn’t know if they could row that far. Even though the ferry could be seen from the school, many of them had never been to the sea, less than a mile from where they lived.
Plymouth and Wakefield – two cities that voted leave – have both, in different ways, lost their sense of collective identity. For many citizens of this far-from-United Kingdom, the Brexit referendum was the first time they would be sure that their vote would count in an election that mattered. In these cases, voting leave was simply a vote for change. As Will Davies pointed out:
“Leave’s greatest advantage was that it didn’t have to specify exactly what was being left.”
Because Britain has never been forced to examine its own history, it has been able to retain its mythologies. Two still dominate. Britain is still loved around the world and the peoples we conquered respect us for our fairness and for bringing things like railways, and cricket. The second is that British success is deserved because it came from hard work and ingenuity and not from the raw materials and wealth we seized from the colonies, (or the goods we compelled them to buy). Because the crimes of Britain have never been acknowledged, the fantasy of Britain as a force for good in the world remains unchallenged. To understand Brexit you must read Kipling, the poet of colonisation whose work is full of the anxieties of marauding hordes which I described in that Brexit leaflet (see full poem below).
Because Britain has never been forced to examine its own history, it has been able to retain its mythologies. The crimes of Britain have never been acknowledged, so the fantasy of Britain as a force for good in the world remains unchallenged.
False Historical Consciousness
Even before Brexit a newly explicitly nationalist right-wing of the Conservative Party was throttling any attempt to tell a different story. In 2014 Michael Gove, then Conservative Education Minister and later Leave Campaigner, attacked respected Cambridge professor Sir Richard Evans for being unpatriotic, and explicitly criticised:
“Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders. For all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage. “
He says Britain fought a just war in the First World War because:
“The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order [had to be defeated]”
Gove is right, of course, and yet he can’t admit that Britain had been guilty of all of those things too – with the difference being that it had been for a much greater period of its history. Instead he doubles down.
“Indeed, the more we reflect on every aspect of the First World War, the more cause there is for us to appreciate what we owe to our forebears and their traditions.”
At the time of the referendum there were endless sentimental commemorations of First World War centenaries. It was in this revisionist context that the referendum took place. The immanent remembrance of recent British history as a continual battle against the Germans was explicitly referenced by many leave supporters as a reason to reject the EU.
The Fictionalized War against the Germans
This included the conviction that the EU was the natural successor of the Nazi project for a United Europe, an idea that has been referenced by leading Conservatives like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. In Brexitland, it seems, the self-declared officer class of the wealthy south and the working class in the broken industrial regions of the Midlands and North can continue this fictional war in which they are still heroes.
Germans know from their own experience that there is nothing more dangerous for a country than to believe its own myths.
Germans know from their own experience that there is nothing more dangerous for a country than to believe its own myths. It was only when Germans were forced to question the myths that they became aware the country needed a Grundgesetz. 75 years after the end of the 2nd World War, Britons can once more celebrate their own special identity and remain unaware of their democratic deficit which is shielded by their eccentrically demanded Extrawurst [special treatment]. It’s only Brexit that will force them to accept the consequences of their actions. meanwhile the British press will convince them that only the others are bad. Inspired by these ideas, the British still dream of taking back control from the Germans, who in their fevered imagination rule the EU. And that means a functioning democracy. The first step would be a Grundgesetz of our own.
Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Beginning’ (1917):
It was not part of their blood,
It came to them very late
With long arrears to make good,
When the English began to hate.
They were not easily moved,
They were icy-willing to wait
Till every count should be proved,
Ere the English began to hate.
Their voices were even and low,
Their eyes were level and straight.
There was neither sign nor show,
When the English began to hate.
It was not preached to the crowd,
It was not taught by the State.
No man spoke it aloud,
When the English began to hate.
It was not suddenly bred,
It will not swiftly abate,
Through the chill years ahead,
When Time shall count from the date
That the English began to hate.
This article was first published in German in Taz and is published here in English with permission. See the original article here.
Adam Ganz is Reader in Screenwriting at Royal Holloway University of London and writes for Film, TV and Radio. His play The Gestapo Minutes was nominated for Best Single Drama in the BBC Audio Drama Awards.