I have thought for a while that Brexit is not just about Brexit. Leaving the EU is only a step on the way for fundamental Brexiters to get what they want, which is to turn Britain into a neoliberal paradise – Singapore on Thames is exactly what they want. That being the case, populism is not going to disappear, because it is still the primary tool for securing that end. Farage has already switched from Brexit to covid: he is adept at latching on to anything that stokes resentment, and we will continue to see the politics of resentment at high intensity for years to come.
For that reason, I think Nick Tolhurst here is right about future prospects but wrong about strategy. I’m coming to think more and more that figuring out how to rejoin the EU is the wrong focus, for two reasons. The first is that the populists will use it against us very successfully: it will actually do us more harm than good. The second is that if we are to be acceptable as renewed members of the EU we have to fix this country first. We have massive problems – the voting system which denies power to people, the Parliamentary system which denies power to MPs, the media system which allows newspapers to tell lies without consequence, the tax system which allows rich people to find all sorts of ways to protect “their” money, the economic system which promotes inequality (and inequality kills, as we are seeing ever more with Covid), etc, etc, etc.
This is a long term struggle. (The Brexiters have spent forty years refusing to accept the result of the 1975 referendum and plotting for this moment.) In some ways we should view it like a military campaign. Don’t fight battles you can’t win – if we focus on re-entry to the EU now, we will not win that battle, we will merely give strength to our enemies. And secondly, you don’t just slam in and fight a battle when it is offered, you first shape the battlefield – you organise your army, you build up supplies, you send small elements to nibble away at your enemies’ strength, you pick when and where you are going to fight. That takes a great deal of organisation and preparation. And you always start with what you have now, not with what you wish you had, So we start with this country, here and now – it’s rotten voting system, its rotten economic system, its rotten political system, its rotten culture which promotes argument over conversation.
So my feeling is we should work on our internal problems, which is a massive job in itself, and let the gravitational pull of the EU gradually repair our relationship to the point where we can begin again to talk realistically about our integrated future.
I end with a titbit: a very interesting thread by German historian Helene von Bismarck on why Brexit does not signal the end of populism.