Tuesday, March 26, 2019

To Brexit or Not to Brexit?



The main problem with the question of Leave or Remain is that it's not the question most people in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland are really interested in.  It's just a very fraught proxy for the real question.

Every week as I engage in the by-now comfortably familiar process of following global news developments, thinking about what I want to address in this week's missive, recording the podcast version of it, etc., it is a new weekly opportunity when I must once again observe that the world appears to be going to hell just as fast this week as it was last week. Catastrophic flooding on several continents at the same time, with an unknown and possibly vast death toll in Africa, where it appears entire cities may have drowned. Israeli missiles are once again raining down on the besieged outdoor prison known as Gaza. Christchurch is burying its dead. Trump has located the Golan Heights on a map. His Attorney General says he's not working for Putin. And many other developments.

Prominent among them, of course, is the increasingly chaotic state of the farcically-named country known as the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Soon perhaps to be known as the United Kingdom of England and Wales. The political class in the country is in the midst of a real meltdown, and life is uncertain for many millions of people within and outside of the UK right now.

The question of how people and politicians should react to this volatile situation is certainly an important one, and I personally don't pretend to have any useful advice for anyone. For whatever little it may be worth, whether I'm stating the obvious or not, what I do have to offer is this: the main reason the whole question of Brexit is so incredibly fraught is that the question of whether or not to leave the European Union isn't really the question most people were seeking to answer. I'm quite convinced from spending a whole lot of my life playing music with and for the English working class in places like Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham or Leicester that the struggling English working class that is mainly responsible for the success of the Leave campaign is not actually interested in whether they're governed from London or from Brussels.

Most of the people voting for Brexit probably knew that this wasn't the choice they wanted to be voting on. They would much have preferred a vote between socialism and neoliberalism -- in which case socialism would have won. They want a return to pre-Thatcher Britain, when most of the people governing the country at least believed in everyone in the country having the ability to live a dignified life with decent housing, education and health care. Their impression that the lobbyists in Brussels don't have their best interests in mind is correct. They also know most of the politicians in London don't have their best interests in mind either. Which is why the choice is so fraught -- it's the wrong choice.

Many of my leftwing friends in all corners of the United Kingdom voted both for and against Brexit. The campaign to Leave the EU may have been largely led by an assortment of nationalists and xenophobes, but those who voted to Leave are far from a homogeneous group. The notion that more local control might have more potential to lead to more local democracy is a sensible one. Having alliances and agreements with other nations makes sense for any country for so many reasons, but the question always is, what kinds of agreements, and for whose benefit?

Opposition to power shifting from national governments to Brussels has been widespread in many corners of European society, since the beginning of the EU, though listening to just about any of the English-language media these days you would be forgiven for thinking that the idea of local democracy is a racist conspiracy of the far right, funded by the Kremlin.

The first time I traveled around Europe as an adult was in 1995. I spent most of that trip in Ireland, England and Denmark. The trip began in Copenhagen. I knew I wanted to visit England and Ireland, but the fact that the trip included Denmark was an accident of Air Hitch. You could choose five different major European cities where you might end up, and you were only guaranteed that you'd end up in one of them within five days of your desired date of arrival. Copenhagen was where I ended up.

It was the spring of 1995, but it was literally only a matter of hours before I met people who were telling me about what had happened there on the streets of the city almost exactly two years earlier.

In 1993 a bare majority of Danish voters approved the Maastricht Treaty, which gave greater powers within the European Union to Brussels. It had to be passed by all the EU member states at the time, and the year before, Denmark had been the hold-out, rejecting the treaty in a vote in 1992. With barely any changes made, it was again brought to a popular vote the following year.

When it passed the second time, this was mainly because of voters from outside the only major city, Copenhagen. Most people in Copenhagen voted against it. In the diverse, largely leftwing neighborhood of Norrebro, protests turned to riots, with such intensity and mass participation that the vastly outnumbered riot police deployed for the occasion fired live ammunition at the people for the first time since the end of the Second World War, injuring eleven. None of those shot were members of the right.

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