It’s been about five months since we warned of dire consequences in the event of a vote for Brexit, four months since we were slapped in the face by contrarian plebs and got rather annoyed about it. So, what’s happened since? Were we right to warn of a Brexit catastrophe? Or did we, like Bill Hicks, look out of our window on that fateful day and hear nothing but crickets chirruping and wonder whether a well-laid blog post might not have been wiser? Had we made a mistake buying into “Project Fear”? Were the warnings of the derided experts and elites nothing but a product of the self-interested and fevered imaginations of newspaper editors, bankers and IMF economists?
Brexiteers would no doubt say so. They have recently taken cheer from the fact that the British economy nudged up slightly in the third quarter of the year, rather than falling into recession, as predicted by most economists. But as the article linked to notes, other indicators are less cheery. The pound has slumped. That means the country as a whole has been devalued and we are all now poorer – the pound buys less of the exports we rely on, and this will feed through into price rises before too long. Banks and other businesses are nervous and pondering an exit of their own – the government had recently to give unrevealed and presumably potentially hugely costly promises to keep a car maker on our shores. The bankers’ trade union warned its members were getting jittery and pondering upping sticks. Sweden’s Carnegie Investment Bank sold all its UK holdings ahead of the EU referendum. All this and more – and Brexit still hasn’t actually happened yet. (One of your bloggers still has a bet on with an old comrade that it never will – a bet looking doomed to a loss, given the prevailing political mood, but one we haven’t entirely given up hope on.*)
Of course, Brexit boosters will read the entrails differently – shrugging off the negative signs and concentrating instead on what they take to be a great new economic opportunity. Even if they are in the end proved right, it wouldn’t really affect our core argument. As we noted at the time, it was always at least conceivable that Brexit would have little or no economic impact in the long run, perhaps even a positive one. Even the gloomiest economists warning of doom knew full well that, when you’re talking about something as vastly complex and interconnected as an economy, you can never be quite sure what the effect of any measure will be – there are too many variables and imponderables. But as we were arguing with former comrades just before the vote took place, even if we conceded all other points to the Brexiteers (or the intensely relaxed), there was one thing that seemed relatively certain: that a vote for Brexit would lead to a victory for the right of the Tory party. They are now in government. Quite apart from whether you consider that a matter for cheer or depression, it meant that the people who had conducted a racist and bigoted campaign to win votes had won, which the bigots and idiots they were appealing to would take as vindication for their views. It always looked likely to us that Brexit would lead to a carnival of reaction as racists and bigots took the result to mean that the gloves at last were off – that everyone they deemed to be responsible for their own problems and grievances could now go back home. On that point, we were sadly proved even more right than we had feared.
So, we were right about the politics. The jury’s out on the economics. Given the complexities, and the fact that in the social sciences it’s all too easy to allow the data to prove your point whatever your point is, maybe it always will be out (though from where we’re sitting it looks like the judge is putting on his black cap). But the whole experience has been an instructive one from a personal point of view. It revealed to us that Marx was, on one point at least, more right than we knew.
Marx said that when push came to shove, in spite of all rationalisations and pieties to the contrary, men thought and acted with their class. We had always accepted this as an abstract theoretical point. But the real world is a better teacher. The white working class in rich developed nations has for years been feeling increasingly aggrieved as it lost out from and was not compensated for the rise of globalisation. Lacking a brain or political organisation with effective leadership, it did not take action likely to change or ameliorate this, but just lashed out at the nearest dark face when it could. That’s what won the Brexit vote. As for the present writers, when it came to this practical issue of potentially world-shaking importance, what did we, as (once) self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists, do? Did we, perhaps, side with the Lexiteers on the grounds that an Out vote would shake up the status quo, break the power of the neoliberal elites, and increase the potential for change and hence radical action? Did we, perhaps, side with the “revolutionary proletariat” as it used the vote to humiliate arrogant elites and force them to recognise their interests as part of the “left behind”, the section of society that had been hurt the most by globalisation and progressive, liberal change?
Did we hell as like. We did as Marx would have predicted: we sided with our own class interest – the educated middle class, the politically correct, footloose citizens of the world, the class that makes its living from an economy increasingly globally interconnected through free trade and movement of peoples, the class that is proud to celebrate liberal values and individual freedom, including the freedom of people just like ourselves who seek to make a living in countries other than the one they happened to be born in. Like Marx and Keynes before us, we side with the educated bourgeoisie over the forces of reaction any day. That the classes beneath us might be capable of better, might deserve better, we do not doubt. That our own class and the elite are reaping what we have collectively sown in terms of complacency about the left behind we don’t doubt either. But at the end of the day, everyone in this country, on this planet, really are all in it together, whether we much like it or not, and we’d better start figuring out how we can all live together. As George Bernard Shaw said, democracy is a device that ensures we are governed no better than we deserve. Let’s work on deserving better.
* News just in. Perhaps I’ll win that bet after all.