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Brexit begins

Five years after the referendum, is Europe in crisis?

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June 21, 2021

When Britain finally withdrew from the European Union on 31 January 2020, thousands of Brexiteers congregated in central London to mark our belated national secession from the continental bloc. Less than two months later, on 23 March 2020, Britain went into its first national lockdown, in which — among other curbs on civil liberties — public gatherings of more than two people were made illegal.

It was a striking reversal. For many of its partisans, Brexit had been cast in terms of restoring freedoms — freedoms that had allegedly been lost to an overbearing European superstate, whose pettifogging bureaucrats had tied the nation up in red tape, and whose arrogant judges trampled over ancient liberties with new-fangled human rights. The winning slogan of the Vote Leave campaign — “Take back control” — spoke to this sense of political disempowerment and drift, and offered the tantalising prospect of granting people more sway over their own lives.

Yet within weeks of leaving the EU, Britain endured the most drastic restrictions on national freedoms seen in peacetime. How was it that the promise of greater freedoms was so quickly dashed? How was it that a democratic bid for greater popular power ended up so powerless? Could the cycle of lockdowns enacted since March 2020 snuff out the gains of Brexit?

Britain was, of course, far from being the only country to enter lockdown. For supporters of the EU, the global pandemic was a salutary reminder of the realities of global interdependence, puncturing the nationalistic conceit that a country could choose its own fate. Yet the cycle of lockdowns since March 2020, as well as the Government’s shambolic response to the pandemic, reveals more about the failures of British politics than it offers moral fables about global interdependence.

It wasn’t Remainer revanchists in the People’s Vote campaign and the Liberal Democrats who put the nation under house arrest, but a British government elected to enact Brexit. It was a Conservative government, widely castigated for its allegedly crude populism, that palmed off its authority on to a technocratic body, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), to oversee lockdown. What this tells us is that the impulse to curb civil society and to rule through unelected institutions on the basis of technocratic authority is not an imported problem. The authority of Sage revealed that the EU was not a foreign imposition, but that it grew out of problems that were deeply embedded in the relations between British state and society.

Three national lockdowns later, it is easy to forget just how exceptional Brexit was. It represented the first secession from the EU, an organisation that had hitherto only ever expanded to absorb more states. It was the first major EU referendum that was neither ignored (as had happened with the French and Dutch referendums of 2005 and Greek referendum of 2015), nor put to another vote (as happened in Ireland in 2008). It was the first sustained democratic revolt against the new free trade blocs that were explicitly designed to make economic policy impervious to popular will. It was the only popular revolt that came in the wake of the great financial crash of 2008 that made any lasting impact.

All the great populist revolts between 2008 and 2020 have variously been defeated at the ballot box, surrendered to their opponents or battered themselves into oblivion: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Donald Trump in the US. Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral insurrection collapsed in less than two years — notably, after Corbyn conceded to the prospect of a second referendum. In France and Italy, the populist Right — Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini — have both retreated from talk of quitting the EU or abandoning the euro.

All this makes the fact of Britain’s successful secession from the EU the more remarkable. In Britain, Brexit was repeatedly vindicated at the ballot box over the course of the general election of 2017, the European parliamentary elections of 2019 and the general election of 2019. Yet by March 2020 Britain’s democratic exceptionalism appeared to have evaporated overnight.

Despite these putative democratic gains, the British government’s response to the pandemic clearly revealed a state that was unable to harness popular power or convert democratic legitimacy to effectively overcome the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, Britain tumbled into the authoritarian pattern of lockdowns, the global precedent for which was set by the Chinese Communist Party: individual isolation, social distancing, rigid restrictions on public life and civil liberties.

Deeming itself as inessential as any other middle-class office job, parliament dissolved itself, even as it promulgated draconian legislation against its own citizens. Throughout the pandemic, the British state has consistently treated its citizens as a threat to each other, rather than as agents whose collective capacities could be mobilised against the virus.

The immediate response of civil society early last year, which saw spontaneous neighbourhood and county networks springing up to organise services and food delivery to those who were isolating and vulnerable, indicated strong impulses to collective self-help and social solidarity. Yet the Government was unable to use such unifying impulses to mount a collective response to the pandemic, instead enacting restrictions on collective life more severe than those in wartime. The 600,000-strong NHS volunteer army that rapidly emerged in early 2020 petered out, as the state did not have the wherewithal to deploy it.

This ultimately revealed the incapacity of the Tory government and British state to convert popular will and social solidarity into enhanced state capacity to tackle the pandemic. This enhanced capacity could have been used not only to support the self-isolating and vulnerable with extra social services, but also to expand public health capacity — for instance, expanding support services, deploying extra cleaning staff in hospitals and expanding the administrative capacity of the NHS.

The more recent recruitment of vaccine volunteers this year provides an insight into what an effective mobilisation of the public may have looked like early on in the pandemic. But with furlough, lockdown and stay-at-home orders, national demobilisation and public passivity was the order of the day — and indeed, it turned out to be amenable to many of the middle classes.

Lockdown, then, was ultimately an artefact of a lack of state capacity. It was justified, after all, by the need to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. This reflected the reality of an underfunded public health system and a state run on “lean” just-in-time principles, as if it were a supermarket serving customers rather than a public body serving its citizens. With the NHS having become dependent on sucking up medical professionals from abroad instead of expanding its training capacity, when the pandemic struck there were fewer medics that could be released from their training early to supplement front-line medical staff, while none could be absorbed. The British state was so market-efficient that it notoriously did not even have a surplus of functioning personal protective equipment.

Yet despite all this, state capacity is not a purely technical affair — to do with the number of public employees, their training, the efficiency of government procedures and institutions — but is also a question of legitimacy and authority. Indeed, without legitimacy and authority, public capacity is meaningless.

The EU is designed precisely to create this kind of hollowed-out state — not only as a result of ECJ rulings and its collective treaty commitments to neoliberalism and austerity, but more importantly because it is designed to make states impervious to popular will and democratic choice by embedding them in supranational institutions. The failures of the British state throughout the pandemic show that even as we have formally seceded from the EU, Britain remains to all intents and purposes a member-state.

That is to say, the British state remains not only authoritarian and brittle, it is also incapable of expanding state capacity by converting popular will into government action. The most important limits confronting the British state are not to be found in its borrowing capacity or fiscal rectitude, or its capacity to cut trade deals beyond Brussels, but in its relationship with its own citizens.

Five years since the Brexit referendum, and two years since the end of the transition period, Brexit remains in some fundamental ways, an unrealised vision — a promise of greater self-government, of national renewal, of popular autonomy. As the Government prolongs public restrictions and state technocrats pore over plans to normalise the bio-security state, the promise of taking back control seems as remote a prospect as ever.

Yet despite decades of atomisation, the early popular response to the pandemic — especially visible in the communal self-help networks — indicate that there is a deep impulse for social solidarity and collective empowerment. The only thing that’s lacking? Political vision.