"Who will stand for this new nation?" (Carl Court/Getty Images)

June 5, 2023   5 mins

When even Nigel Farage concedes that Brexit has been a failure, surely the most staunch of Brexiteers can forgive the many Remainers and Rejoiners who now feel vindicated. Not only do the polls show an influx of younger voters entering the electorate who are adamantly hostile to Brexit, but “Bregret” is apparently even seeping through the electorate old enough to have voted in 2016, including in the once-proud Eurosceptic constituencies of the Midlands and Northern England.

One does not need to be a psephologist to understand the shift in the public mood. Evidence of Britain’s malaise is all around us, from pot-holed roads to a crumbling public health service, all overseen by an exhausted government desperate to be put out of its misery, as a slew of Tory parliamentarians confirm they will not stand at the next general election.

To blame this all on Brexit, however, would be to adopt the same imperialistic and conceited attitude of many Remainers, convinced that Britain is still the centre of the world. We need only look across the Channel to see that similar problems plague our EU neighbours, too: inflationary energy dependence, deindustrialisation, interest rate rises, house price inflation, regional disparities bound up with peripheral separatist movements. All of this is compounded by deep political uncertainty across the continent. In many ways, despite having formally withdrawn from the EU, Britain still resembles a member-state.

To imagine that rejoining the EU would solve our problems is Eutopian fantasy. None of these polls, nor the media hubbub around “Bregret”, should be taken at face value — no more than we should still be quailing over the absurd predictions of Britain being wiped out by asteroids for the temerity of having voted for Brexit. Indeed, the very fact that the Red Wall is edging back to Labour and away from the Tories indicates at least one absolute gain from Brexit — a growing sense of political independence among the lower-middle and working classes. The fact that traditional working-class constituencies previously under the thumb of Labour are now swing seats, able to decide the outcomes of elections by switching their support from one party to another, is a salutary reminder to Britain’s political elites of the dangers of democratic complacency.

Moreover, one suspects the polls would quickly change if the prospect of rejoining the EU was once again put to the voters. Majorities that appear overwhelming and solid would quickly melt away when people were confronted not with abstract questions, but rather with the prospect of a meaningful political choice over rejoining the Single Market, rejoining the EU without the rebate, or even having to sign up to Tony Blair’s old dream of joining the Eurozone, a commitment required of all new member-states.

Instead of holding another referendum, then, it seems more likely that the pattern of Brexit policies established under prime ministers Johnson and Sunak will continue under future governments — that is, growing rapprochement and strategic realignment with Brussels, as indicated in Britain’s participation at the second summit of the European Political Community last week. Whether this long-term trend is justified by the need to prop up seedy sectarian power-sharing arrangements in Stormont, or by the need to manage the risks created by Nato expansion, the creep back towards Brussels will be soft and gradual, with governments avoiding giving voters anything so stark as a clear choice.

All this begs the question: why have the opportunities of Brexit been squandered? Thus far, the major victory claimed by Tory Brexiteers is Britain’s joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a global free-trade bloc incorporating the growing economies of the Asia-Pacific as opposed to the moribund economies of Europe. Yet this supposed achievement only underscores the problem. The very fact that one globalist trade bloc (the CPTPP) is being offered in place of another (the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union) makes clear that part of the problem is that so many leading Brexiteers continue to conceive of Brexit as if it were a vote for cheaper cornflakes through lower tariffs, rather than a vote for national renewal.

In place of efforts to expand public investment, enhance productivity, build infrastructure and renew industrial policy, economic debates over Brexit became mired in questions of trade policy, despite the low contribution of trade to economic growth. This fixation with trade reflects the intrinsic political weakness of the so-called Singaporeans — those Thatcherite Brexiteers who, despite seeming to know nothing about Singapore, hoped to make Brexit Britain a “Singapore-on-Thames” that would enjoy its combination of robust growth rates and cosmopolitan trading relations.

For all their supposed Euroscepticism, the fact that the Thatcherite Brexiteers were so transfixed by the mirage of Singapore-on-Thames indicates how little they understood the politics of national independence. It was, after all, Margaret Thatcher who was the architect of the Single Market, a continent-sized trading zone that inevitably required supranational structures to oversee, regulate and administer it (the very same structures that she recoiled from towards the end of her time in office). Whatever her claims to be “batting for Britain”, it was Thatcher’s own efforts to build up globalist free-trading arrangements that wove the threads that would be used to entangle the British nation. Policy regimes focused on driving globalist trade inevitably legitimate supranationalism — and it is this dynamic that vitiates the Singaporeans’ efforts to re-establish national sovereignty. Substituting one globalist trading bloc for another will not solve the problem.

If Thatcherites are oblivious to the implications of their own political vision, populist Brexiteers were no more clear-sighted. They imagined that formally withdrawing from the EU was in and of itself sufficient to restore British national independence. In misconceiving the EU as a Napoleonic superstate subjugating Britain, the populist vision of Brexit reflected more the limitations of populist politics itself than any of the drab reality of the Brussels bureaucracy, where national ministers met in secret to decide national policy in common.

Far from being an overarching bureaucracy, the EU was instead focused on organising national government through diplomacy, using executive privileges to insulate policy-making from oversight and scrutiny from national legislatures. Propelled by their Spitfire nationalism, the Brexit populists imagined that withdrawing from the EU would allow the old Britain to re-emerge, the one that was supposedly submerged when Britain joined the European Economic Community back in 1972. In this, the populists failed to reckon with what political scientist Peter Mair characterised as the political void at the core of the member-states — that is, the gap between rulers and ruled.

The constitutional illegitimacy so prevalent in modern nations stems from the lack of institutionalised representation that would help ground the state in civil society. The reason our elites appear so haughty and remote is less a subjective question of their attitude, and more an objective question of social structure: our rulers and leading lights simply are not embedded in institutional structures that would give them a meaningful representative function with respect to the rest of society. With 60% of British voters no longer feeling represented by existing parties, breaking up the existing party structure with a new electoral system will be imperative. Until this gap between rulers and ruled is closed, the structures of the member-state will continue to hover above their constituents, suspended in supranational networks of globally interconnected elites, and committed to globalist politics. They busy themselves fighting forever wars in supranational military alliances, nation-building in the Third World, tackling climate change or global poverty — anything except addressing the concerns of left-behind voters in forgotten nations.

Where does this leave us? If we are to deliver on the promise of Brexit and establish a politics of national sovereignty and control, then we must replace our current member-state with a nation-state. As I argue with my co-authors in our new book, Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit, this means that we must take the politics of the nation seriously. Brexit proved that there can be no return to the past. Whatever might be involved in carving out a new role for Britain in the world requires building a new nation out of the Britain of today.

Brexit was not a project of restoration but a project of renewal. Renewal will not come from new trading arrangements, however many economic gains are promised. It is only a politics of nationhood that would allow us to build up the state authority to transcend the super-charged Nimbyism that plagues the country, ensconced in the quangos, identity politics and devolutionary arrangements that disperse and diffuse all national energy and effort. Who will stand for this new nation? Only when we answer this question will we be able to exit from the shell of the European member-state in which we are still encased.

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.