Brexit’s Leninists

Reading Everyday Stalinism by Sheila Fitzpatrick (one of my favourite social histories of the USSR, as regular listeners will know), one thing becomes abundantly clear about the Soviet view of time and history itself. The historical and social state that the party would describe as communism was always something to be eventually reached and never actually experienced. In the 1920s and 1930s, party members and leaders would make pronouncements about how far of, chronologically, communism was, and give reasons as to why it was not yet attained.

Often those explanations were that saboteurs, enemy spies and enemy classes were holding up progress, ensuring that housing, food and living conditions remained dire. The culture of a beseiged state was propagated by Stalin, because any other explanation ran at odds with the official version of history that shaped the Soviet Union. The reality was that a largely agrarian society, devastated by civil war now laboured under a new bureaucratic elite that was riven with corruption and nepotism, and these were not auspicious circumstances for rapid economic growth. The fact that significant growth was achieved was due to the ability of the party to use massive coercion when necessary, as it was the Russian peasants who would pay most of the price for Stalin’s first and second Five Year Plans.

In Britain, a utopia beckons. It is not quite as well defined as Lenin’s vision of a future proletarian society, and the economics it is based upon change, depending on who is asking. At times it is described as a Britain that has many of the advantages it currently enjoys (and several that it has recently lost) with few of the downsides. Sometimes it is a Britain that has weaned itself off cheap European labour and has undergone decades of extreme economic shock therapy, which has resulted in its businesses and its workers being elite amongst their peers across the world. Recently, since Britain lost access to European labour markets and has begun to make noises about a trade war with Europe, the utopia has been a protectionist one, a happy little island of well paid workers and well funded public services (neither of these are traditional Tory articles of faith).

The point isn’t to have a credible destination, or a plan to get there, and for many Brexiteers, the act of voting to leave the EU was a revolt against credible plans of all sorts. Obviously, for many it was a poorly judged protest vote that gave the party they loathe vastly more power than it would otherwise have enjoyed. Brexit itself was always a sentiment, a wish by a section of the British elite to revolt against historical inevitabilities, namely Britain’s relative economic decline and our transition from world hegemon to a middle ranking European power (albeit with high living standards).

Tory leader of the house, Jacob Rees Mogg said that it might be fifty years before Britain saw the benefits of Brexit, implying that we were involved in a project of generational significance. In his view (and we have to assume some sincerity here from a man whose investment firm has already seen significant benefits from the country leaving the EU), EU membership was an historic mistake and Britain’s natural world position was lost as a result. A frequent and remarkably lazy argument is that ‘we were in for 47 years, we’ve only been out for two, let’s give it time’, which presumes that we cannot crtitique this new direction for our island for at least four and a half decades.

These views are shared currently with a significant minority of Brexit voters, those who default world view is that of a British, and more often English nationalism, and who reject the idea that Britain in a world of competing trading blocks cannot compete. This in itself is a form of faith, a belief in English exceptionalism, that has its prophets (Churchill, inevitably), and a national secular religion in the form the Second World War built around it to remind them that ‘we came through much worse than this.’

Interestingly, this world view abandons and pretense at utopia, and is more focused on the purity of hardship and the desire to recapture a long lost Britain. This imagined past of blue passports, conquering cricket teams, classic sitcoms, Bond films and a sense that Britain mattered and could call the shots is long gone, if it ever really existed. The future utopia will never be realised because, unlike the utopias of the Leninists, it was never really intended to be realised, and for the referendum’s leading man, Boris Johnson, it was meant to be a noble quest defeated at the last hour.

The Brexiteers won the referendum and initiated the next and most catastrophic phase of British national decline, knowing full well that they had a disaster on their hands. The question was only ever how they could politically profit from the disaster, not whether the fantasies they had spun could ever come true.

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