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“There is no gold at the end of the Brexit rainbow”

Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, by Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, Biteback, 344 pages

As the clock ticks down to the UK leaving the European Union (EU) by automatic operation of law under Article 50 on the 29th of March, or via a short extension sometime soon after, many of us are wondering how we arrived at this point of national self-harm and humiliation.   One answer is provided in a recent book, ‘Rule Britannia Brexit and the End of Empire’, by Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson.  Their argument is that Britain has never accepted or has come to terms with the cultural and economic implications of our disastrous colonial past.  Moreover, that a small number of people, mainly in the Conservative Party, have a ‘dangerous, imperialist misconception of our standing in the world’, and that once Brexit happens, ‘we will be faced with our own Dorian Gray-like shockingly deteriorated image’.

Whatever happens now, and whatever form Brexit takes, even if somehow it does not happen, Britain has already been significantly diminished by the process.   Such analysis may seem rather gloomy, but Dorling and Tomlinson manage to find the glimmer of a ‘silver lining’ in the bleak Brexit cloud in the conclusion of their book.

Before we get to that ‘silver lining’, let’s consider some of the evidence. They begin by dismantling several Brexit myths.  One of the first is that the result was due to the ‘left behind’ North of England or that the result was due to material deprivation:

The correlation between voting leave and constituency deprivation indices was just 0.037.  It was barely positive. In other words, there was very little evidence that the more deprived an area was, the more likely its residents were to vote leave.

The proportion of those who voted leave versus the deprivation score of each area in England: Each area is a local authority drawn in proportion to its population and positioned according to how deprived it is and the proportion voting Leave – ‘From Rule Britannia, Brexit and the End of Empire’

What Dorling and Tomlinson demonstrate is that the result, far from being about the left behind north, was largely due to the votes from people who live in the South of England.  Moreover, by and large these are people who would normally vote for the Conservatives or UKIP:

Because of different levels of turnout and numbers of registered voters, most people who voted Leave – by absolute numbers – lived in southern England.  Furthermore, of all those that voted leave, 59 per cent were middle class (often labelled as A, B or C1), and only 41 per cent were working class (labelled as C2, D or E).  The proportion of Leave voters who were of the lowest two social classes (D and E) was just 24 per cent.

It is this voting data that helps explain why such a very narrow vote to leave the EU, was then used by British politicians (mainly in the Conservative Party) to act in ways that to many seem irrational, mistaken and against the national interest.  They even appeared to act against the interests of those that would normally support the Tories.  For example, when Boris Johnson was questioned about the potential concerns of businesses such as Airbus or BMW he famously replied ‘Fuck Business’ (he had already said something similar about Ireland –  as one commentator said: ‘So f*** business, f*** Northern Ireland — there is no workforce too large to sacrifice, no damage too great to endure as long as someone else does the enduring’).  So rather than seeking a compromise position, that would entail a soft Brexit, they sought the hardest Brexit possible, with many advocating leaving the EU with ‘no-deal’ at all.  They are “simply reflecting the wishes of a very vocal group of their supporters”.

Dorling and Tomlinson also dismiss those on the left that envisage that Brexit will offer some opportunity for a more progressive economic policies once the UK has departed from the EU:

Left-wing critics rarely point out that the UK has become far more neoliberal than the rest of Europe, and that many of the progressive developments that were occurring on the Continent were (and still are) not found in Britain.  That is worth repeating again. The most innovative forms of education, the best-funded healthcare systems, the highest quality housing, the greatest job protection and productivity, and the lowest rates of poverty are all found in parts of mainland Europe, not in Britain.

In order to understand why Britain has become such an unequal European outlier, in terms of poverty, job protection, health, and education, we need to investigate Britain’s colonial history.  Dorling and Tomlinson argue that Britain’s past wealth was largely due to a series of unfair trade arrangements with the empire.  These amounted to little more than ‘tributes’ obtained by domination and force.  Such a colonial system required the establishment of an elaborate class structure, a system of education that nurtured the rulers of the empire, and a political culture that managed to convince itself that the English were superior to everyone else.  Once the empire went into decline, and economic tributes were no longer available, the only way for the ruling classes to maintain their economic position was by taking an unequal share internally from within Britain.  What is more, once the empire was no more, the cultural sense of superiority continued, and an elite education system endured that prepared leaders to be in charge of an empire that no longer existed:

None of the current establishment, neither May nor Johnson, nor indeed any of their 2017 or 2018 Cabinet colleagues, appear to have learnt much of the true story of the inglorious empire at school or university.  They, and much of the British media, appear to believe in a Great British superiority myth.  They do not understand that the empire had made their forebears rich through exploitation and that once the empire was lost, the UK would inevitably become much poorer…

This ignorance of our history partially explains how we got to where we are today.  It also helps explains why our negotiations with the EU over leaving were so incompetently handled.  It is difficult to successfully negotiate something if one erroneously believes oneself to be superior and has no insight into our precarious position.   Shortly before the referendum in June 2016 the rating agency, Standard and Poor produced a graph, replicated in Dorling and Tomlinson’s book that shows estimates of how badly affected other countries in Europe would be by the UK leaving the EU.

Apart from Ireland, which is already beginning to benefit as a destination of choice for companies wishing to relocate from the UK, most of those countries adversely affected are either very small (Malta, Luxemburg, Cyprus) or not even in the EU (Switzerland).  So they played very little part in the negotiations.  British politicians simply could not grasp the fact that the UK has become increasingly irrelevant as an economic power and its unimportance will only be accelerated by Brexit.

Despite acknowledging that Brexit is likely to be catastrophic for the UK, Dorling and Tomlinson end their book on an optimistic note.  Empires end slowly, and the Brexit vote may represent the final chapter in our ignominious empire.  The hope is that it will finally allow us to come to terms with what we have become, who we are and what in our history led us here.  If Britain becomes poorer, ‘its people may cease to tolerate the excessive wealth of a tiny minority… this short-term folly over Brexit may well, in the longer term, make the chastened British kinder as a people, more worldly wise, more modest, more aware – better citizens of the world’.