Saturday 10 June 2017

Lexit's revenge?—A tale of three summers

We all live in our own little bubble. Well, maybe not everyone but I know that I do – and if you are reading this then you probably do too.

It occurs to me now that in June of the past three years, three particular political events have dominated my own mediasphere.

Late in June 2015, Alexis Tsipras announced that his bureaucrat-besieged Greek government would hold a referendum on the bailout conditions proposed by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Then, almost a year to the day in 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Now, in June 2017, the Labour Party has staged an astonishing electoral surge to leave the UK Parliament hung and the Conservatives running a seemingly untenable minority government with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, rather sickeningly, holding the balance of power.

The reaction of my mediasphere to the first is perhaps best summarised by the hashtag #thisisacoup that went viral early that July. The reaction to the second was that this was, at best, a monumental blunder and, at worst, an act of the most poisonous xenophobia by a bunch of know-nothing Little Englanders. And to the third: unrestrained gloating and glee.

I must say that I have more or less shared in the consensus of my milieu each time.

So, here's the thing: Labour campaigned for Remain but, following the 52/48 win for Leave, switched their stance. It was fairly apparent that their campaigning was, at best, half-hearted and if they had shown the kind of motivation and nous that has been on show over the past several weeks, the result may well have been different.

Corbyn, many suspected, was a closet 'Lexiter' – i.e. Left Brexiter – the whole time. In any case, post-referendum, the party under his leadership saw the opportunity to reclaim ground lost to UKIP and the SNP by taking up a position of moderated acceptance regarding the results (as opposed to the Tories, who took a far harder stance, and the Lib Dems who wagered, unsuccessfully as it turns out, on courting despondent Remain voters).

Now, to bemoan the browbeating treatment of Greece in 2015, renounce the mindless isolationism of the Eurosceptics in 2016 and acclaim the triumph-by-cog-jamming of Labour in 2017 are not necessarily incompatible positions. However, nor is their happy coherence altogether obvious.

Those described as Lexiters (a silly portmanteau of a silly portmanteau but let's indulge it for now) pointed to the treatment of Greece (along with Spain, Italy and others) by Germany-centred EU elites as evidence for the need to reject the EU as just another instrument of neoliberal domination.

Which, of course, it is. Or, rather, that is a large part of what it is and what it does. I, like many, despite accepting these criticisms nevertheless thought Brexit to be a looming disaster. More or less all the mainstream arguments given for Leave were entirely bogus and this was palpably and overwhelmingly an exit coming not from the left but from the most boggle-eyed extremes of the British right. A Lexiter's Brexit this was not and so none of the arguments from that side could really apply.

My own thought on the value of the EU in general for quite some time has been this: There is undoubtedly more to the post-1945 achievement of peace in Western Europe than this institution alone but nothing has done more to cement and secure mutual openness and cooperation as being not only the reality but also common sense for the vast majority of Europeans, on a blood-drenched continent for which lasting peace had been all but unthinkable for a generation or more.

However, among the many actors that have undermined this genuinely remarkable achievement, we must include the EU itself.

When Eurosceptic propagandists whip up visions of grey-faced, expensively suited men with rimless glasses and dour expressions tediously administering the minutiae of our daily lives, they peddle a reservoir of misinformation built up drip by drip over a period of decades. However, the job of said propagandists is made significantly easier by there being a large grain of truth to that caricature. 'Democratic deficit' – this is the polite version. Hardened, unapologetic technocracy – that is more on the money.

The stand-off between Greece and Germany was a symptom of economic integration running ahead of political integration, with elites and publics alike being unwilling to recognise the hard realities of both. As should be obvious to all but the most blinkered apologists, the bailout was not so much for the Greek people as for the German banks – those same banks who happily and knowingly lent to a corrupt government at unsustainable levels in the years previously. The agreement was as much punishment as it was administration – a glorified debtor's jail, large enough for an entire country. Britain, take note.

And so, were the Lexiters right after all? Is Corbyn's 'soft' Brexit the course we should have been hoping for all along? I remain sceptical on that count.

Those of us who were so upset about the referendum result weren't thinking about regulations and bureaucrats, grey-faced or otherwise. We were thinking about our friends, family, lovers who are only where they are – and therefore only who they are – because of the freedoms of movement that have been afforded by the EU. We were worried about our lives and our futures because we are the ones who have benefited so richly, economically and otherwise, from that constitutional and, yes, ideological status quo.

The new political movement lead by Corbyn is exciting but this remains a country with stolid, stubborn reserves of conservatism. I fear for the future and not only because I have made choices that depended upon the status quo that has now passed.

Nobody knows anything, least of all right now. But at least, right now, the watching and thinking feels like something good.