The EU referendum, and the resultant Brexit, has become increasingly more important and polarising since the original vote last year. Whether it be calls for a second referendum or a “hard Brexit”, the concept of consensus politics seems to have gone out the window as debate and discourse become increasingly more adversarial. In one sense, developing a wider engagement in politics that moves debate outside the typical forums can be seen as refreshing, as the consensus politics that has defined the British parliamentary system for the past century has been stultifying. Poor voter turnout and the increasing apathy of voters seems to have received a shock from this referendum. However, the stultification of representative democracy has not been truly broken. Instead, new efforts to develop some kind of “politics of truth” has developed on both sides of the referendum campaign, ignoring wider meta-political and socio-economic debates.
There now seems to be a drive to sublimate more fundamental concepts and discourses into the dichotomous understandings put forth in the Remain-Leave debate. Ideas like the economic cliff, whereby if a deal is not met between the UK and the EU during the two years succeeding the triggering of Article 50, signify that there will be some form of economic disaster, with high inflation, an unstable currency and the ripping-apart of industries reliant on tariff-free trade relations, are presented in a static manner. It suggests that the UK economy as it exists is somehow on a stable footing. But this is patent nonsense as we currently witness stagnating wages, an over-reliance on services industries and a mass of entry barriers and monopolistic tendencies which artificially upscale the British and international economies, thus favouring large industries and general massification rather than small-scale industry and a more multi-scalar economy. Such a narrative of normality is usually presented by politicians or vested interests who have an ideological commitment to monopolistic tendencies and the prevailing norms of neoliberalism.
Similarly, the cadre of “Brexiteers” present an almost utopian image of an internationalist Britain, conquering the world through free trade deals and some bastardised form of liberalisation. This simply falls into the same narrative as that of the Remainers. Socio-economic foundations and political institutions all become reducible to either a dystopian or utopian discourse surrounding the European Union and the effects of Brexit. And what isn’t reducible becomes ignored as a trivial irrelevance that doesn’t fit the ideological mould. A dichotomous politics of truth is constructed on both sides, reducing political plurality and the full range of choice available. It is a recreation of duopolistic politics that continues the stifling of full debates on what constitutes the political and its knowledge.
In the end it seems that Brexit and its various discursive elements are reductive understandings that support the general neoliberal system, flitting around the edges while supporting its ideological apparatus. The radical potential presented by Brexit and the participatory mechanism it brought forth has simply been co-opted into useless debates that ignore a wider meta-politics. Issues of identity construction, mass immigration, effective socio-economic destruction in many communities, and many other issues both local and national are swept under the rug or placed within a narrative that suggests they are inexplicably linked to the EU. Many of these issues, which obviously don’t emanate from the EU, are a major concern nationally and regionally. They’ve been consistently ignored for decades under the consensus politics of either post-war Keynesianism or modern neoliberalism, festering to the point where referenda become one of the few mechanisms where one can attempt to express a voice.
That so many people became politically active after the EU referendum shows a significant problem with modern politics. Firstly because it shows the dearth found in political engagement and discourse, and secondly because it has provided nothing close to a mechanism for reform that reduces scale and decentralises politico-economic power. It’s become an argument between Westminster and Brussels, which is an argument not even deserving of the stupidity of social media, let alone something that should be given national importance. Brexit, like Trump and the rise of national populism, presents the falsity of choice that centralised politics presents. Elections, referenda and their ilk are all inconsequential to those who oppose globalisation and the mass society it presents. A new construction of sovereignty and citizenship, based around organic identity and the distribution of political relations, is needed to combat the forces of liberalisation and state-capitalism.