After the political turmoil of recent years, Britain has fallen into a state of political inertia. Labour has been enjoying a steady and wide margin in the polls, but there is less popular enthusiasm for the party than there is loathing for the ruling Tories. The dominant mood is one of indifference toward both of the major parties. In this hiatus, there are regular reminders that the country is suffering “Bregret.” Among those unreconciled to Brexit, there is still talk of rejoining the European Union.
The moment raises the question: What did those of us who voted Brexit want? Brexit was the one vote—for many, the only vote in a lifetime—that really meant something. But the movement failed to fundamentally reorient British politics away from liberal dogmas and toward a true politics of solidarity and working-class power. Instead, it became the plaything of the free-market right. Our political voice disappeared before it was even found.
Brexit was an era-defining event, altering the course of the country for generations to come. It was an inarticulate rebellion, a “tug from below,” to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, against two bourgeois revolutions whose ruling liberal consensus profoundly reshaped our country. Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution in the 1980s shocked the country, delivering deregulation, de-unionization, and global competition. The cultural revolution emerged in the 1960s with the expansion of higher education and the rising power of a liberal graduate class whose professional and technical expertise was central to the new service- and knowledge-based economy.
A dominant right-liberal economic elite and a subordinate progressive cultural bourgeoisie found common cause in their support of the European Union. The defeat of this ruling bloc in the 2016 referendum, by a coalition of the ex-industrial working class and the lower middle class was uniquely British. But it was symptomatic of the kind of class conflicts that have reshaped the political landscape of Western democracies, and that first took place in the United States, in the campus unrest of the 1960s.
The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, established under Richard Nixon to explain the unrest, identified the causes as lying deep “in the social and economic patterns that have been building in Western industrial society for a hundred years or more.” A new kind of culture had emerged among middle-class youth whose principle was the liberation of the individual to express whatever “his unique humanity prompted.”
Sociologists were arriving at a similar understanding. Alvin Gouldner in The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (1979) described a “New Class” whose power lay in control over valuable cultures, and whose members shared the same knowledge-based relationship to the means of production. Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) argued that a new bourgeois culture was remaking the self in pursuit of self-realization. “Nothing,” he wrote, “is forbidden, all is to be explored.” A watershed had been reached in Western society: “We are witnessing the end of the bourgeois idea which has molded the modern era for the last 200 years.”
These patterns unfolded on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe as in America, a progressive liberal culture, laying claim to universality, facilitated the new model of a services-based digital capitalism. The 2009 Lisbon Treaty made the liberalization of the economy and society foundational to the European Union. The free movement of capital and labor and a cosmopolitan belief in humanity erased the particularity of cultures and local places. National histories with their tragedies were abandoned for a faith in a technologically enabled progressive future. In this ahistorical, transitory, and increasingly standardized world, the only source of meaning and authenticity left was the individual self.
Brexit was a vote against this progressive culture of capitalism, with its moral detachment and disrespect for the traditional and the parochial. The vote was captured by the right because Labour in its progressive liberal turn had lost the support of the working classes. And in embracing the progressive culture of universalism and cosmopolitanism, Labour lost the ability to speak of itself as part of a historical nation.
A thriving, multi-ethnic society needs roots and a shared common culture for an enduring and reciprocal collective existence. The liberal consensus was hostile to all three. In roots, it saw ethnocentrism. In a shared common culture, the consensus spied the suppression of difference. And in a collective existence, it detected an attack on self-realization. Brexit was a vote to restore a balance between freedom and security, a pause to the constant churn of economic and demographic change.
It was a vote for reconstituting the sovereignty of a democratic nation, to give voice to political conflict between different interests and thus bring about negotiation for the common good. It was for rebuilding a national economy that prioritizes work and wages for British citizens and for addressing regional inequalities. And it was a rejection of judicial activism and technocratic government that have bypassed the electorate, evaded cultural and political conflict, and accrued power in the hands of elites.
Brexit was a once-in-decades mandate to look long and hard at the condition of our country. The governing class has failed to rise to the challenge. The Conservatives, the party of the rentier class, squandered their 2019 election victory. Labour, the party of the professional managerial class, can’t shake free of its liberal progressive culture and so struggles to build a national coalition beyond its metropolitan heartlands. Neither can yet move beyond the old liberal consensus. Today, they edge toward a center ground that no longer exists.
The political forces and what the communist theorist Antonio Gramsci called the “necessary and sufficient conditions” for a politics of national reconstruction haven’t yet developed. But talk of failure is premature. The country has changed course. There is no going back. The political parties will have to follow, or they will continue to founder.