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Brexit is not a dead issue – the left needs an answer to the Europe question

For the UK, Brexit has been a reputational, social, political and geostrategic disaster.

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“Strong Britain, Great Nation,” goes the song British children have been urged by the Department for Education to sing on 25 June. Coinciding with the week of the fifth anniversary of the EU referendum, it’s a fittingly surreal moment.

The official video accompanying this disturbing propaganda stunt is actually an attempt to sell the deeply unfashionable concept of Britishness using the faces of ethnically diverse primary school children from Bradford. 

Here are the words, see if you can match them to any aspect of the reality around you: “Our nation survived through many storms and many wars/We've opened our doors and widened our island's shores/We celebrate our differences with love in our hearts/United forever, never apart...”

If this were true, I'd sing the damned song myself this week. But it’s not.

Brexit has been a reputational, social, political and geostrategic disaster. It is fostering deep divisions and all but guarantees the break-up of the UK. And, sadly for the children being used to sell these lies, we’ve slammed our doors firmly shut – not just on refugees and migrants, but on friendship and collaboration with around 450 million EU citizens, and on the liberal and tolerant society we thought we were.

Five years on, there is very little buyer’s remorse among those for whom Brexit became a lifestyle choice. There are not enough strawberry pickers, sous-chefs or foreign doctors? Fine, that was the whole idea. The fishing industry is dying? Send the Royal Navy in for a photo opportunity in the Channel Islands. Politics in Northern Ireland has gone into meltdown over the new Irish Sea border? Scrap the border – it’s only an international treaty, so what can the Europeans do?

Above all, there remains among Brexit’s supporters a sullen refusal to contemplate the strategic problem the UK has created for itself. Being a “Leaver” has become a self-sustaining ideology, linked to social conservatism, whiteness, Englishness and tradition, but detached from the fine details of who we trade with, and our future role in the world.

Yet reality bites. By choosing to enact a hard form of Brexit, by launching a permanent culture war against ethnic minorities, liberalism and the left, and by engaging in continuous friction with Brussels and Washington, Boris Johnson has set Britain adrift in a very choppy geopolitical sea.

This was obvious at the G7. For all Johnson’s attempts to cast himself as mini-president, he effectively became the waiter passing out the canapés while the big hitters did business among themselves. He was slapped down firmly over the Irish border issue by the French and US presidents, and could respond only by briefing that talks had gone well.

Meanwhile, the UK’s trade with Europe has slumped and will go on sliding, and Britain has lost out to France as the most popular European destination for foreign direct investment for two consecutive years. We are, according to Johnson, set to become a “science superpower” and a “meaningful actor” in the space race. Not content with the slow fragmentation of the rules-based global order, we are to promote its acceleration, and will shape the future of the international system “dynamically” through combined military, diplomatic and technological interventions.

Set this rhetoric against reality and it is just as unreal as the lyrics to “Strong Britain, Great Nation”. Britain's 20-year intervention in Afghanistan is to end with ignominious defeat at the whim of the US State Department. In North Africa, it is France that is committing troops and resources to hold the latest front against jihadist terror. 

In the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey and Greece have become proxies in a regional arms race between Russia and the West, Britain is nowhere. Both the US and France are pouring high-tech hardware into the Hellenic Armed Forces, and sending their own navies to contain Turkish expansionism. We, by contrast, will send our aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea, where it will float serenely past Hong Kong while China crushes democracy there.

Economically, diplomatically and geopolitically, the five years since the Brexit vote have been a slow slide towards irrelevance for the UK. The next five could easily see its break-up.

It’s symptomatic of the hubris at the heart of English nationalism that the challenge of Scottish independence is always framed as a reaction to something the English have done. “The Scots are Remainers, they’re sore losers but will get over it when the full might of the Westminster love bomb is unleashed, alongside contracts for eight new frigates. The One Britain One Nation song will wind them up, just like misnaming the SNP does in parliament, but they’ll come around eventually...” That’s the assumption.

In fact, the Scottish independence movement is the product of a long, slow and inexorable re-emergence of national identity among an already culturally and geographically distinct people. Brexit, and the anti-democratic form of it imposed by Johnson, was just a particularly stupid way of accelerating the process.

Whether the decisive rupture occurs in this decade or the next, I am certain that by the mid-century, the UK will not exist. There will be a border between England and Scotland, and it will very likely be a hard one. If I were Scottish and faced with the prospect of independence, I would want the European single market, and indeed the eurozone, to begin just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the strongest possible barrier between that and the socio-economic disaster zone to the south.

If you can’t imagine this – the disappearance of the Union Jack from international conferences, the end of “Team GB” at the Olympics – you are not thinking hard enough about the process the Tory elite has unleashed. Because, for all the nationalist rhetoric, the Conservative Party long ago ceased to be a vehicle for the British bourgeoisie. It is an avatar for international finance, always happier in Belize than Birmingham. So long as London is allowed to be a rules-free conduit for the money of despots and dictators, so long as the British public school system turns out well-heeled clones to populate the banks, consultancies and law firms, what do the senior Tories and their phalanx of foreign backers really care about the UK’s global status or territorial integrity? Johnson himself only chose to become a fully British citizen in 2017, following a tax dispute with the US.

It’s a tragic necessity that Labour, reeling from the loss of Leave voters in the north of England, has to play the game of Brexit being a “dead issue”. Nobody could now seriously suggest rejoining the EU – but most aspects of Britain’s relationship with Europe, from trade to security, remain unresolved and to be shaped by future politics.

Before the Scots achieve independence, and before that other mid-century inevitability – a united Ireland – there remain, at most, two decades in which progressives across the four nations (yes, four; did nobody mention that to One Britain One Nation?) need to outline a strongly Eurocentric vision.

It should consist of: the negotiated return of the UK to the single market, in goods at least; strong institutional collaboration over security and defence; and, above all, an atmosphere of friendship and collaboration with the peoples of Europe. That would ensure, in the case of Scottish independence, a softer economic border and a friendlier future relationship.

We need this because the world is becoming dangerous. China’s ascent to superpower status is a reality that all other countries must adapt to and accommodate. The decline of the US and the fragility of its democracy is also a reality, requiring a strong European Union with technological sovereignty and strategic autonomy.

The only time we ever peacefully “widened our island’s shores”, as the song goes, was when we voluntarily agreed to participate in a single market with Europe. All other futures are figments of the colonialist imagination. Progressive politicians need to find the courage to blow them away.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.