If the early hours of 24 June and 9 November 2016 sit in your memory as times of racing thoughts and lurching anxiety, you will probably agree with the basic thesis of this book as a matter of instinct. “Something irreversible has happened, which people feel in their bones,” writes Anthony Barnett. “It is the end of an era, a truly historic moment.”
Britain is embroiled in the fiasco of its exit from the EU; the US is in the midst of a comparably chaotic reinvention, authored by an overgrown child who happens to be the president. But thus far, beyond a mountain of electoral analysis and the kind of books that focus exclusively on high politics and court intrigue, it often feels like the deep significance of what has happened has yet to sink in. Barnett, by contrast, is in no doubt: 2016 was a year of revolution, as replete with importance as 1968, and its events were expressions of a set of seismic crises – of the state, the economy and politics on both the left and the right.
As its response to the Brexit vote showed, British political commentary is never terribly comfortable with this kind of stuff. A year on from the referendum, the pre-eminent work of non-fiction about the saga remains All Out War, by the Westminster-centric Sunday Times journalist Tim Shipman, while bigger thoughts about the national condition have seemingly been left to writers of novels (witness Ali Smith’s brilliant Autumn, or Anthony Cartwright’s Brexit story The Cut).
In that context, there is no little symbolism in how the writing of The Lure of Greatness was enabled not by a mainstream publisher but by the crowd-funding platform Unbound, and financed by a great array of benefactors listed at the back. From its amateurish graphics (the title is written on the cover as “The Lure of Great Ness”, which rather suggests a tribute to an obscure Scottish village) to the sense of a text written at a furious pace with precious little editing, the whole thing feels like a kind of punk polemic, much less concerned with the standard rules of political writing than the need to respond to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments.
This is mostly a good thing. A one-time director of the constitutional reform campaign Charter 88 and the co-founder of the online platform openDemocracy, Barnett is a veteran of the kind of maverick politics that exists to push beyond useless orthodoxies and is usually built on a profound sense of history. One of his topics is the lack of those qualities in a caste of politicians he calls the “CBCs” – it stands for Clinton (Bill), Blair, Bush, Brown, Cameron and Clinton (Hillary) – and the dire style of politics that Trump and Brexit have probably rendered extinct. Here, his paradigmatic story is of the 84 slogans invented by people working for Hillary Clinton – “Rise up”, “Move up”, “Family first”, “A new bargain we can count on”, the flatly weird “Next begins with you” – before they settled on “Stronger together”, a close relative of the Remain campaign’s equally awful “Stronger in”. Such, he says, was an approach that “regarded sincerity, independence, principle… and believing what you say as positively dangerous”.
All of this comes into even sharper focus in his treatment of David Cameron, an elegant exercise in damnation that has echoes of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s searing 2007 monograph Yo, Blair!. One of the two chapters in question is titled “Words Pop Out of His Mouth”. Cameron, Barnett writes, was “one of those politicians who enjoy unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose”.
Worse still, he “took the capacity for self-interested adaptation for which the English ruling class is famous to a new pitch of rootlessness, and distilled the era’s deceitful spirit of government to perfection”. He said he had “no plans” to get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance or raise VAT and then did both; he pledged not to means-test child benefit and then made precisely that change; and though his form of words was conveniently vague, he even said he would not allow any building on the green belt. In that sense, the referendum and its outcome were Cameron’s doing not just in the sense that he was daft enough to call the vote but that his casual deceptions were part of what people were rebelling against.
Most of the book is focused on Britain and, under the heading “Brexitannia”, the text moves beyond the rituals and personalities of politics into deeper themes: “the market-driven form taken by globalisation whose name is neoliberalism”, the serial failures of the EU (about which Barnett is bracingly honest) and hard questions about the supposedly United Kingdom. Clearly, the identities of Wales and Scotland have been renewed by devolution – and, in the latter case, by a party of the centre left that confidently speaks to people’s sense of belonging. Meanwhile, England has continued to be subsumed under the decaying idea of Britain and bossed around by the UK’s essentially 19th-century institutions, leaving it in dysfunctional limbo.
“English people… are losing their belief in Westminster and its self-important debates,” writes Barnett. “It is no longer funny that MPs fiddle their expenses. The Lords is ridiculous… Hideous over-centralisation makes local government pitiful. The result is a displacement of English exasperation with the whole damn lot of them… on to Brussels.” He rightly locates Brexit in what he calls “England-without-London” and bemoans the reluctance of people on the left – of all persuasions – to channel its feelings of powerlessness and resentment.
This leads on to a closing section written before this year’s general election, in which Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are largely presumed to be locked into decline. Some of the arguments ring true (he calls Corbyn a merchant of “regressive radicalism”, which is spot on), but Barnett’s trenchant tone inevitably sounds a dissonant note. Elsewhere, the uneven pace and sheer range of subjects can be a bit much, and he makes the odd mistake, as with the claim that Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, is a “village”, when it’s actually the county town – the kind of metropolitan slip-up that one might associate with his loathed CBCs. But for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause. Precisely because of its idiosyncrasies, this is a very good book, and in times like these, we need more like it.
The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump
Unbound, 416pp, £8.99
John Harris writes for the Guardian
This article appears in the 16 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear