Dissecting the Dreams of Brexit Britain

I've traveled England trying to understand what drives the Brexit psyche.

I've traveled England trying to understand what drives the Brexit psyche.

By James Meek / March 15, 2019 / Sunday Review NYTimes




The June 2016 Brexit referendum left Britain a divided nation. That much we know. But the referendum didn’t create division. It exposed something that was already there, latent. This was hard to see if you attended to people’s conventional political views about taxation or public spending; even the issue of immigration, by itself, wasn’t “it.” Nor was it to be found in something as vague as “feelings” or “emotions.” It lay elsewhere, in the realm of the individual political psyche, that blending of personal, family and nonacademic history, casually informed reasoning, clan prejudice, tribal loyalty and ancestor worship that forms the imaginative framework in which, as we represent it to ourselves, our lives relate to events in the wider world.


In that framework, the way our representation of the past relates to our representation of the present isn’t always linear. What may seem, rationally, to be dead, gone and replaced (or to have never existed) is actually still there, immanent, or hidden, or stolen. An empire. An all-white Britain. A socialist Britain. A country that stood alone against the Nazi menace. One’s young self. A word for this is “dreaming.”

[RP: Now look at how it plays out for Britain in the context of a globalized world economy…]

This makes sense only if you understand the hard-core Brexiteer minority as most in tune with the Leaver dreaming: that state of mind where it’s natural to talk about the Britons who endured the Nazi siege of the early 1940s as “we,” as if the present and the past, the dead and the living, were one and the same, bound to re-enact the slaying of a European dragon every few generations.

I believe now that a subliminal empire does persist in the dreaming of a large number of Britons, hinted at in a longing for the return of guilt-free racial categorization, in the idea that my country can be both globally open and privileged in an international trading system where it can somehow turn the rules to its advantage…

How could this dreaming have survived so long after the fall of the actual empire? One answer may lie in the matchless political skills of Margaret Thatcher. She achieved the extraordinary feat of turning into political orthodoxy a plainly contradictory credo, that nationalism and borderless capitalism could easily coexist. The reality of the new Britain has been a shrunken welfare state, a country ruthlessly exposed to global free-market competition. The blindness of Thatcherism’s supporters has been to accept it as the patriotic solution to the globalism it enabled.

This idea, which begins to make sense only if your country happens to control a global empire, came from someone whose childhood dream was to be an official in the Indian Civil Service. It has been orthodoxy for four decades, not just in her own party but for a time, at least, in the main opposition. The bizarre and already disproved notion that the global free market might work as an avatar of Britain’s imperial power lies at the heart of the die-hard Brexit psyche. Propagating it was Mrs. Thatcher’s personal success, and that success, as we can now see, was her great failure.



Watch our “Drill down into Globalization

[RP: Or consider that “globalist” and “anti-globalist” opinion might prevent the “Global System” from managing the technological and economic forces driving “Globalization” but as opinion they are always trumped by the facts of “Globalization”. Unless you want to unplug the Internet, ground the airplanes, scuttle the ocean freighters, and derail the trains - i.e. return to subsistence farming - you can sing off-key all you want but the forces driving globalization are calling the tune. Better to work on your “Global Agility”…]

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