From self-harm to social Europe?

James Wickham11/07/2016

James Wickham: When in the 1960s the poor of the US ghettos rioted for the first time, they burnt down the areas in which they lived. When the excluded of the French banlieus rioted in the 2000s, they burnt down the schools which served them. Now the excluded white ethnics of the English working class have gone one better. They have not only trashed their country’s economy (which arguably has given them very little for years) they have set in motion a process by which the institutions of the United Kingdom itself could be destroyed.

They were egged on by a gang of pyromaniac public school boys, some of whom now seem to be regretting their lapse from normal standards of civilised behaviour. And of course the leader of the Labour Party watched from the sidelines, unable to decide whether to join in the fun or give the hooligans a gentle ticking off.

The referendum was fought on a rather peculiar franchise. It included not only all Irish citizens legally resident in the UK, but also citizens from that almost forgotten institution, the ‘Commonwealth’. So a newly arrived person from Pakistan could vote, a long-term resident from France or Poland could not. Although the British government had promised to extend the franchise to all citizens living abroad, it never got round to doing this before the referendum. There are somewhere around 1.2 million Brits (including me) living elsewhere in the EU and most of us could not vote.

The Irish government and many Irish politicians pleaded with the Irish in Britain to vote Remain. Most of their arguments were an Irish version of the dreary economic arguments used by the Remain campaign itself: they highlighted the damage to the Irish economy - weakened exports – that will probably follow from a Brexit. Only towards the end of the campaign did they begin to raise bigger political issues…

Virtually all British politicians are at least ‘euro-sceptics’. It is difficult to think of any profiled politician who has ever made a speech praising the European Union (Tony Blair did a few times, but apparently always outside the UK). This deep-rooted hostility explains a curious fact. Both countries joined the then EEC in 1973. At very minimum common membership of the EU provided formal and informal channels of communication between the two governents. Irish politicians and Irish commentators have always been clear that this joint membership helped contain the ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland. By contrast, British politicians have hardly ever even suggested that the EU was part of the context for the Peace Process that has ended armed conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Brexit campaign did not exactly pay much attention to Ireland, but every now and then campaigners claimed that nothing would disturb the Common Travel Area. Today if you travel from Dublin to Belfast you are hardly aware that you are crossing an international border. If Northern Ireland stays part of the UK outside of the EU, then it is difficiult to see how this can continue: there will be some form of ‘hard border’ again. Indeed, if Scotland now leaves the UK, and this of course is very likely, it is not clear what Northern Ireland will remain part of. So a campaign fought by people waving the Union Jack and demanding ‘Give us back our country’ has probably destroyed the United Kingdom itself. The UK becomes just England and –for the time being – Wales. Not bad going for patriots.

For some time there a distinct English identity has been emerging within the UK, partly in response to the rise of Scottish nationalism. It does seem that the more likely people are to identify as English¸ rather than British, the more likely they were to vote for exit. In England (much less so in Scotland) there has been a terrifying rise in overt racism. People who appear foreign have been attacked on the streets. Clearly the perpetrators carry this out in the name of ‘Englishness’ rather than ‘Britishness’ but it would be simplistic to reverse the linkage, and see any English identity as more racist than any other European national identity. However, the Brexit campaign included many racists; the campaign did appeal to the worst forms of anti-immigrant prejudice; the campaign’s success has licensed – hopefully only temporarily – the sort of overt racism that everyone assumed had long disappeared from Britain.

There might be a few silver linings. I’ve argued in an earlier blog that Brexit could reinvigorate a social Europe, since one of the many obstacles to any European social policy has always been the stance of the UK government. While some Irish exporters will suffer, clearly some financial services will relocate from London to Dublin. Until the Scots join, Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the EU (apart from Malta) and indeed, Tasc will be the only progressive English-speaking think-tank in the EU! And so on…

But perhaps the best silver lining is in England itself. Most young and well-educated Brits are absolutely furious that their poorer and older relations have managed to burn down their own house. Outside the two main parties and their pathetic half-hearted Remain campaigns, you hear voices that are now whole-heartedly a call for Europe – the Europe of which we once dreamed.

As the President of Ireland said in his speech at the recent FEPS-TASC conference:
"What has happened to the discourse on the European social model? What has happened to the discourse on social cohesion? In many respects the Barroso Commission’s dominant view represented the very antithesis to Social Europe…Without a discourse of solidarity and cohesion – a discourse that is transcendental to aggressive nationalist claims and a narrow understanding of national interests – Europe will, I am afraid, continue to disintegrate."

The silver lining might be the rebirth of the European ideal.

James Wickham is Director of TASC

Professor James Wickham

James Wickham

James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004.  His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe.  He is a former director of TASC. 



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