You might have noticed things are going a bit wrong of late. Far right parties have gained ground in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and France; they have cabinet seats in Norway, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, and one is in coalition government in Italy. And then there’s Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil. The popular appeal of fascism arises out of desperation, and there’s plenty of that around at the moment. Workers in UK have experienced a decade-long squeeze on wages, predicted to be the longest slump since Napoleon marched across Europe. Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has just published a damning indictment of poverty in UK. A fifth of the population are in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute. Austerity has gutted local councils and the legal aid system. It is surprising given all this that the rise of the far right across mainland Europe has not, to the same extent, been replicated in the UK. A plausible explanation of this is that many of the desperate are pinning their hopes for the future on Brexit. I am terrified that if Brexit doesn’t happen, or if it doesn’t happen in the way those who voted for it expect, we are going to see fascists in parliament.
On the other hand, I’m also terrified of Brexit, especially the Brexit envisaged by its most ardent supporters. The economic damage that will inevitably result is itself likely to strengthen the appeal of unsavory forms of populism. Our only hope is to find a common political project which might unite large numbers both of those who voted leave and of those who voted remain, a project with the potential actually to address the underlying causes of our problems. Our current economic woes were not caused by EU or by immigration, but by the poisonous financial products of casino banking that brought the global economy to its knees in 2008, and by the fact that a Tory-led government chose to make ordinary people pay the price for the failure of the financial elite. We do need to take back control, not from Brussels but from the multinationals and the big four accountancy firms that conspire to limit the fiscal and regulatory choices of democratic governments, with the result that a huge proportion of the wealth we all create is sucked up to the top or squirreled away into tax havens. Leavers and remainers could find a common goal in ending the Wild West of unregulated capitalism that has plagued us for the last forty years.
The problem is that the nation is taken up with Brexit that there is little focus on any other political issue. In terms of political engagement, I find most of my peer group completely consumed by the project of reversing Brexit, often with little interest in reflecting on the reasons people all over the developed world are turning to extreme political parties. The sentiment seems to be: So long as we can reverse the folly of those ignorant leave voters, everything will be back to normal. But Brexit is just a symptom of a disease, and if we can’t treat the disease itself then we’re not going to get back to anything approaching normal for a long time. If you think Brexit’s bad, wait till you see the EDL marching in their thousands, or a revived UKIP entering into a coalition government. I’d love to see Brexit not happen. But it’s even more important to deal with the reasons that so many voted for Brexit in the first place.