Sunday, 31 July 2016

The other Brexit narrative

As the new British Prime Minister intones that Brexit means Brexit, quite a few people still scratch their heads and ask themselves what it actually all means. The biggest headache for the British is now to determine where this magical nirvana outside the European Union is actually located and, once they have found it, to figure out how to get there.

Recriminations abound how we all got here and there are theories a plenty on the social media sphere, so here is, for good measure, mine, why Britain made for the exit.

On the face of it, Brexit was all about leaving Europe. However, in the midst of the campaign Nigel Farage mentioned that he would be very happy indeed to give up economic growth for better quality of life. His comment went largely unnoticed, but it shouldn't have. It was a remarkable admission by a, for good or ill, national politician for two reasons.

One the face of it, his admission to be willing to see less economic growth for better quality of life in Britain would be suicidal for any mainstream politician. Economic growth is the engine of progress. It pays for hospitals, schools and public services. To understand how dominant this narrative actually is look no further than David Cameron's promise to develop a 'well being and happiness strategy' of his government to replace the common indicators of national wealth which went ... exactly nowhere. Once in office, it's the treasury figures that drive everything. They determine whether departments have a bit less or more to spend, whether another school can be built or another foundation stone for a hospital can be laid.

So, why was Farage's comment not ridiculed? One may argue that he stands outside the mainstream debate anyway. But that is just lazy thinking. More likely, the mainstream was missing something out here that Farage had spotted and I believe it is the confluence of two issues. The first is the ineffectiveness of growth to translate into increases in real income for the working classes up and down the country. Britain was, up to the Brexit vote, strictly speaking, booming. Economically it was one of the most successful countries in the OECD. Yet, none of that growth meant any better life for the people in Yorkshire, Manchester or Birmingham who were on rock bottom agency pay. If the link between growth and wages had been severed however, there was little reason to pursue growth for the sake of it.

The periphery of economic growth
Stoke-on-Trent
The second issue was linked to globalisation. The growth argument is tightly interwoven with the globalisation narrative. In an increasingly connected world, we will become ever more mobile with our portable skills moving from one employer to another when it suits us. We, the workers, in this picture, are just as rootless and transferable as the companies are. But the fact of the matter is that this only applies to a tiny minority of young professionals (mostly male) before there establish families. People do not move around like things, they cannot be put on a shipping container and send off to far away shores if things go belly up in one place. It's this discrepancy between the mobility of capital (and companies) and people's rootedness in places that creates the friction in the globalisation gearbox and Farage put his finger on it long before anybody else did.

Where the growth narrative and the globalisation narrative meets it creates some incredible wealth, with a singular dynamic (metropolitan) elite of professionals benefiting from it. Where they jar, they create some real misery like the forgotten towns and cities on the periphery. Farage's comment, as always, was prescient, rather than backward looking, as his detractors have it. He spotted the losers in the globalisation race, for whom growth does not mean better living standards. Once the link was broken, the Kaiser was naked. Why pursue growth for the sake of it?

And this is the location where some counter-narratives are meeting and producing some very odd alliances indeed. One is, rooted in the anti-growth debate of the 1970s, articulated by the left-leaning anti-globalisation campaigners who warn against the economic and ecological consequences of ever more growth. The second is that which refuses to accept the inevitability (or indeed desirability) of progress. Both counter-narratives together, go to the very heart of the capitalist system and it is ironic (London) and tragic (Stoke-on-Trent) at the same time that Britain is the battle ground on which this argument is to be had.

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