A Tale of Two Brexits

At the Spectator

At one point during Boris Johnson’s speech today he asked the audience ‘We all want to make Britain less insular, don’t we?’


Media-training experts use an initialism to try to get journalists and other talking-heads to come across well on television – BLT. Does the audience believe you? Do they like you? Do they trust you? The Foreign Secretary has never had a problem with the middle one, perhaps the most important of the three, but during the EU referendum there was certainly an issue with his belief, since some of the more nationalistic rhetoric of the campaign clearly sat ill at ease with this ‘esoteric product of millennia of Eurasian toff miscegenation’, as Rod Liddle once described him.

Today’s speech was very much more plausibly Boris’s worldview, a Whiggish, liberal international vision in which Brexit is ‘not about shutting ourselves off; it’s about going global’.

As he put it ‘Brexit is about re-engaging this country with its global identity, and all the energy that can flow from that… So let’s instead unite about what we all believe in – an outward-looking liberal global future for a confident United Kingdom’. He also mentioned the British diaspora, living not just in the EU but in Australia, Canada and the EU, but also visiting Thailand, where ‘they get up to the most eye-popping things’.

That’s all well and good, but this is not what most Brexit supporters asked for back in June 2016. The Leave vote was an alliance of free marketeers who have always disliked the EU’s over-regulatory philosophy and social conservatives who saw in Brussels an instrument of globalisation.

Boris was crucial in bridging these two groups, and ‘Leave’s ‘Take Back Control’ message harnessed the emotive power of immigration, amplifying public concerns over identity and a feeling of being left behind that had been baked in long before the vote was called.’

Among the Leave campaign’s leadership quite a large proportion came from this former group, intent on turning the country into a ‘buccaneering’, low-tax innovator that will open up new markets in the east; among Leave voters they were a pretty small minority. This is why the American media’s idea that Brexit was nostalgia for empire strikes me as so wrong – Leave was an expression of English nationalism and a Little Englander mindset (I use that in a non-pejorative sense – it’s an England that recognises its relative size and doesn’t crave global power).

Rather than wishing for the country to become a global centre again, they would rather England was the neighbourhood loner who kept himself to himself (I say England rather Britain quite specifically.) And even when most English nationalists think of the Commonwealth, they’re specifically talking of countries settled by British emigrants, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, rather than countries that were, however you want to spin the positives, our former victims.

The problem is not just that you have this optimistic, outward-looking Whig Brexit and a socially conservative and pessimistic Tory Brexit, but that, as historian Alex von Tunzelmann points out, they’re completely contradictory.

The Home Secretary’s vision of a liberal Brexit might be well and dandy, but by definition it’s bound to be more economically than socially liberal, meaning low taxes and regulation and more globalisation, churn and change. This is not what the ex-Labour Leave voters who switched to the Conservatives last year had in mind, a sort of offshore tax haven for the Chinese new rich (and most likely even higher levels of non-European migration as a consequence).

Even if Britain’s new overseas trade deals make up for the loss of our European markets – a big, big if – this is surely going to leave a great deal of bitterness among many voters. The Foreign Secretary spoke with pride about how Brexit had destroyed Ukip, where continental Europe’s populist right was still strong, yet their demise was fairly swift (and indeed, comical). The Tory Party in contrast has got itself into an impossible position where it must brutally let down one of two groups who supported it or risk obliterating the economy, and its agony will be far greater.

What do you think?