Written by David Rowe, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University:
When a word enters the popular lexicon, the social imaginary has surely been tapped. ‘Brexit’ was on multiple lips to describe the UK’s narrow referendum decision to leave the European Union. It then spawned many variations, such as the hashtag ‘#Quexit’ by those wishing to expel Queensland from Australia after its election of arch-reactionary Pauline Hanson to the federal Senate.
The Australian Republican Movement was straight onto the case: if the Brits can have a referendum to separate from Europe without any kind of agreed model, why couldn’t Australia also have one to decide on becoming a republic and then sort out the precise arrangements afterwards? The Brexit can, it is clear, be put to sundry rhetorical purposes.
Paradoxically, although the Brexit made much of the idea that a nation-state had taken back its sovereignty and would forge ahead in splendid isolation, it only served to illuminate the deep, inextricable interconnectedness of the world.
That this re-alignment of a European country and a continental bloc was such big news in Australia tapped into memories of its colonial past. This may be the Asian century, but many in Australia still look to Europe, and especially to Britain, when taking their contemporary bearings.
Australians of a certain age remember the widespread feeling of betrayal by a fellow Commonwealth country when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, with negative effects on its export of agricultural products. But over 40 years later, the UK is seen more by Australia as an Anglophone, culturally sympathetic entry point into the world’s largest free trade zone.
The EU that has existed since the early 1990s is much more than the old Common Market, taking on a broader geopolitical role in areas such as diplomacy, security and the environment. That such a familiar part of the global furniture, heavily under strain since the Global Financial Crisis and with a faltering Eurozone currency system, should be showing signs of disintegration has come as something of a shock to some.
This development might be seen as an indication that globalisation is in retreat and the nation-state resurgent. John Urry once wrote of a Sociology beyond Societies (https://www.routledge.com/Sociology-Beyond-Societies-Mobilities-for-the-Twenty-First-Century/Urry/p/book/9780415190893), but is the Brexit more about ‘anti-mobilities’ than a borderless world?
It should be noted, though, that the EU is technically an example of suprastate regionalism rather than of globalisation as such. An exiting Britain will still have to strike deals with it, as well as seek a range of bilateral and multilateral trade deals, including with Australia and New Zealand. Borders, therefore, have not been rendered redundant, but the subject of intense negotiation over the passage of people, goods and services.
The emphasis on border protection in the Vote Leave campaign, protection of national institutions like the National Health Service, and the catchcries ‘take control’ (#TakeControl) and ‘We want our country back!’ illustrate a Trump-like aspiration to build a wall around the nation.
But the referendum results have revealed other, informal borders within England itself. Inner London was heavily in favour of Remain, but much of the rest of the England wanted out. An accentuated North–South divide revealed a deep political schism between the cosmopolitan global city and many provincial cities and towns, especially the de-industrialised urban centres of the northeast.
Here, politically conscious dissidents may have been persuaded to leave by ‘Lexiteers’ like the veteran ultra-leftist Tariq Ali. But, in largely rejecting the lukewarm Remain gestures by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (a barely reformed Lexiteer), the alienated voter fell prey to echoes of the Margaret Thatcher-era ‘authoritarian populism’ (so elegantly analysed by Stuart Hall: https://f.hypotheses.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/744/files/2012/03/Great-Moving-Right-ShowHALL.pdf) extravagantly articulated by the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson may have jousted in the mid-sixties over the Marxist interpretation of the ‘peculiarities of the English’ (https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1965/english.htm). But they surely could not have anticipated that what became the EU would be so consistently represented in England as the heartless bastion of neoliberalism, while many in the Conservative and Unionist Party, Europe’s neoliberal spiritual home, promised to unchain the proletariat in the name of national sovereignty.
Beyond England there is Wales, a net recipient of EU redistribution funding that voted Leave and put its faith in Tory noblesse oblige. Scotland, a ‘stateless nation’ with a recently failed exit-UK referendum that voted Remain, has been given a new chance to detach itself from the UK. Northern Ireland, also with a majority for Remain, has seen the Brexit breathe new life into the prospect of Irish reunification through, paradoxically, the likely restoration of a pre-Peace Agreement border with its larger EU member to the south. In other words, the referendum decision may lead to parts of the country Brexiting from itself.
Europe – perhaps comfortingly, given its tumultuous history – was regarded as a dull place of bureaucratic inertia and lame symbols of unification for several years (see Johan Fornäs, http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/books/view-Book,id=4929/). Deep post-GFC problems in the Iberian peninsula, the pan-European rise of the racist Right, agonising arrival of displaced migrants and the possibility of a ‘Grexit’ have shaken any sense of European somnambulance.
This year’s Brexit vote has provided good reason, in Australia and elsewhere, for the renewal of the sociological gaze on mobilities and borders among nations and regions across the globe. Sociologists have much to work with in this fluid environment of residual and emergent social identities, and the rapid rise and fall of social movements.
This article’s title evokes Hubert Selby Jr.’s notorious demimonde novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which was privately prosecuted in Britain in 1966 by a Conservative Member of Parliament. This American cultural import was later banned under the Obscene Publications Act.
In many respects the Brexiteers have taken their country back to that pre-EU time, although in tone even further to the halcyon days of 19th century Empire. Last Exit to Brooklyn’s publishers successfully appealed against its prosecution in 1968 and the book, already a big seller, became a hard-boiled literary classic. With the result of the advisory EU referendum determined to be binding by Britain’s current Tory government, what avenues of appeal are available to prevent the Remainers becoming the Remaindered?