Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (Polity Press, 2023) — A Review
11 September 2023
You win some, you lose some. Posing as the shaggy-haired tribune of the people, Boris Johnson smashed through Labour’s “red wall” in 2019 to “get Brexit done.” It seemed like a genuine triumph of popular democracy against the arrogant elites who wanted to ignore the results of the 2016 referendum. But then, a few months later, Johnson committed the perhaps greatest violation of civil liberties in British history by locking down the country during Covid. Fast forward two years, to April 2022, and we witnessed Johnson sabotaging a peace agreement between the Ukraine and Russia which the two war parties were close to finalizing after barely more than a month of fighting. As a result, several hundred thousand soldiers and civilians died who needn’t have.
But wasn’t Brexit supposed to bring an end to these ruling-class shenanigans? Weren’t the people supposed to “take back control,” as the Leave campaign’s slogan, developed by Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings, had promised? Yet wouldn’t every “Remain” Eurocrat prime minister have pursued mostly the same tragic policies as Johnson? And haven’t his by now two Tory successors in 10 Downing Street served up little more than rehashed Thatcherism, all talk of “levelling up” between the City of London and the deindustrialized north notwithstanding? Where did all the populist clamor go?
Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (Polity Press, 2023) by the four authors Philip Cunliffe, George Hoare, Lee Jones, and Peter Ramsay attempts to answer these questions and more. The book is an urgent corrective of many of the left’s misconceptions about Brexit, especially that the referendum was motivated by nothing more than xenophobia. But as self-described “Brexit Bolsheviks,” the authors also attack the belief, often found on the right, that the European Union unidirectionally imposes rules on the member states, while the elected leaders of these states have to stand by helplessly and swallow these bureaucratic mandates. No, the authors counter, “[t]he EU is best understood as the outgrowth of the decay of democratic representation within the member-states”—in other words, decades of decline in membership of traditional political parties and of other intermediary civic institutions like unions and churches. “The EU is not an external imposition,” they conclude, “but a mechanism developed by national elites through which to rule their societies in a post-democratic era.” The leaders of the EU’s member states want you to think they’re powerless against Brussels’ “dictates” when they’re really in charge of this unaccountable policy-making process. It’s just that the people have virtually no more say and are forced to withdraw into atomized private existences, what the authors call “the void.”
For the Brexit Bolsheviks—let’s indeed call them that for simplicity’s sake—a reassertion of national sovereignty by exiting the European Union was a crucial though insufficient step to rebuilding true democracy. The symptom of “member-statehood,” as they call it, continues to persist in the United Kingdom even after Brexit. This was expressed, for example, by Johnson’s fealty to yet another transnational body, NATO. And this fealty went deep:
On 17 June 2022, Boris Johnson skipped a ‘levelling up’ summit with ‘red wall’ MPs in Doncaster in order to fly to Kyiv for a photo opportunity with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Nothing could better symbolize the retreat from the hard slog of domestic political representation in favour of international grandstanding and intergovernmental policy making that characterized Britain’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Naturally, the Brexit Bolsheviks call for exiting this instrument of western empire too.
A common leftist argument against Brexit in the run-up to the vote stated that the EU preserved a minimum of protections for workers across Europe. Not so. “All the key labour rights in the United Kingdom were won domestically, well before the EU existed, during the period of relative trade union strength and militancy.” EU regulations, by contrast, are set “typically at such a level that they have little practical effect.” And wherever the member states had attained solid labor protections, the European Court of Justice would often overrule these so as to shield the EU’s internal market from the “distortions” brought about by the unruly democratic political process.
But where the freedom of movement of capital and labor reigns supreme, the bargaining power of a nation state’s working class diminishes. The Brexit Bolsheviks deserve kudos for tackling a topic that has in recent years become so uncomfortable to handle for the left—immigration. Indeed, immigration was among the top concerns for the disgruntled voters who supported Brexit, and this concern was not unwarranted, despite all the talk of how open borders proved a net benefit to GDP growth. After all, broadening the pool of available labor robs the domestic working class of leverage, while the wide availability of low-skilled workers slows down productivity gains because employers no longer feel pressured to invest in labor-saving machinery. This actually hurts potential growth and there is now far less need for skilled, and thus well-paid, craftsmen and women to build and operate the modern machines. All in all, “while immigration did not affect average wages or employment levels, the impact was positive for higher-educated groups but negative for lower-educated ones.”
But to many leftists, such calculus was invalid and the voters had simply been driven by racism. One reads with disgust these words by the British writer Laurie Penny, whom the authors quote at length:
[T]he frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain voted out . . . There’s a precedent for what happens when Svengalis with aggressively terrible haircuts are allowed to appeal to parochialism and fear in the teeth of a global recession . . . I’m no longer at all worried about risking hyperbole or unoriginality when referencing all that Nazi history . . . I’m just frightened. I’m frightened that those who wanted “their” country back will get their wish, and it will turn out to be a hostile, inhospitable place for immigrants, ethnic minorities, queer people . . . tens of millions are going to suffer. Real people are going to hurt. Real people are going to die . . . it won’t be long before a new Kristallnacht. (Ellipses are the Brexit Bolsheviks’)
Penny wrote these—hyperbolic and unoriginal—words in 2016, but white supremacist race riots have still not been heard from in jolly old England. Maybe it’s a slow burn, but one may doubt that “a new Kristallnacht” is imminent seven years on.
Penny was symptomatic of a British—and in general western—left that had suddenly found itself on the side of democratically unaccountable transnational bodies. This is no surprise, since the void that had taken the place of traditional democratic parties has since been filled with non-profit entities whose funds are often provided by the billionaire class that saw its powers sprawl in the wake of the neoliberal counterrevolution. This is a complicated way of saying that much of the modern left, profitably employed through professional “advocacy” groups and corporatized universities, is in cahoots with big business.
And with that, it was not all clear anymore that the people were sovereign. The Brexit Bolsheviks base the theoretical framing for their discussion of sovereignty on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, whom they call “England’s greatest political philosopher.” Indeed, the cover of Taking Control is a—quite kitschy—redesign of the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan, with the absolute monarch’s armor made up of all his many subjects. Hobbes’s point was that while the monarch may indeed have held absolute power, he did so only because the people had lent it to him and it was only by their grace that he governed.
The bourgeois revolution transferred the people’s power onto Parliament, and it’s Parliament that the Brexit Bolsheviks want to see empowered once again. “Unlike in countries with formal codified constitutions”—for example, the United States—“Britain’s Parliament is only constrained in its law making by those who elect it.”
But what if “those who elect” Parliament confront existential fears, fears that they think only the state can soothe? That fright can help shape politics, as Penny complained, is not altogether out of the question, though in ways she surely didn’t mean to imply. The Covid lockdowns, after all, initially received broad majority support. Wasn’t it a proper expression, then, of the people’s will when, as the authors write, “Parliament declared itself inessential by passing the authoritarian Coronavirus Act without debate, then dissolving itself”? We experienced a return to near absolute power during the Covid years because fear reigned supreme, and for Hobbes it was the absolutist state that was best suited to calm worries of untimely death and secure bare life for its subjects, as the American commentator Daniel McCarthy reminded in one of the most perceptive discussions of the political convulsions of 2020.
Where Hobbesianism is rooted in the promise to preserve bare life, McCarthy believes that modern populism is an expression of more noble passions, especially “a very strong passion for dignity, a desire for greater recognition of one’s status or plight.” No doubt, it was such a “strong passion for dignity” that the left-behind British voters had shown in 2016 and once more in 2019 when they withstood ruling-class rage that sought to disregard their will. Then again, the Brexit Bolsheviks caution that placing all hopes in populist politicians means taking too easy a way out—you elevate to office one or a handful of individuals who claim to represent the people against “wicked elites,” and then these populists end up governing just like the aforementioned Johnson.
It is a conundrum that the authors seek to resolve by proposing policies that would allow Britain’s citizens to express their pluralistic interests in ways that no one populist tribune could ever claim to embody in himself. Taking Control ends with a list of proposals to overcome the continued expressions of “member-statehood” of a post-Brexit UK, including a “Brexit from NATO,” ending the union with Northern Ireland, as well as other reform proposals that would find application in the United States too: ending corporate financing of political parties, permitting recalls of members of Parliament “on political grounds,” increasing the size of the House of Commons (something the American political scientist Lee Drutman also calls for in the House of Representatives), and repealing all laws limiting political expression.
If one looks at the way that the Biden administration is fighting tooth and nail to cling to the tyrannical censorship powers that it has claimed for itself, the last point is perhaps the most immediately urgent. America’s written constitution places at least a theoretical check on the federal government’s ability to void the First Amendment and become the arbiter of what is and isn’t permissible speech. This check is a reminder that the theoretical underpinnings of American constitutionalism are such that the people’s sovereignty is rooted in natural (read: eternal, divine) law, not a law that could in the spur of the moment be invalidated, say due to media fearmongering over upper-respiratory illnesses or regional conflicts in far eastern Europe that you can have no valid opinion on other than the regime-approved one. Whether in our post-democratic age the Constitution is worth the paper it’s written on remains to be seen while the courts adjudicate Biden’s censorship schemes.
However we may resolve these complicated disputes over the relative benefits of British parliamentarianism versus American constitutionalism, one thing is true on both sides of the Atlantic: Neither the Labour Party, which has long ago ceased to actually represent workers, nor the Democrats are your friends if you believe in such a thing as liberty. Which isn’t to say the Tories or the Republicans are—oh please—but simply that a sudden expression of a strong passion for dignity may leave more than one western leftist “frightened” and fearing imminent Nazi riots where in reality a popular revolt against authoritarian rule is shaping up. Embrace it, don’t fear it.
Philip Cunliffe, George Hoare, Lee Jones, Peter Ramsay Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit
Cambridge, Polity Press, 2023. 240 pp., $22.95 ISBN 9781509553204