Brexit tales of discontent: the revenge of Empire by Helen M. Hintjens

Nobody knows what happens after UK general elections on 12 December 2019: Brexit, a referendum on Irish unity, on Scottish independence, or a No-Deal exit from the EU?  In 1977, Tom Nairn in The Break up of Britain warned that during “extreme difficulties and contradictions, the prospect of break-down or being held forever in the gateway… may lead to… nationalist dementia for a society” (p. 349). The election taking place this week will decide whether the ghosts of imperial ancestors win the day, or whether younger generations can save the UK from its divided self.


Crisis? Which one?

Uncertainty over Brexit is wreaking havoc on the Brits. Those who want to remain in the EU are in despair; those who want to leave are angry. Most are sick of it. Britain’s collective mental health, already poor before Brexit, is worsening dramatically.

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Illustration 1: anti-depressant prescriptions in England: another opioid crisis.

In 2012, the Jimmy Savile scandal erupted, resulting in a public crisis in confidence in the British establishment. The public enquiry under then-PM Teresa May into “Historic Child Sexual Abuse” involved serious charges against MPs, celebrities, and royals. The crisis recently resurfaced when Prince Andrew gave a BBC interview on his Epstein connection. He was soon forced to withdraw from UK public life. The Savile crisis is almost forgotten, yet in 2012, John Simpson in The Guardian called this “the worst crisis I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC”. Brexit is now the second “worst crisis in 50 years” in less than a decade.

Myths and lies

Some see the 2016 Referendum result as based on myths and lies. The language of war—betrayal, surrender—gained currency. More recently, the Labour Party accused Johnson  and his rich friends of planning a ‘Big Short’ on a No-Deal Brexit. Pro-Brexiteers accuse Remainers (termed ‘Remoaners’) of thwarting the “will of the British people”. Tory MPs who are pro-Remain have been thrown out of the Conservative Party. Support for Brexit remains in rural, small-town and post-industrial England, despite the dire warnings of Operation Yellowhammer [1]. In London, Bristol and Birmingham, and across Scotland and Northern Ireland, the majority wants to Remain. Welsh opinion has moved towards Remain, or even Independence.

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Illustration 2: Humour is essential

This joke sums up the dilemma for smaller UK countries: “An Irishman, a Scotsman and an Englishman go into a bar. The Englishman wants to leave, so they all have to leave”. Brexit humour abounds, and it helps a little, but only a little.

Macho English Nationalism

On Gender and Brexit, Aida Hozic and Jacqui True comment whilst “men took up 85% of the press space and 70% of television coverage”, during the Brexit campaign, “women [became]… visible as actors… to ‘clean-up’ the mess left by their male counterparts” (p. 276). Women and men voted similarly on Leave-Remain. Young people were notably more pro-Remain than their elders. Commenting in Third Text, Finlayson comments: “Farage’s Brexitism… opposes the small, ordinary, decent, local and familiar to the big, distant and untrustworthy”, showing a ‘little Englander’ mentality harking back to Empire. Pro-Brexit rhetoric centres on ‘guts’ and courage: “…phrases [that] invoke boyhood stories of wartime bravery against the odds and of standing up to boarding school bullies” (pp. 602-603), and tales of the Empire.

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Illustration 3: Brexit and Dangerous Jingoism

Outdated imperial values are dangerous. Both racist and sexist, such values risk renewing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox and UK-wide spike in hate crime since the Referendum leaves minorities fearing the future. And small-minded English nationalism merely intensifies Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh nationalism. The 12 December 2019 elections are crucial.

Algorithms and Rule by Nobody

In today’s networked age, algorithm-based ‘filter bubbles’ limit social media users’ suggested content to their existing comfort zone. Guardian investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr found that the Leave campaign defeated Remain by using such filtering algorithms effectively [2]. Causing suspicion of his motives, Boris Johnson recently refused to allow the publication of a parliamentary report on Russian social media interference in UK elections.

Pro-Brexiteers also frame Brexit as revolt against ‘faceless Brussels bureaucrats’, echoing Hannah Arendt’s ‘Rule by Nobody’. Yet EU neoliberalism could give way to UK financial deregulation, a danger with the UK constitution now collapsing. Abandoning compromise also means Britain could break into three or four national units. Sectarian and anti-minority violence would likely accompany this break-up.

End Thoughts

Nairn warned the Brits—especially the English—of the danger of rooting around in their imperial past for renewed nationalist identity symbols: “… once these well-springs have been tapped there is no real guarantee that the great forces released will be ‘controllable’” (p. 349). As minorities in the UK live in fear of the future, Brexiteers need constant reminding that words can be mortally dangerous. We are now in Karl Marx’s vision in The Eighteenth Brumaire where “[t]he tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living… [drawing]… from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history”. Rather than plunge back into its imperial past, and end up divided, it is hoped the UK electorate will vote to remain in the EU. The question now will be whether the EU will want us!


At a Research in Progress Seminar 12 December 2019 ‘BREXITLAND FAIRY TALES’, Helen Hintjens will elaborate on some of the points in this blog. 13.00-14.00, ISS. This happens to be on the same day as the UK national parliamentary elections!


[1] The latest Operation Yellowhammer document was released on 2 August 2019. It predicts shortages of medicine, “risk… panic buying… [which could] exacerbate food supply disruption”, “[u]rgent action… to ensure [continued] access to clean water”, “[the disruption of] [la]w enforcement data/information sharing UK-EU”, and “[p]rotests and counter-protests… across the UK” alongside “… a rise in public disorder and community tensions”.
In Northern Ireland “growth of the illegitimate economy” especially in cross-border areas“.
[2] https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/11/exclusive-dominic-cummingss-secret-links-to-russia/
Cadwalladr also in:  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/17/dark-money-democracy-billionaires-funding

Image Credit Main Photo: Williams Murray Hamm on Flickr

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About the author:

Helen Hintjens is Assistant Professor in Development and Social Justice. She publishes on asylum policies and on post-genocide reconciliation in the African Great Lakes region, and Rwanda in particular.

 

 

IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

Today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right ...

Economic diplomacy: bilateral relations in a context of geopolitical change by Peter A.G. Bergeijk and Selwyn J.V. Moons

Economic diplomacy, although perceived as marginally important by neoclassical economists, is a highly relevant topic first and foremost because it works in practice, but also because it provides an essential policy answer to the increasing uncertainty of international transactions. In this article, Peter A.G. van Bergeijk and Selwyn J.V. Moons, editors of the recently released Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy, briefly introduce the topic of economic diplomacy and highlight the value of the new publication, to which several ISS researchers have contributed.


The eminent breakdown of multilateralism and supranationalism due to Trump and Brexit has led to a revival of the debate on economic diplomacy, properly understood as a broad field that comprises those aspects of diplomacy that are aimed at:

  • the opening of markets to stimulate bilateral cross-border economic activities such as imports, exports, mergers and acquisitions and greenfield foreign direct investments;
  • the building and use of bilateral cultural, political and economic relationships between countries in order to assist domestic companies; and
  • the use of bilateral economic relationships, including (the threat) to discontinue these activities, as a tool of diplomacy.

Neoclassically oriented economists in the past have considered this topic of marginal interest only. Their analysis typically heralds the costs of government intervention and the benefits of free international trade and investment flows. Consequently, the economic analysis of positive and negative diplomatic interactions did not feature prominently on their research agenda. But it is increasingly being recognised that economic diplomacy is  a highly relevant topic, especially in Development Studies, (a) because economic diplomacy works (Moons 2017, 2018, Muniz 2018), (b) because it is more important for developing countries and emerging markets (Rhana 2018) and (c) because it provides an essential policy answer to the increasing uncertainty of international transactions (Bergeijk and Moons 2018).

Surprise and confusion

The international economic reality of 2018 is surprising and confusing. Europe struggles with its trans-Atlantic ally, and the UK’s exit and a new Italian government with an anti-EU attitude contribute to this sense of confusion. America is separating itself from its traditional partners (the EU, NAFTA, and the OECD). The trade relationships between the world’s economic #1 and #2 are more strained than ever before. Trust in the multilateral backbone of the world economy evaporates and US hegemonism is weakening. Clearly a new and better understanding of the interactions between governments is necessary because of the changing playing field and dynamics.

Brave new world

Four key stylized facts that apply to this new environment make the Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral relations in a context of geopolitical change timely and highly relevant:

  1. In the brave new world of Trump and Brexit, trade and investment uncertainty increases significantly with a negative impact on trade and investment;
  2. Trump’s open confrontational approach to foreign policy as a form of negative diplomacy bears costs both in the US and abroad;
  3. Bilateral relationships become more relevant and valuable, especially for developing and emerging economies; and
  4. Bilateral economic diplomacy needs to be carefully designed and properly managed in order to generate optimal impact.

9781784710835Representing a move away from Eurocentric books on the topic, the Research Handbook offers relevant and focused contributions that provide three valuable lessons for current and future policies. First, in addition to the full coverage of positive interactions, our contributors also explicitly consider the impact of negative interaction. Second, the Research Handbook in addition to the analysis of OECD markets provides a comprehensive set of detailed empirical analyses of developing and emerging economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The contributions by 31 leading experts from industrial nations, emerging economies and developing countries in five continents provide a unique perspective on both the heterogeneous dynamics of economic diplomacy and the tools to analyse the impact and efficiency of economic diplomats both qualitatively (case studies, interviews) and quantitatively (macro-economic gravity models, micro-economic firm level data, surveys, meta-analysis, cost benefit analysis). Third, the Research Handbook provides detailed discussions of information requirements, data coverage and the impact of (changes in) the level and quality of diplomatic representation. The studies in the Research Handbook thereby reveal how and under which conditions economic diplomacy can be effective, providing clear guidance for evidence-based policy.

Evidence base

What are the major findings and implications of recent research? First, economic diplomacy works and this is true both for positive and negative interaction. One can build on positive interaction to strengthen economic ties and similarly the twitter tsunami of the current US president and his increasing reliance on economic sanctions will carry a significant cost (Rose, 2018). Second, uncertainty itself already reduces international specialisation: the threat of trade disruption and discontinuation of treaties in itself influences perceptions and thereby the behaviour of consumers, firms and governments. Third, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Economic diplomacy should be aimed at the niche where its contribution can be most significant: complex products, complex markets and countries with diverging political, cultural and historical background (Moons 2017).

Relevance for developing countries and emerging markets

Bilateral economic diplomacy is important for building a good country image and to promote an emerging market as a reliable trading partner with high quality export products, especially in developing countries. It is a relatively more significant determinant of bilateral exports among African states compared to regional integration (Afesorgbor 2018). New modes of economic diplomacy and (development cooperation) are being developed based on China’s pioneering approach to development (De Haan and Warmerdam 2018). Economic diplomacy, however, is not a panacea as Maharani (2018) clarifies while discussing challenges such as lacking exporter preparedness, substandard logistic infrastructure and budgets that remain below those of neighboring countries.


References:
Afesorgbor, S.K., Economic Diplomacy in Africa: The Impact of Regional Integration versus Bilateral Diplomacy on Bilateral Trade chapter 20 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Bergeijk, P.A.G. van en S.J.V Moons (2018) ‘Introduction to the Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy’, chapter 1 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Bergeijk, P.A.G. van, S.J.V. Moons en C. Volpe-Martincus (2018) ‘The future of economic diplomacy research’, chapter 23 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Arjan de Haan and Ward Warmerdam China’s foreign aid: towards a new normal? chapter 22 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Moons, S.J.V (2017) Heterogenous Effects of Economic Diplomacy: Instruments, Determinants and Developments. PhD thesis ISS.

pag van bergeijkAbout the authors: 

Peter van Bergeijk (www.petervanbergeijk.org) is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the ISS.

DJ_20170714_0642Selwyn Moons has a PhD in economics from ISS. His research focus is international economics and economic diplomacy. Selwyn is currently working as Partner in the public sector advisory branch of PwC the Netherlands. Previously he worked in the Dutch ministries of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs.