That ever-useful distinction between ‘ideologues’ (crudely, those who put ideas before people, whatever their motives) and ‘pragmatists’ (those who put people’s needs before ideas) seems nowhere more relevant than in Britain today. The UK has proved a perfect environment for ideologues whose chief idea – Brexit – reflects (but only exacerbates) the country’s deep problems: a British exceptionalism deriving from an imperial past; an English-oriented ‘unionism’ hostile to the ‘Celtic fringe’; and a traditional English class-based hostility to social equality and modern democratic government.
Brexit is a backward-looking, aggressive English nationalist ideology whose irrationality and irresponsibility spawn intolerance, racism and xenophobia. It demonises the EU and its citizens as an inimical ‘other,’ culpable for British ills, while tearing up more than 40 years of social, economic and political collaboration with the EEC/EU. Shamefully, in England these ideas, even though they curtail the rights and freedoms of the UK’s own citizens, have been met with singular success among a large minority. Backed by electoral abuses, manipulation of the Internet, a rightwing print media and a cowed BBC, they have successfully poisoned political debate, preying on public ignorance, political disenchantment and economic resentment.
Brexit has also exposed the weakness of civil society in the UK. While civil society is the natural home of pragmatists (focused as they are on real change for the benefit of people), politics in the UK has been captured by ideologues. The voices of civil society have been muted out. Both main political parties, entrenched by the undemocratic First Past the Post system, have, in different ways, proved institutionally resilient and resistant to civil society influence. Despite the fact that at the last election a majority of voters supported candidates that held pragmatic views (either a second referendum or a rejection of Brexit altogether), the current system delivered a Parliamentary majority for Brexit.
The December 2019 elections destroyed any illusions that a pragmatic common sense would at that stage prevail. From 31 January 2020, conflicts over Brexit move to new terrain. Even in the transition period, the inevitable collision with reality will expose the country’s diminished political and economic future outside the EU, riven by struggles over Scottish independence and Irish reunification. This will strengthen the groundswell of opinion against Brexit and probably push Brexit advocates further to the right.
That growing distance between Brexit ideologues and the public will provide an opportunity for pragmatists to build a new consensus, not only for the UK (or states that replace it) to rejoin the EU, but for long overdue reform of the UK’s political system and reduction of deep-rooted social and economic inequalities. That consensus can only be born and nurtured in civil society with its pragmatism, expertise and capacity for social solidarity. And the essence of that consensus must be for a new kind of politics in which civil society claims its rightful place. As the monstrous Brexit dream dies, that must be the hope. The alternative is possibly decades of a deepening vicious circle of self-destructive impoverishment and conflict in the UK.
Simon Cosgrove is chair of the trustees of Rights in Russia, an NGO based in the United Kingdom. The NGO was set up in 2010 to promote public awareness about human rights in Russia and the work of Russia’s human rights defenders. For many years he worked on grantmaking programmes in the Russian Federation. He also works as a consultant, translator and schoolteacher and for a charity that enables children to maintain relationships with both parents after separation or divorce.