There are long decades when history barely moves. And there are times when decades or even centuries fly by in weeks. Political history in the UK is suddenly moving at breakneck speed. Our relationship with the EU is sundered, the UK itself fractured along a bewildering tangle of lines. The possibility of Scottish secession looms once more. Friends are at each other’s throats. Terrified remain supporters – and a good few remorseful leave supporters – call for the government to set aside or ignore the referendum. The Parliamentary Labour Party has turned all its fire on Jeremy Corbyn, while the Liberal Democrats court redemption by making a play for enraged middle class progressives. The Conservative Party is in turmoil as is the repentant architect of Brexit, Boris Johnson.
In this febrile atmosphere, the battered, embittered and disenfranchised working classes forming the backbone of Brexit has been chosen as the chief villain of the piece – although almost half of them did not vote at all. Stuck between the rock of racism and the hard place of “progressive” middle class contempt there is, as always, nothing on the table for them. We must be clear that the grind, hectoring, dispossession and punishment of austerity and several decades of neoliberalism before that lie at the root of these fractures, themselves symptoms of the long durée of economic decline. The exuberant junketing of our elites cannot disguise the feebleness of British economic growth, the illusion of shared prosperity sustained through astronomical levels of personal and private debt. The costs of this model have been imposed – quite ruthlessly – on those least able to bear them. The realities of UK PLC for millions of people are, structural unemployment, zero hours contracts, sweat-shop labour, benefit cuts and sanctions and food banks. Brexit is the blowback. Even so, conditions are far worse in Greece and Spain.
If Britain and Europe’s elites were serious about keeping the ship afloat, they would recognise the appalling vista they have created, abandon neoliberal ideology and austerity wholesale and embark on a massive programme of redistribution and investment in working class towns and cities. Britain and Europe would move to initiate a 21st century Marshall Plan – the post-war reconstruction programme led by the USA after WW2. We live in very rich societies, but with ever-greater concentrations of wealth and poverty. The very existence of the United Kingdom and European Union could now depend on the political will to reverse that trend. Enormous ideological and political resources have been expended on neoliberalism, and such a step looks vanishingly unlikely. It is much more likely that the reverse will happen and an even heavier price will be exacted from the working class. Moreover, it is a moot point whether such a programme would be enough reverse the decline of late Western capitalism. Either way, Britain and Europe can certainly afford it. If they want the genie back in its bottle, they will have to pay the price.
Jonathan Davies is Professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University