I arrived in London on 10 July, a few weeks after the Brexit referendum. I was in Parliament the following day—the day Theresa May was named the new prime minister.
Reading about the situation is one thing; dealing with it ethnographically is another. I have no idea how to proceed, nor do I trust my initial observations. So this post with its provisional assertions should be read with circumspection.
In Parliament I overheard a “leaver” say, “We have to let things settle in,” and this is perhaps the challenge for the ethnographer too. But things have already changed—perhaps irrevocably changed. The lives and legal status of millions of UK residents are now uncertain. What the United Kingdom stands for and its fundamental commitments to its citizen and residents are now in doubt. What was unspeakably in public discourse, thanks to the reckless opportunism of leading politicians over the course of the campaign, is now speakable.
Despite the new PM’s pronouncement that “Brexit means Brexit,” no one really knows what Brexit means; indeed, it seems to echo the key falsehood of the campaign itself, that the British after the vote will now have their fate in their own hands. The terms of Brexit are subject to what might well be long and excruciating negotiations with the EU—an EU that for numerous reasons will be hostile to granting generous concessions to an erstwhile member state.
The PM presents herself as bold and decisive, but there is as yet no plan, let alone a consensus, about how to move forward. Indeed, those who have looked at the matter in detail see a monumental legal and administrative task that could mire the government and the civil service for a decade. And once the British public learns about the likely cost and dislocations that might actually eventuate, new lines of political contestation will undoubtedly ensue. The predicaments for Scotland and Northern Ireland loom as the initial testing grounds for Brexit, both as constitutional and governance matters to say nothing of matters of identity.
More troubling still, in the face of the remarkable challenges that Brexit poses, the major political parties—Labour in particular—are in disarray. The Tories have formed a new government composed of activists from both the “leave” and “remain” camps. Bridging those differences will not be easy. The factionalism and strife in Labour—which deserves an operatic treatment—reveal what appear to be insurmountable divisions auguring perhaps major political realignments of the left and center left in Britain.
One of the few institutions within the government that seems to have prepared systematically for the outcome of the referendum was the Bank of England, the focus of my current research. Yet its conduct came under immediate and hostile scrutiny by key figures of the leave campaign.
On Tuesday, Governor Mark Carney found himself in an unusually difficult position while responding to questions posed by members of the parliamentary select committee with oversight powers over the Bank. In the run-up to the referendum, the Bank presented a forecast—prepared by the its Financial Stability Committee—evaluating the short-term financial uncertainties posed by Brexit. Some members of the oversight committee and outside observers deemed the forecast to be inherently political. Carney was (more or less) compelled to provide all correspondences and records of meetings he had with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, prior to the referendum to assess the possibility of some form of collusion between the government and the Bank. It is unclear whether this line of parliamentary inquiry will be seriously pursued, but it could potentially harm the Bank of England’s independence and threaten, in theory, a foundational principle of its monetary policy framework.
There is a view, voiced in the press, that no “reasonable” politician would dare invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, triggering the two-year timetable for UK withdrawal negotiation. No “rational” (read risk-averse) PM would ever want to be identified in perpetuity with what could turn out to be an epic historical blunder. But at a time when reason and rationality seem to be in unusually short supply, this may well be wishful thinking.
The new PM did, in fact, announce during her first week in office to defer any action on Article 50 at least until the end of the year, acknowledging that the government lacks the means or method to execute Brexit.
What remains is paralysis.
What has become clear is that bequeathed to the young is an entangled legacy born out of crude misrepresentation, bad faith, and ineptitude.
The damage is done.
Douglas R. Holmes is a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In his book, Integral Europe: Fast Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism (Princeton, 2000), he argues that under the sway of European integration, a formidable political insurgency predicated on the strident discrimination of cultural affinity and difference was incubated. He has argued more recently why this insurgency should be understood as fascism of and in our time. Holmes also continues his examination of experiments in monetary policy pursued by five central banks, experiments that reveal how markets operate as a function of language.