The crisis over Brexit has seen widespread invocations of national humiliation, of shame, indignity and embarrassment. These have come from both leavers and remainers: one poll in March 2019 suggested that 90% felt that the UK’s handling of Brexit had been a humiliation. Leavers profess themselves ashamed of the post-Imperial weakness revealed by May’s showing in the negotiations with the EU, remainers feel shame at the intolerance revealed and amplified by the campaign and referendum vote themselves, while all kinds of people claim to be ashamed of the often farcical scenes and processes of the House of Commons, broadcast to a newly inflated global audience, all conveniently live-streaming our national disgrace.
People feel humiliated and ashamed when they have fallen short of some standard they identify with and are normally capable of meeting. It is worth considering, therefore, whether these invocations of Brexit-related shame actually make sense.
Humiliation is often invoked by right-wring hard Brexiters, like Rees-Mogg contending that May’s Withdrawal Agreement was the biggest humiliation since Suez, when the decline of Britain as a serious hard power was starkly demonstrated.
They have been parping about British subjugation to the cunning EU for decades and inevitably paint any kind of compromise, soft-Brexit position as a wilful sacrifice of British independence and thus British dignity and pride.
This invocation of shame – the shame of multilateralist weakness – is intertwined with Imperialist nostalgia, forgetting that the Russians won WWII and a fantasmic ideal of Britannia once again ruling the world’s waves. This is dangerous nonsense, expressing the barely concealed British (or English) id, its existential neurosis at the end of its global dominance – forever pining for the Raj. It is grounded in a racist, imperialist ideal and seemingly wilful ignorance of the last hundred years of geo-political history.
The right-wing narrative is wrong in all possible respects. It holds Britain up to a standard of white-supremacist domination that the nation should not accept. And it assumes that Britain has far more clout than it actually does and thus shamed itself by negotiating such a bad deal with the EU.
Another fairly commonly invoked source of shame are the parliamentary shenanigans that have seen BBC Parliament draw records audiences for big nights, such as May’s various meaningful vote defeats. These feature the usual array of braying poshos, procedural opacity, archaic jargon and the kind of gilt-covered, grandiose interior design that is probably the UK’s main distinguishing cultural feature.
There are some boring procedural reasons why this shame is inappropriate. This kind of deadlock is made almost inevitable by the fact that government with a tiny working majority is trying to implement a very close and contentious referendum result. Referendums were never used in the UK before the first EU vote in the 70s. They have since become much more common, partly because of the declining popular legitimacy of the House of Commons itself and the political class more broadly. But it is likely that any representative democratic system will struggle when such direct democratic mechanisms are introduced, with the potential, as realised with Brexit, to cut across the partisan distinctions of representative institutions. This certainly poses challenges to Britain’s governing institutions, but it would likely do so in other countries too, and so is nothing to be especially ashamed of.
On the other hand, one reason why this referendum has caused such chaos is Britain’s ridiculous and archaic system of government – the same system whose supposed glory is the main motivation for this invocation of shame. The idea that Britain’s legislature and constitution are usually something to be proud of - and thus ashamed when it fails - is deeply confused.
The British parliament is an internally largely unreformed institution. While suffrage and access have of course been expanded over the last 150 years, parliament seems to retain some of the culture and practices of a medieval debating chamber, while Britain’s ruling elite retains many quasi-feudal privileges and systemic advantages, not least the conveyor belt from Eton to Oxford to Whitehall and special legal status of the City of London, where banks literally have the vote. Chopping off the head of one king and deposing another are not really moments of radical rupture, more just internal disputes within the ruling class.
Parliament and the British state more generally reflects the character of those who have dominated and moulded it over the centuries – male, eccentric, cruel and emotionally repressed, with enough gravitas, gentility and charm to largely mask its hard-nosed brutality. The atmosphere of the place seems more akin to an elite public school or Oxbridge common room than the hallowed Sun around which Britain’s public sphere orbits, while its insular clubbiness is prone to domesticate any malcontents or non-toffs who somehow get inside. When combined with our ridiculously disproportional electoral system and the existence of the Monarchy and the House of Lords, neither Parliament nor Britain’s famously ‘unwritten’ constitution are worthy sources of democratic national pride.
Many who invoke this shame would likely endorse much of that critique of the UK’s governing institutions, so their embarrassment would appear to be mostly about the broader global exposure our ridiculous institutions are currently receiving. This suggests an utterly hollow kind of identity, where it matters that the rest of the world thinks we have impressively old and effective institutions, but not that those institutions actually do a good job.
The other strange element of this institutional shame is the idea that the people of Britain do or should identify with their rulers – the MPs, ministers, judges and civil servants who administer the British state. The fact that these people are having a rough, undignified time with Brexit should thus cause us to suffer on their behalf, whether to feel bad for having forced this on them through the pesky referendum vote or simply because their bumbling does, in fact, accurately represent an equally incompetent nation. This is ridiculous.
The highest echelons of British public life (civil service, media, judiciary, government) are thoroughly unrepresentative of the people they supposedly serve, dominated as they are by the tiny, insular elite who attend top public schools and Oxbridge. There could be a case for this kind of identification with government and shame in its failings in a more genuinely democratic, representative system, but there isn’t really a strong case for it in the UK right now. The current parliamentary shambles does not reflect in any meaningful sense on the character of the British people and so it is nothing for them to be ashamed of – they are not in control of the sclerotic institutions of the British state and so should not be ashamed of their failures. To revere the House of Commons as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ is to wrong-headedly celebrate the failure of popular struggle ever to overthrow it.
The third invocation of shame is a bit more interesting. This is the mostly liberal, remainer shame at the extent of intolerance, xenophobia and insularity among the British people, as embodied in the whole Brexit process. Brexit is embarrassing, in this view, precisely because it shows how popular the traditional, imperialist vision of Britain still is, how widespread is British dislike and distrust of anything foreign. This shame invokes ideals of inclusion, pluralism, diversity, tolerance and openness, and a positive appreciation of Europe, our European-ness and the EU itself (if it even distinguishes these things).
I’ll set aside here the issue of the extent to which the Brexit vote was in fact motivated by bigotry rather than by, say, powerlessness and rage against unaccountable elites. It seems clear that bigotry did play a role. We should not renounce values like tolerance and inclusion, so this claim to shame invokes a standard we ought to accept. And Britain does have many damaging cultural pathologies in this area. But I am not sure that Brexit is the right cause and target of British shame here.
The error here is to the idea that Brexit somehow told us something we didn’t know about the nation’s character. Britain has become a more diverse and surely also a more tolerant place in the sixty years of immigration from the former Empire and then from the EU. But anyone who believed it to be have been any kind of multi-cultural paradise is living in dreamland. For one thing, ethnic and cultural diversity is to a large extent concentrated in London. The vast majority of the country is very white and virtually monocultural, despite the Indian and Chinese restaurants in every town and the small eastern European communities in many places. So it’s hardly news that a lot of British people are objectionably narrow-minded and distrustful of anything foreign. Brexit merely reflected this reality; it did not create it. And even London is hardly a multicultural paradise, what with its racist police force and racialised economic segregation.
In addition, pre-Brexit Britain featured egregiously brutal immigration policies, especially towards refugees, asylum seekers and others, especially people of colour from poor countries. And although reduced to following the US’’s lead, British foreign policy has continued in its Imperial vein of calculated brutality against non-white ‘foreigners’, both through military interventions and arms dealing on a huge scale. Beyond this, the EU itself and ideas of ‘Europe’ are underpinned by a deeply problematic vision of the special-ness of European culture – an ideal that utterly fails to acknowledge the extent to which the ‘success’ of Europe’s so-called civilisation was predicated upon the despoliation of the rest of the world.
Many of the very same liberal-centrists who invoke this kind of shame were previously at worst actively engaged in this same racist policies - as with the previous Labour government and the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Tories - and at best silently complicit with them, as with the decades long failure of Britain’s political and cultural elites to take up battle against the xenophobic and racist poison propagated by the British rightwing press. There was, for example, no significant middle-class uprising in defence of migrant rights until those of their ‘fellow Europeans’ were threatened. There has never been a sustained liberal effort to get Britain to come to terms with its own bloody history of white-supremacist violence and the pathological culture and politics this has left us with.
Those who are suddenly ashamed at the intolerance revealed by Brexit, simply reveal and re-affirm their ignorance and lack of interest in the racism, xenophobia and intolerance built into the very foundations of British society and identity – an identity that is unified more than anything else by the shared experience of imperial dominance among the UK’s constituent nations. In addition to this hypocrisy, there is also a strong whiff of snobbery in this liberal shame. It seems to imply that enlightened, liberal Britain is being dragged backwards into the mire by its more lumpen elements, most of whom have never even been to Florence, let alone Vienna, and whose encounters with European culture are limited to paella and sunburn in Magaluf. It thus seems to deflect blame for Britain’s cultural pathologies onto some bad elements of its society, without seriously reflecting on the failure of the country as a whole to get to grips with its history.
There is, I think, something deeply wrong in the background of Brexit – namely that Britain as a whole has made no serious effort to account for either the material or cultural consequences of the empire, despite its utterly formative role in making the country what it is today. This is true on the left as well, it should be noted, when it unhesitatingly celebrates the welfare state without acknowledging that globalised theft that made the UK rich enough to implement it.
If we are to be ashamed of anything as a nation, Britain should be ashamed both of its inglorious history and its contemporary failure to reflect on and come to terms with this history. Brexit is no more than a symptom of this more fundamental national character flaw; to focus on such a symptom and ignore the real problem is itself an ethical failure. I am not even certain that shame is the appropriate emotional response to this problem either – perhaps guilt and righteous anger would be better. But the real failure is not Brexit specifically, but the fact that the British people, including not just the right wing but liberals and the left, have been all too content to participate in both imperial violence and in the collective forgetting of this bloody history and its formative influence on our current political, economic and cultural predicament.