For all the millions of words written on Brexit, it’s rare to come across an original analysis, let alone one written with brio. Anthony Barnett’s Lure of Greatness therefore merits all the more attention. In many ways it represents a counterpart to Barnett’s book-length essay, Iron Britannia: War over the Falklands, first published as a special issue of nlr in 1982. This was a landmark study of the origins and significance of a war that had a determining influence over the subsequent course of British politics. It was in good part because of her victory in the South Atlantic that Thatcher won the 1983 election, which consolidated the hegemony of her ideas for decades afterwards. Barnett’s principal political commitment since then has been to the cause of constitutional reform and popular democracy. He was the founder and director of Charter 88 from 1988 until 1995; then, in another major creative initiative, launched the website openDemocracy in 2001. He was its editor-in-chief until 2007, and is still a frequent contributor.
Lure of Greatness, like Iron Britannia, sets out to grasp the meaning of a major political crisis during the time of its unfolding. (Indeed, at the moment of writing this review, it is still unknown what direction Brexit will finally take.) It is a detailed and highly polemical narrative of events as they developed, written both as political reportage and as an analysis of their underlying dynamics. Moreover, though a Remain voter himself, and solidly anti-Trump, Barnett sets out with a winning sympathy for the experience that led ‘the other side’ to vote as it did—sensing indeed, the fresh winds of democracy in their ballot-box revolts against a failing order. The book’s structure is multi-layered, rather like a Russian doll. An opening section proposes a parallel explanation for both Brexit and Trump as protests against the serial betrayals of public trust by us and uk political leaders, the ‘cbcs’—Clinton, Blair, Bush, Brown, Cameron, Clinton.
For Barnett the Iraq war, opposed by million-strong demonstrations, constituted a double breach of trust. First, the mainly liberal, middle-class (in the English sense) opponents of the war were not only ignored but were told lies about Saddam’s non-existent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, the official casus belli. Second, the mainly working-class soldiers and their families were promised a quick victory, but instead found themselves mired in an unending series of military disasters. Barnett points out that over 2 million Americans have been sent to the greater Middle East in pursuit of these wars, their traumas in turn affecting the lives of millions more at home; these communities voted in high numbers for Trump as the self-proclaimed anti-war candidate, in contrast to Clinton. The third and fourth breaches were economic: the 2008 financial crisis belied the cbcs’ promise that neoliberal globalization would bring a golden age of prosperity—and, the final blow, the elites blatantly managed the ‘recovery’ to benefit themselves.
The book’s opening gambit is that this four-fold betrayal of public confidence—blatantly dishonest government, protracted military defeat, mass economic calamity, elite hyper-wealth and corruption—led to a loss of faith in the ruling order as a whole. Barnett borrows John Berger’s metaphor of an open prison to describe the ‘borderless jail of neoliberalism’: ‘Brexit and Trump are attempts at a mass breakout from the marketized incarceration of corporate democracy.’ He sees the European Union in its present form as one of the imprisoning apparatuses—becoming, with the European Council’s treatment of Greece, ‘the most highly organized example of making entire nation-states powerless’. Breakout, then, is understandable, and Barnett hails the ‘unbounded energy’ that propelled these blows against the system. Crucially, however, a ‘chauvinist element of the 1 per cent’ sensed the danger and opportunity of the moment. They took advantage of the withdrawal of support for the cbcs and exploited the growing popular discontent with a failing, corrupt and unaccountable system. They promised to restore greatness and prosperity by putting a protectionist America, or a global Britain, ‘first’. The ‘lure’ of Barnett’s title indicates what he sees as the element of delusion and fantasy in this development; his argument is that the justified dissatisfaction with the cbcs could yet find a more productive outlet, leading to a genuine transformation of the us and uk public spheres. In both countries, however, there has been a demonstrable failure to come to terms with the loss of world status and power—recent and strictly relative in the American case, longstanding for the uk. A democratic resolution will need to take the ‘national question’ on board.
As Barnett explains in his final ‘post-conclusion’, Lure of Greatness was initially conceived as a book about Brexit, but the election of Trump widened his project’s agenda, leading him to describe the two events as linked aspects of a wider upsurge of right-wing revolt. Within this framing, however, the core of the work—its middle 240 pages, out of 350—is centred largely on the uk. There are many continuities here with the theses Barnett set out in Iron Britannia. Central to his analysis of the Brexit vote is the argument that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a multinational state in the midst of a process of reconfiguration, and that its components are subject to different dynamics. In place of the usual four, Barnett claims there are five parts to the uk: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, London and ‘England-without-London’. Of these, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, with a combined population of nearly 16 million, voted overwhelmingly for Remain. Set against them, England-without-London—by far the largest of the five, with a population of 46 million—voted Leave by a decisive majority and swung the outcome. ‘It was this England that carried the day.’
What’s the matter with England? Barnett argues that being the first nation to industrialize gave England a ‘first-mover’ advantage: as its overseas empire expanded, other countries had to mobilize their resources to defend themselves against it, forging modern nation-state identities for themselves in the process. The English had no need to forge a nationalism to defend themselves against others. Instead, they recruited their immediate island neighbours into what became a joint project: the British, not the English, empire. Once the empire ended, the other component parts of the uk found ways to move on, via their own civic nationalisms, crystallized in the devolved sub-national parliaments. England could not. It remained trapped, in Barnett’s vivid imagery, like a shrinking, soft-bodied crustacean stuck within the increasingly ill-fitting British exoskeleton, committed to Westminster and Whitehall, the institutions of the uk state—a neo-imperial indulgence that is also a refusal of a more modest English civic-national future.
This line of argument is close to that of Tom Nairn, Barnett’s comrade-in-arms on issues of nationality. Nairn has also argued that it is the absence of political representation of English civic identity that is responsible for the persisting strength of anti-European opinion in England, leading to the Brexit vote. In Barnett’s view, England-Britain’s continuing neo-imperial pretensions are incompatible with membership of the eu. If the separate civic-national identities of the British Isles were all given their full constitutional expression, the English might come to recognize and accept their diminished position in the modern world. He wants the country’s citizens to reconceive of themselves more modestly, as English Europeans, and its leaders to abandon their neo-imperial delusions and take up—for the first time—a creative and cooperative role within the eu.