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WILL SELF: Why I remain a Brexit agnostic

Demonstrators hold placards and EU flags as they take part in a march against Brexit. (Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP). - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

WILL SELF takes to task his own tribe, the metropolitan liberal elite.

I’m a Brexit agnostic – as readers of my diary, published in The New European last March, will know. I didn’t start off this way, oh no – I was a good Remainer like the rest of my ilk.

What ilk? I hear you cry. Why, the metropolitan liberal elite, of course – because they really do exist, and I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life listening to them virtue-signal, tit-beat, and generally agonise over each and every one of their privileges, while doing precious little to extend them to the rest of the populace.

That’s right: the principal characteristic of this cultural formation is that it’s almost indistinguishable from the lesser-spotted, Boden-catalogue-clothed, socially liberal variety of Tory, who, having smitten its own breast for a while, has, at this late hour – and with considerable relief – fallen in behind the prime minister’s capacious… behind, as he leads Britain towards a new dawn.

That’s right: if I think about the progressive types I’ve shared dinner parties and cultural events of various sorts with over the years, and I disregard what they’ve said in favour of what they’ve done, it occurs to me that their much-vaunted principles have been, for the most part, a lot of hot, chèvre-smelling air.

Apart from dutifully ticking the right box next to the name of the leftish candidate every few years – and the aforementioned virtue signalling – they’ve sent their kids to private schools, taken expensive holidays in other people’s misery, avoided their taxes, and obsessed about the value of their properties just like their right-wing conspecifics.

As for the so-called ‘upstream’ cultural changes that they vigorously champion; making sure that women and minorities have their fair share of representation in these arenas is indeed a laudable aim – but isn’t it funny how the underlying structures of power and privilege remain firmly in place, despite more polyglot Radio 4 panel games.

As for the European project, were the metropolitan liberal elite really signed up to it anymore than ‘Call me Dave’ Cameron, and the other Tory vacillators? The option I wanted on the ballot in 2016 was: s**t, or get off the pot. And by sh**ting, I mean the whole business of ever-closer union was to be taken seriously.

I’m talking European army, properly elected parliament with concomitant powers and sovereignty – I’m talking a constitution, an Ode to Joy and the entire bang-shoot we associate with a state. If a state is conceived of as a monopoly on violence – either in the form of external threat or internal fissiparousness – then the inchoate European one really should’ve coalesced after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and certainly should’ve stepped in to stop the erection of concentration camps in its holiday destinations, when Yugoslavia disintegrated. Instead, Bill Clinton had to bomb Belgrade, and Europe went on being the Pentagon’s poodle.

Of course, all of this had transpired a full quarter-century before the Brexit referendum – which, in turn, was 11 years after the French electorate had thrown a huge spanner in the delicately calibrated works by rejecting the European Constitution in their own plebiscite. Kafka, the European prose-laureate of infinite deferral, comes to mind here: for his protagonists – much as for the European Union – it’s always too late already. When Gregor Samsa awakes from troubled dreams, he has already turned into a monstrous cockroach – just as when Josef K comes to consciousness, despite being blameless, he has already been arrested.

The belatedness of the liberal impulse also seems inbuilt to me – the very nemesis summoned by its own hubristic tendencies: for what liberals aspire to is a painless politics of perfect progress, whereas the truth is that most human policy-making – certainly at the macro level – occurs ex post facto: everyone gives up smoking, then Tony Blair takes the credit, just as a majority decide they’ve had enough prevarication over Brexit – and Boris Johnson takes the credit.

Momentous changes are indeed afoot, as the British island – politically speaking, at least – detaches itself still further from the main; but I wonder if, deprived of its ideological fig leaf, there’s much to be seen in the way of post-imperial priapism?

At the birth of the state, in the floodplains of the Tigris and the Euphrates, many millennia before the Christian era, it was necessary for emergent elites to corral their subjects in order to ensure the surplus food production upon which their power and privilege depended. But for decades now, the proto-European state has been a watchword for useless agricultural over-production – while its principle anxiety has been the incursion of stateless migrants from the south, the 21st century equivalents of the Romans’ feared ‘barbarian hordes’. Under such circumstances, is it any surprise that the culture became altogether flaccid, and quite incapable of re-birthing itself through a dramatic act of parthenogenesis?

Instead, in Berlin as much as Brighton – and in Bristol quite as much as Belgrade, liberals of all types continue with the cheesy breath, while in the corners of the map, the cherubic cheeks swell, prior to the venting of a real wind, which may well blow them all away.

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