Global vs. Local: The Two Voices of Brexit │ Jake Scott
“Out, and into the world.” That was the cover artwork for the Spectator the week of the European Union independence referendum, and the moderately inspiring message of stepping out of a protectionist racket and onto the global stage as a dynamic, attractive nation for foreign investors to base their global headquarters in was one that likely won over the more economically liberal voters. And this message has been repeated time and again, most notably by Leave poster boy Daniel Hannan, and certainly seems to be the direction taken by the government, for example with the pursuit of a 15% corporation tax.
But a significant tension exists with the Leave camp, and indeed has been there since the entry of the UK into the European Economic Community, never mind the inception of the Brexit movement. This tension is between those with a global vision, as above, and those of a more conservative (with a small c), localist disposition who worry about the negative impacts of opening up markets to global firms. The tension nearly came to the fore during the discussion over American farmers’ practice of washing their poultry in chlorine to clean it.
The libertarians in the movement – who can count Hannan, Rees-Mogg and Johnson among their number – emphasised the significance of choice, with the very freedom for individual people to make their own decisions that drove the Brexit discourse of “taking back control” a core concern. But the traditionalists worry about the impact greater competition would have on the already imperilled sectors of the British economy – London will be fine, they say, as it will inevitably remain one of, if not the greatest economic hub in the Western world. But if we allow Britain to become even more London-centric in the post-Brexit world, it is the rest of the economy that will be harmed, both those on the Left and Right worry. In the case of farming, for instance, the Common Agricultural Policy invariably harmed the smallholders and independent farmers of the nation, never mind the reckless environmental damage it did by encouraging landowners to destroy natural flood barriers in favour of grazing land.
Indeed, there are already concerns that the British government will not be able to match the subsidies given by the European Union to farmers, and these are fairly well-founded. But they are also justified – those who stand to lose out in this instance are also those large landowners whose industry has grown unprofitable and lax as they have been propped up by large payments by a failing economic system. Much like the mining industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, the European Union has become a symbol of the phenomenon of globalisation.
“Globalisation” was the zeitgeist of the turn of the century and was sold to many on the pretence that it was “inevitable”, thus making any opposition to the constituent parts of such a process – increased immigration, less control over national economies, increased deregulation, multiculturalism – misguided and pointless. Consequently, such opposition was disregarded rapidly as the death throes of an old world, soon to be replaced by a new one. It is the same arrogance that underpins that of “Brexiteers will die-out soon.”
The move towards a “global world” has hurt more people than it has helped in Britain. Culture has disappeared under a torrent of criticism, regulation and commercialisation; part of the death of the high street is not merely the economic war that was lost in the face of neoliberalism, but the culture war that has seen the American model of vast retail parks and monolithic shopping malls transplanted into British culture. And, as the “trads” in the architectural world point out, the physical expression of a unique culture that is architecture has been thrown out of the wall-to-wall window, in favour of globally homogenous rubbish that could be from anywhere.
The global is not the answer; May was right, shockingly, when she said that “if you are a citizen of everywhere, then you are a citizen of nowhere.” Indeed, to whom do you owe your allegiance? Part of the wonder of a nation-state built on liberal values was its ability to offer a locus of allegiance based on location only; it makes no demands of skin colour, of faith, of wealth. When you live in a nation, you know where you are, as you know who rules you. But when you live on a continent where the rulers are so far removed from your own situation, with very little method of representation, you fail to answer the question I posed above. Instead, you turn to these enduring symbols of belonging – indeed, I believe it is the increasing globalisation of the world that is causing a recurrent racism, not dissolving it.
But we can celebrate the local while accepting the global. Local culture should never be rejected; it is the foundation of a democracy that those who live in it know to whom they owe their allegiance. Global capitalism has pulled millions – nearly billions – out of material poverty. But it has pushed millions into cultural poverty, by trying to dissolve cultures into one another, through faceless architecture, economic imperialism and farcical “democracies”. The task of the government after we leave – if we ever do – will be to strike this balance.
Brexit is not an economic issue only; it is a question of lifestyle, of culture, of whether the history of these isles ends soon, or carries on. Because it cannot survive in the prison of Europe; indeed, little does.