Who Shall Rouse Him Up?
Brexit: The World Turned Upside Down
4 February 2019
The constitutional crisis precipitated by Brexit is without precedent since the seventeenth-century English revolution. But, unlike then, there are no revolutionaries able to seize the moment. Instead of turning the world upside down, it's the actors themselves that are upside down, with the left clinging to the status quo while conservatives champion its destruction.
Some commentators have begun darkly to refer to Brexit as a “revolution”. Jolyon Maugham even referred to Brexit as a revolution against Enlightenment values, conveniently omitting the Enlightenment values of autonomy and self-rule. What these prophets of revolution seem to mean is a vague, menacing sense of impending civil collapse and social unrest, the likes of which has not been seen for many years. The “Brexit revolution” is a shorthand, essentially, for chaos.
It is ex-civil servant Sir Ivan Rogers who has developed this idea the furthest, in a lecture delivered in Cambridge late last year. Rogers sees revolutionary dynamics at work in the pattern of radicalisation among pro-Brexit parliamentarians. He also sees Brexit as an elite project for nothing less than regime change, aiming to create a radically new state and even a new international order, based on intergovernmental transaction rather than the supranationalism embodied in the European Union (EU). In particular, he notes the division between “supposed” radicals (Moggites and followers of Boris Johnson) and the “revolutionary realists” (Goveites), the latter having plumped for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement as the basis for Brexit, aiming to stir the revolution later.
The revolutionary references in Rogers’ speech are mostly French of course — Jacobins, Danton and Robespierre, with some Maoism thrown in for good measure. In this, Rogers partakes in a long tradition in which the revolutionary history of England itself — what used to be known as the “Good Old Cause ” — is suppressed and disavowed in favour of stammering through the flimsy clichés of unbroken continuity and order (Magna Carta, the “Mother of all Parliaments”, etc.). All of these clichés are, as should be obvious by now, utterly redundant: one need only look to the impasse in parliament to see that the Burkean ideal of parliamentary sovereignty belongs to the pre-Brexit ancien regime. But nor need we look to French revolutionary history for precedents, as we have more than enough of our own, even if more distant in time.
The deadlock in parliament, and the constitutional crisis it betokens, is without precedent since the seventeenth century, when Charles Stuart sought to rule without the consent of the governed. “Who shall rouse him up?”, was the slogan the radicals of the English Revolution inscribed on their banners, looking to the mass of the people as a slumbering lion. Indeed, in many ways Brexit seems to have all the prerequisites for a revolution — all the props and scenery have been assembled on the historical stage. We have a bewildering constitutional crisis that shreds all political and legal precedents, ruling class divisions and an incoherent, crumbling political elite beset with rumours and confusion while it ineffectively fumbles with the levers of power. We have economic crisis still roiling beneath the surface and once again looming over the global economy, and deep working-class disaffection and simmering mass discontent, as manifested in the vote to Leave in 2016.  We have an ancien regime scouring for allies abroad and desperately seeking to preserve its continuity either by thwarting popular will or making the barest effort to genuflect to it. We have howling middle class reaction, screeching about the redundancy of national sovereignty, the unreliability of democracy, the ignorance of voters, propagating sinister rumours of Russian conspiracy and “dark money” while publicly celebrating the deaths of elderly Leave voters. Instead of a king trying to preserve his absolute rule, we have a parliamentary elite unwilling to act on its own promises to the electorate and instead trying to assert its legal constitutional sovereignty against its own people, despite the obvious weakening of parliament’s political authority over preceding decades.
The only thing missing and preventing the historical drama from unfolding is… the actors themselves. There is no New Model Army to dissolve this shambles of a parliament, no workers’ councils or emerging dual power — there is nothing to substitute for the representative authority of parliament, even as parliament seeks to surrender its authority either to the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement, or searches for ways to outflank the expressed will of the people. In other words, there are no social actors with sufficient political imagination, authority and coherent organization to be capable of resolving our constitutional crisis in line with the needs of democracy.
Extras, stage-hands and audience members mill about gormlessly in the hall, but there are no directors, producers, no one has a script to hand and no one knows how they are expected to behave. People carry torn and random pages of scripts whose authors are unknown, while others heckle and jostle each other randomly. Passions are inflamed to no purpose and confusion reigns. On closer inspection, it’s also clear that the scenery and props are assembled all wrong — the props belonging stage-left are placed stage-right, while the right props are on the left and both are the wrong way up.
The partisans of the Good Old Cause invoked the Biblical language of the world turned upside down to describe the millenarian inversion of social hierarchy that they witnessed in their own lifetime — kings executed and chased away, bishops scorned and mocked, aristocrats and gentry defeated in battle, and the democratic empowerment of the new congregations and “sectaries” whose members comprised the ranks of the New Model Army. Today, our social hierarchy remains very much intact, but political positions and orders are indeed… turned upside down.
Consider. The left remains overwhelmingly hostile to the single greatest expression of democratic will in modern times. Its leading lights and many of its elected representatives have pursued a relentless campaign to undermine the idea of self-rule — both by attacking the capacities of ordinary voters and in recoiling from the idea of self-determination. Despite the strength of the Leave vote in traditional Labour strongholds such as northern England and the Welsh valleys as well as plucky minorities of Leave voters scattered throughout the pro-EU south-east, the left-leaning liberal professional classes — doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics, civil servants, bankers, etc. — are for the most part viscerally hostile to Brexit. So too is the membership of the Labour Party, the academy, and left leaning and liberal media organs — the Guardian, New Statesman, London Review of Books, Evening Standard, Independent and Observer. Most trade unions are hostile to Brexit. Supposed leftists routinely sneer at so-called “Lexiters”, in so doing undermining the very notion that alternative forms of economic organization and policy are possible.  The massification of politics, the great cause of the left over the last 200 years, now fills the left with dread and horror, as they much prefer the elite-dominated star chambers of Brussels, legitimated with technocratic authority and representing a return to nineteenth-century style secret diplomacy.
Siding with the left are the organs of globalised capitalism — the Economist, the Financial Times, major banks and transnational corporations, the Confederation of British Industry— as well as the most conservative institutions of the state — the House of Lords and the judiciary. This historical inversion goes further. By an ironic quirk of history, the man who should be leading the back-bench Bennite insurgency against a neo-Blairite Labour Party leadership clinging to the EU is instead leader of the Labour Party, leaving his Eurosceptic colleagues in the parliamentary party — Kate Hoey, Frank Field, Dennis Skinner — isolated and beleaguered.
Leftist radicals often invoke the refrain of Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, referring to the endless apocalyptic fantasies that have gripped the popular imagination over the last 30 years – nuclear terrorism, eco-catastrophe, viral plagues, asteroid collisions and so on. The late Mark Fisher even coined a phrase for this sentiment — capitalist realism, the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” .
Yet confronted with the prospect of mass democracy, it has turned out to be harder for many on the left to imagine the end of the EU than the end of capitalism. Yannis Varoufakis and Paul Mason (author of Postcapitalism: A Guide to the Future no less), now promise us socialism in Europe … as long as countries agree to remain locked in the continental debtors’ prison that is the EU. The eruption of working class discontent and arousal of mass politics embodied in the Brexit vote has provoked what we might call hysterical socialism — the most absurd and inflated promises of continental renewal and reform to be spontaneously coordinated by left-wing governments across the entirety of Europe, as long of course, as we agree to remain in the EU. The left has suddenly rediscovered alternatives to capitalism aplenty; it just seems to be missing alternatives to the way that actually existing capitalism is organized politically – that is, it is missing alternatives to the EU. Europe’s working class voters are promised as much as the limited imaginations of Mason and Varoufakis can muster – lavish public spending, nationalized industries and transport … everything for the workers, except self-determination. For the likes of Varoufakis and Mason, the end of the EU is akin to an asteroid collision or apocalypse, representing in their eyes an inevitable return to fascism, war and nationalism. As Mason and Varoufakis demonstrate, it is the EU that is in fact the last bastion of capitalist realism – the Archimedean point around which their fantasies of continental renewal spin, the point which cannot be changed, and which exposes the fact that it is change itself that fills them with dread.
On the other side, paradoxically the staunchest partisans of Brexit are to be found on the right — the members of the European Research Group (ERG), the main faction that coheres the Eurosceptic members of the Conservative Party. Paradoxically, it is Tories who are most willing to disrupt the status quo in order to achieve political change. The left, filled with revulsion of mass politics and horrified by the prospect of political change, plays the part of conservatives in the most literal meaning of the term, seeking to reverse, deflect, limit, restrain and control change as much as possible. Falsely accusing Brexiters of nostalgia for the empire, middle class Remainers are themselves bitterly nostalgic for the old order of May 2016. The year 2016 may be closer to us in time, but it is a world that is now just as irretrievably lost as the Victorian era.
The left’s failure to grasp the democratic mandate embodied in Brexit means that the politics of Brexit is still continuous with that of Thatcherism: with the right seeking to rouse populist ire with visions of a popular capitalist revolution and national renewal. Tory Brexiteers have sought to radicalise popular will and national feeling, and it is the Tory press that invoked Jacobinism when it called upon the Prime Minister to “crush the saboteurs” and denounced judges as “enemies of the people” — eliciting a remarkable hostility from the Tory middle classes to the basic institutions of the British state, and cracking apart the mould of English conservatism. The left meanwhile has become so accustomed to its flinching, defensive posture, so incapable of seizing the initiative, that it is now collapsing into simply giving voice to the anti-democratic reaction against Brexit.
Karl Marx observed that all bourgeois revolutions could only rouse themselves up through self-delusion:
to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy… at another stage of development … Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk.
Today’s Tory would-be bourgeois revolutionaries imagine themselves as bold free trading buccaneers, about to unleash a renewed nation from the dead-hand of an overbearing Continental trading bloc. In fact, as Rogers perceptively noted in his address,
… it is the failure to complete any global trade round since 1994, when a British Tory, Leon Brittan … was running EU trade policy … that pushed Eurosceptics, as it indeed pushed the EU, towards more regionalism and bilateralism in trade, and started to propel the case … to negotiate trade deals reflecting solely British interests.
As Rogers observes, the truth is that Tory Brexiters now stand in the back-wash of failed global trade liberalization, which was itself a Tory failure. As the historic high tide of capitalist globalization recedes and its promised horizons fade from view, they chase after the ebbing tide mistaking it for a new wave. They will be incapable of undertaking the energetic and determined policies that will be necessary to keep Brexit afloat, and will only have recourse to state direction and intervention when they are already drowning. In the midst of all these confusing currents, the majority of big capitalists – banks and major transnational corporations – unsurprisingly still feel safer in Fortress Europe. Tory Brexiters mistake Fortress Europe for a bureaucratic superstate, when in fact it is only the British state relocated to Brussels and dug in among other European ruling elites, who are themselves isolated from their own voters, deriving their legitimacy and authority from one another instead.
The revolutionaries of seventeenth century England may have been deluded when they saw themselves as Israelites, but it was at least effective as ideology in the Puritanical political mobilization that connected parliament to the people and allowed them to rout absolutist monarchy. Today, the supposed radicals of the ERG are high camp poseurs, led by a sleazy hedge fund manager masquerading as landed gentry, incapable even of unseating the isolated and hapless Theresa May. Thus in addition to the actors in the great drama being craven, confused and disorganised, the patterns of revolutionary radicalisation move only weakly, and nothing moves towards any definitive dénouement. We are trapped in an historical iteration that is far beyond tragedy and farce.
Should the shimmering mirages of the Tories fade, the no less deluded anti-Brexit left will be there to rescue them, imagining that they are thwarting the rise of a new British imperialism – “Empire 2.0” (this after having provided the ideological ammunition of human rights for the British state’s numerous imperial crusades since 1997). While the left still clings to the draw bridge of Fortress Europe clamouring to be let back in so that they too can man the battlements against the Chinese, Americans and Russians, they miss an opportunity to help Britain trim her sails and assume a role in the world that could be both more modest and more inspiring, by focusing domestically on urgently needed political reform, constitutional renewal and economic restructuring.
What all this tells us is that the historic tasks of political transformation still impose themselves upon us, no matter how much we might seek to evade them. The contradictions of capitalism and democracy are once again erupting, even though we have no means — no theoretical frameworks, no organised social movements or political actors — of resolving them.
At one point, it even looked as if it would be left to the Tory Party to help complete the English Revolution by liquidating the House of Lords when it threatened to halt Brexit.  Indeed, it may yet be the Tory Party that oversees the historic task of reunifying Ireland and thereby liquidating the remnants of British imperialism, while the left clings to the Good Friday Agreement that keeps British sovereignty protruded into the island of Ireland.
The left’s continued regret and consternation over Brexit, the abiding appeal of “Remain and Reform” shows that the left opted to become the bulwark of the ancien regime. The left oscillates between demanding the restoration of Burkean parliamentary sovereignty on the one hand (in the demands for parliament “to take control”) and the crudest plebiscitary politics on the other — keep voting until the right result is achieved.
Perhaps part of the answer to re-scripting this historic drama is to encourage the actors to assume their assigned roles. At the same time, the problem with the staging and the confusion among the cast is that the script inherited from the past no longer makes any sense. The only way to resolve this drama is to re-write the script.
See e.g., Tom McTague “British Jacobins on the March in Brexit Revolution”, Politico.eu, 16 September 2018.
Sir Ivan Rogers, “Brexit as a Revolution”, Lecture at Trinity College Cambridge, 10 October 2018.
See Christopher Hill and Edmund Dell (eds.), The Good Old Cause: The English Revolution of 1640-1660 (London: Frank Cass, 1969)
See Neil Irwin, “The World Economy Just Can’t Escape its Low Growth, Low Inflation Rut”, 27 January 2019.
See Niall McCrae, “The ageist hatred of Polly Toynbee”, Bruges Group 19 January 2019.
Paul Mason, “US left weighs in to support the British far right’s project of a No Deal Brexit. Cui Bono?” Medium, 31 Jan 2019
Lea Ypi, “There is no left wing case for Brexit. 21st century socialism requires transnational organisation”, LSE Brexit Blog, 21 December 2018.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009).
See further, Jane Martinson, “‘Crush the saboteurs’: British newspapers react to general election”, 19 April 2017.
Karl Marx, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon", Die Revolution (1852).
Rogers, op. cit., emphasis added.
Alain Tolhurst, “Don’t get rid of us! Theresa May urged by House of Lords Speaker not to abolish it so she can get Brexit plans through parliament”, 6 January 2017.
About the Author
Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.