Cheated by Brexit

Gerontocracy Rules: How nostalgia and sentimentality hurt Britain

“Then you know your destination’, he asked. ‘Yes’, I said ‘I have already said so, “Away-From-Here” that is my destination.’ ‘You have no provisions with you’, he said. ‘I don’t need any’, I said.’”
– Franz Kafka, The Departure

There’s an iconic scene from the 1928 Soviet film October which depicts the revolutionary seizure of power by the Moscow Bolsheviks. Curls of smoke lazily unfurl towards the ceiling as ministers sit slumped and motionless on luxurious lounges. The heaviness of the room is suffocating, made all the more so by choppy cuts to youthful, vital revolutionaries marching through the chaotic streets outside the Winter Palace.

Kerensky, thwarted leader of the doomed provisional government, is viciously pilloried. While considered by his contemporaries to be a soft-spoken, sensible man, director Sergei Eisenstein paints him as a faintly ridiculous tyrant. Images of Kerensky proselytizing to cavernous halls are interspersed with hallucinatory snippets of a mechanical peacock. The February revolution is reduced to farce. The October revolution is inevitable.

Walking through London engenders a strong feeling of resentment about a future you have been cheated out of. Open any British broadsheet you’ll be bombarded with half-baked explanations for why everything feels so bleak. Young people are suffering from climate anxiety, The Times insists. A democratic deficit amongst the generations can be fixed by lowering the voting age, says The Guardian. Radical students are driving the woke revolution, The Telegraph muses. When I read that the majority of elderly people in the country believe that young people cannot purchase a home because they spend too much on subscription services, I burst out laughing. How could you not? The gulf of understanding between old and young has never been greater. We will be the first generation in modern history to have a worse standard of living than our parents.

A brief blip of economic success in the 1980s was enough to engender optimism about Britain’s place in the world – not a great power, but a broker. Without the imperial might of old, Britain would have to navigate the world through relationships, to “possess antennae of the greatest possible delicacy,” as put by Isaiah Berlin. Generations of politicians were raised to fit this new role. Eton pivoted from educating custodians of empire to churning out ‘communications consultants’. For every intelligent, driven, and ideologically sound man, you will find a dozen sycophants scrambling to take his place. That Boris Johnson, hedger extraordinaire, is portrayed as some sort of lawless Nietzschean is a disturbing reminder of our cultural shift.

Our conservative intellectuals speak of fields and hedgerows rather than wealth and empire. I won’t deny that parochialism had its charms; but fetishising asceticism while our country collapses smacks of cowardice. Decrepit columnists can be forgiven for their reactionary bent, but the young cannot. I was born under Blair’s leadership. My first political memory comes from overhearing my parents whisper about the ‘credit crunch’ in a hushed tone, and wondering how something so evidently bad could sound so sweet. The Britain that Peter Hitchens so elegantly mourns is as alien to me as the Victorians were to our Britpopper forebears. More-so, in fact, for the false revolution imposes itself on our own history.

***

If decline was inevitable, why do we feel cheated?

The answer is Brexit, our generation’s own 1980s-style ‘blip’. Much of the energy behind the Brexit movement was spurred on by nostalgia for this brief period of respite from our post-war slide into poverty. Simon Kuper’s Chums fixates on the superficial homogeneity of those who developed our post-referendum deal. The book is unremarkable, and the obsession with Oxford-educated toffs is relentlessly cliché. But his instincts aren’t entirely off – the backgrounds of our politicians are of tremendous import, if not necessarily in the way he presents.

The failures of the movement cannot be found in any one legal clause, nor in some misjudgement on the part of an individual. The only concession I shall make to detail will be on the immigration issue, which was fundamental in spurring popular consent for Euroscepticism, historically a rather niche intellectual ideology.  

Former Prime Minister David Cameron set a manifesto-backed immigration target of 100k annually, which was grossly overshot each year under his government. The predictable response mocked the target as self-evidently impossible to achieve and suggested that the transparency of the figure (and subsequent ease of blame when the target was breached) contributed to the success of the anti-free movement Leave campaign. The impetus was not the visible impact of the migration itself, they claim, but rather the naïve decision to give the British people a choice. Such a mistake would not be made again.

Poor, hapless Cameron wasn’t entirely off the mark in choosing 100k as his upper limit. It’s difficult to recall now, but prior to 1998 net migration was never above 100k. The narrative of Britain being a nation of migrants – an unpleasant Atlanticism encouraged, yet again, by our America-fetishising elites – has always been laughably cynical. Cameron took power in 2010, back when it still felt possible to at least slow the relentless march of Blairite ‘progress’. Debate was still possible; necessary, in fact, for the pressure from below to reverse New Labour policies hadn’t yet been diffused.

Savvy Brexiteers became quite adept at playing upon the hysterical proclamations of far-left activists, while also benefiting from the populist campaigning of their more reactionary counterparts. Each accusation would be turned against them – “no, Brexit wasn’t about nativism, it’s really about parliamentary process.” The more ludicrous the obfuscation, the better. Brexit failed before it had even begun, precisely because it could so easily be subsumed into the system. Each legitimate critique of government could then be waved away by reference to Brexit; a victory for British bureaucrats against European bureaucrats.

***

It is painful to condemn Brexit. The movement itself was the first taste of political hope for so many. But a sober look at the post-2016 governance of the country leaves no doubt as to its failure. The Government identifies the spirit of Brexit as returning to imperial measurements – hopeless reaction, wilful inefficiency. Britannia Unchained remains comfortably shackled to the European Court of Human Rights. Boris Johnson reclaims the eccentricities of the past, without grasping the fundamentals that once made us the greatest nation on Earth. We are suffocating under the cloying doctrine of sentimentality.

The unease that young Britons feel today is not irrational. Indeed, the danger comes from complacency, and believing the indolent narrative of ‘political forces’ given by politicians and commentators rather than trusting our own eyes. Young people are not woke, nor are they braying for Net Zero cuts and higher taxes. This is a fabrication that columnists no longer even bother justifying through ‘data’, preferring instead to recount vapid anecdotes about ungrateful teenage children.

Europe is in a political-demographic death spiral. We’re told the only way to win elections is to provide boomers more concessions. What cannot be stolen from the productive is borrowed against their futures, at extortionate rates. Our economic stability is predicated upon looting foreign workers from impoverished countries to spoon-feed our elderly. Pension funds are wealthier than any oligarch, and play an instrumental role in the stock market.

Seemingly short-term concessions (morally-justified sanctions against Russia, for example) are anything but. Our country is tightly bound within a web of bureaucracy. Even if we chose to halt our woefully inadequate foreign policy response, the process of decline would hardly be touched: Net-Zero, crumbling infrastructure, the NHS quagmire… the deluge goes on. The idea that we might prioritise rapid economic growth is simply inconceivable. The role of government is that of the charity trustee, distributing an ever-dwindling supply of resources towards various ‘worthy’ causes with no expectation of reward.

Many young conservatives, faced with such a dire state of affairs, chose to place their hopes in history. You’ll be hard-pressed trying to find a self-styled anti-blob activist without a penchant for tweed and Anglicanism. But attachment to the past must be carefully moderated, for fear of a repeat of 2016. Communitarianism and foppish eccentricity have never been the locus of Britain’s fundamental greatness. I am by no means the first to point out that trad-posturing is a LARP, but this in itself is not a condemnation. The problem is that it is a pointless LARP. Oliver Cromwell provides a better historical icon for today’s youth than Charles II. Progress is not, and never has been the enemy. The concept must be reclaimed from those old reactionaries who cannot stand the thought that their time has long since past. That their revolution was nothing but a backwards step.

The fruit of change grows overripe. I reject the forces of reaction; of stodgy, cloying sentimentalism. I demand a future that is liberated from the bonds of patronage and communitarianism. This is not a future that can be grasped through proceduralism, or policy tweakments. It’s one that must be fought for relentlessly. Let the old apparatchiks of the British state be swept away on a wave of youthful exuberance. Leave reactionary torpor to our parents – if Britain is to have any hope of regaining our lost glory, we must cut away from the past and embrace the future. 

This article is part of an ongoing series of internal diagnoses of dysfunctional social organs in the U.K. Read more, here.

Cover photo by: Shane Taylor.

Poppy Coburn is a freelance journalist.


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