Brexit Stage Right
We are so used to things developing slowly, or not at all, that when epochal, definitive, irreversible, undeniably ‘big’ events occur a good portion of our shock resides in our discovery that such events do, in fact, still exist.
This seems to be true of Britain’s recent decision in a national referendum to leave the European Union. It was never meant to be this way; bookies, markets, and politicians all seemed convinced that Britain would remain, but over the course of a few hours in the early morning of June 24th all that changed. On Friday morning Britons awoke, as if for the first time, to a nation divided—by class, by culture, by geography—and found that the referendum had raised more questions than it had answered.
The referendum has changed everything and nothing. After the initial shock faded it became apparent that there is a long process ahead of us and the end result is not exactly clear; over the upcoming months and even years, concerned citizens will need to continue educating themselves on the issues surrounding the larger meaning of Brexit and how it will fit into our democracy, economy and ultimately history. To inform that understanding, that end here is my pick of the very best post-Brexit titles:
Call Me Dave by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott
Cameron at 10: The Verdict by Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon
Cameron has been at heart of British life since he won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2005. Over the past 11 years Cameron has been many things: the Tory who wanted to hug a hoodie, the chillaxed leader of the opposition, Britain’s first coalition PM since the war, the purveyor of a much-hated policy of austerity. Now he is leaving office many people are already getting sentimental for a leader who for all his failings exuded calm in times of turmoil—and the period from 2005 to the present has seen plenty of those. Two classic books on Cameron are being updated to reflect the events of the past weeks: Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon’s Cameron at 10, a thick, thorough, policy and politics-focused account of Cameron’s first government and Call Me Dave, by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, a salacious hit piece that dragged pigs kicking and squealing into the mud of British politics.
Just Boris by Sonia Purnell
Just as in any Shakespearean palace intrigue Brexit was a curious mixture of high politics and petty personal rivalries. We were talking about the relationship between Britain and Europe and also about that between Boris and Dave, the Rachel and Ross of British politics. Boris is sui generis, especially in an age of careerist technocrats, but he is also of a type: the inscrutable showman. What makes Boris tick? His bizarre reaction to the victory that he midwifed, and the fact that he could be PM in a matter of months, makes that question more urgent than ever. Sonia Purnell’s Just Boris is the perfect guidebook to the life and times of the blonde, Bullingdon bombshell who could soon have control over Britain’s nuclear arsenal.
The Trouble With Europe by Roger Bootle
The EU: An Obituary by John Gillingham
As the referendum demonstrated the EU is not without its critics and Eurosceptics came from both the left and the right of our politics. For those seeking to understand the origins of Euroscepticism or looking to find some silver-linings to Brexit both these books provide the cases against the European Project.
European Union: A Citizens Guide by Chris Bickerton
Who Governs Britain? By Anthony King
Independence or Union by T.M. Devine
A trio of books that tackle the fundamental questions underlying both the relationship between Britain and Europe and the underlying relationships within Britain itself. Political scientist Anthony King examines the distribution of power within the United Kingdom and points out that despite our obsession with the sovereignty of parliament (EU or no), Britain’s political future is in the hands of a number of people (financiers, lawyers, corporations) who will never stand in an election. T.M. Devine, probably Scotland’s leading historian, examines the long, messy, yet fruitful relationship between Scotland and England. Finally, Cambridge academic Chris Bickerton provides a layman’s guide to the European Union: its past and present, its organisation and its functions.
The Establishment by Owen Jones
Postcapitalism by Paul Mason
And the Weak Suffer What They Must? By Yanis Varoufakis
Whither the left after Brexit? The referendum has been portrayed (correctly) as the product of a Conservative Party civil war over the Europe question, but this has distracted attention away from the Labour Party and the left generally. Many old-fashioned pre-Blair Labour politicians have had reservations about the European project since its inception. Among the left’s intellectual leaders, scepticism about the EU’s credentials as a progressive project have been growing since the Greek crisis of the summer of 2015. Commentators Paul Mason, Owen Jones, and the previous Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis have all called for a revaluation of the left’s relationship with Europe. In these three books we see them all at their best: diagnosing the sickness in contemporary politics and searching for a way forward.
Something Will Turn Up by David Smith
The Remain campaign’s central argument was an economic one: staying in the EU would allow us to keep on reaping the benefits of economic cooperation, leaving it would devastate the British economy. For many voters it was the negative case that mattered more and the dire predictions of the Remainers started to be borne out the very morning of the result. The UK’s economic future is unknowable but its past might offer lessons. David Smith’s excellent Something Will Turn Up is an entertaining and informative study of the British economy since the Second World War. It is a story of prosperity, stagnation, and recovery, but it is above all a reminder that, economically speaking, we can never know what is around the corner.
Britain’s Europe by Brendan Simms
Brendan Simms is one of the greatest living historians of British foreign policy and in Britain’s Europe he gives the full account of this island’s relationship with the continent. Simms demonstrated how from Alfred the Great to Winston Churchill, Britain’s political development has been contingent on developments in Europe. British attitudes towards the continent may have been schizophrenic—now holding it close, then pushing it away—but it has always been there and will always influence British politics, the British economy, and British foreign policy. Britain’s Europe is the deep history behind today’s debates and it is, at once, a masterpiece of concision and treasure trove of information for those seeking to understand how we got to the present impasse.