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The fate of the ‘Anywhere’ people - by Professor Robert Tombs for UnHerd 23.06.21

They have found a new way to reject their national identity

Professor Robert Tombs is a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and the author of The English and Their History

The Brexit strain in our political bloodstream has mutated almost beyond recognition. It seems strange now that, for years, it dominated everything. It was going to destroy the economy, create mass unemployment, explode the Union, smash the constitution and remake the political system.

But its latest variants are not very contagious and cause little harm to the body politic. The National Farmers’ Union tries to revive Project Fear with stories of vast herds of Australian cattle, while Oxford dons insist that Rhodes Must Fall — for the Empire, so some of them insist, is the key to Brexit. One of their most vocal members, indeed, co-authored a book explaining that Brexit was due to “a nostalgia for a time when life was easier, and Britain could simply get rich by killing people of colour and stealing their stuff”. So here is the anti-Brexit cause boiled down to its primitive components: vested interest, and visceral alienation.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the Brexit battle has quickly receded into memory. Was it really only five years ago? We are already commemorating the date: “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars / And say ‘These wounds I had on Brexit day’.” In 2016, leaving the EU seemed a British eccentricity, whether to be praised or blamed. On one hand, it was the product of domestic politics: David Cameron’s miscalculated effort to silence the Tory Eurosceptics. On the other, it was the long-term result of a peculiar national history: having suffered less than elsewhere from the wars, revolutions and foreign occupations of the 20th century, the British were far less attached to the “vision” of a United Europe, and hence far less patient with its failings.

But five years on, Brexit seems to be one symptom of broader changes in Europe and the world. At a political level, it was a popular reaction not only against globalisation, but against the political manifestation of globalisation, in which, for a generation, national governments had ceded increasing powers to international bodies. Peter Mair, in his already classic work Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, called it the “withdrawal of the elites” into supranational institutions, in which the “horizontal” approval of other politicians outweighed the “vertical” support of the electorate.

This was the catalyst for “taking back control”. In many, if not all, democratic countries, there have been manifestations of this desire, invariably messy and disruptive. Brexit turned out to be a relatively quick and clean solution, compared, at least, with the turmoil in the United States or the political paralysis in France.

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