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This Bunkered Island

Britain is a nation in crisis and decline. But the Right doesn't have to remain in the driver's seat.

An abandoned factory in Wolverhampton, England. Alex Holyoake / Flickr

So much in British politics depends on the prospect of betrayal. If Brexit exerts a gravitational pull to the nationalist right, that is compounded by the fear that the “metropolitan elite” will, yet again, let “the British people” down. And of course, it will. How can it do otherwise?

All of the Brexit campaigns fought their way to victory on the basis that the free movement of labor within the European Union had to end — if nothing else, to protect the innocence of our almost-privatized National Health Service from those rampaging Turks. And yet, here is David Davis, the minister for leaving the European Union, a hardline Brexiter, being slapped down by the prime minister for suggesting that Britain could not stay in the single market if it meant ceding control of borders.

The minister in question is no loner in the Conservative Party. Lest it be forgotten, before she was strong-armed (by means of which only the rulers of hell are apprised), former debt trader Andrea Leadsom was mustering a surprisingly strong opposition to May’s coronation.

Running as a representative of the hard-right grassroots, but reflecting the views of the cowboy wing of financial capital, she stood down at the last moment and allowed the party establishment to engineer May’s takeover. Still, the ultras are powerful even if they aren’t in charge. And their capacity for nurturing resentments is matchless.

This exposes a sharp cleavage on the British hard right, between those for whom markets trump all, and those for whom borders trump all. Daniel Hannan, one of the most aggressively Thatcherite, euroskeptic Conservatives, admitted following the referendum that Britain would have to retain some degree of free movement of labor if it wanted access to the single market. And, short of finding a replacement for about fifty percent of the country’s trade, the United Kingdom would need access to that market.

The economic damage from the Brexit decision is not immediately as apocalyptic as anticipated by most Remain prognoses, but the revised slowdown expected by economists is still only barely enough to avoid a technical recession.

Of course, all such projections depend in part on the balance of forces in British politics. The economy is already weak, with businesses hoarding capital rather than investing. If the reactionaries were to force a serious abridgement of UK access to its major trading partner, it would be a serious blow.

That, no doubt, is what Theresa May is thinking. For although she has pledged that “Brexit means Brexit,” she was a Remainer and still is by instinct. May is too lucid to buy into the fantasies of some on the political center to center-left, that Brexit can be averted by a mere parliamentary contrivance or a restaged referendum — at least without a significant shift in circumstance.

However, she will engineer the weakest exit possible, with the idea of keeping the door open for a reentry at some point. That means keeping the single market and, rhetoric aside, some form of freedom of movement.

The Trumpian relish of the transport secretary’s bragging about the “big, new wall” at Calais, to keep out unwanted migrants, won’t fool anyone for long.

Of course, as Americans are discovering, the idea of a big, beautiful wall resonates perfectly with the popular nationalist fantasy of what a border is or should be. It is supposed to be a secure container not just for a political space, but for a people. It is supposed to pleasingly demarcate clear insides and outsides, who belongs and who doesn’t, who deserves and who does not. The logic of this was concisely expressed by Tory television presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer:

While we are each lucky to be born here in a wealthy country where we enjoy the rule of law and freedom, it is not a matter of luck that Britain is the country it is.

Great Britain didn’t just happen; the British people created this country through decades and centuries of hard work, fighting for democracy, the welfare state, and all the other benefits we currently enjoy.

It is no good remarking on the elision of colonialism here. It is considered a solecism in British politics, by which I mean the parliamentary-media spectacle, to acknowledge the labor that went into the making of “Great Britain” from beyond these isles. Hartley-Brewer is just fluently reciting the standard nationalist pedagogy, which depends on a rather obscure dialectic: the people-nation has always already existed, eternally, as the condition for its own existence; and yet is also always making itself, coming into being, not yet fully itself.

And even if it is impolitic to mention that the British people-nation was fashioned through its tyranny over the colonized, forged in the sanguinary foundries of race-making, that racial factor is hardly absent from the spectacle of the wall. If “we” can’t rule “them” “over there,” then “they” can’t come “over here.” Preserve whiteness. Send them back. Build that wall.

The wall is just a metaphor, however, a petrification and fetishization of the demand for national and racial hygiene. A border is not so much a container as a pervasive form of surveillance and repression that operates throughout the whole land mass. People circumvent the border not so much by routing around walls and fences, although they assuredly do that, as by routing around legal obstacles. Most “illegal” migrants in the United Kingdom arrive by plane, legally, and with work visas.

Then they stay on, because there is a demand for their labor and because the economic pull factors are stronger than any wall, and generally stronger than the forces of repression. And so it is likely to prove as the Tory leadership haggles over the single market. Whatever abridgments are made to the Schengenian system of free movement of labor, nothing will be done to lose British access to that market.

Ironically, as economic difficulties arising from Brexit accumulate, the fallout is likely to hurt May, who wanted to stay in, and assist the Brexiters. For example, while an immediate crash in the property market appears to have been averted, it is still looking precarious.

A swath of Tory-voting southern England derives its sense of affluence from bubbles of debt and speculation, and if property prices nosedive, then the “property-owning democracy” that sustains the Tory vote will collapse. In which case, the hard right will either gain control of the Conservative Party, as it just narrowly avoided doing, or it will wreak terrible electoral revenge on the party. And it will, in turn, cleave further right to avoid decimation.

It is telling that throughout the United Kingdom, the crisis of democracy, intersecting with the pervasive, effervescing questions of justice and fairness in the aftermath of the credit crunch, is manifesting itself in the form of a national question. The union, as the unit in which British productive relations have been organized, has been in decline for some time, posing sharply the question of what will come next.

The Scottish National Party found a vaguely center-left answer to Scotland’s national question, but English national identity is too thoroughly imbricated with imperial chauvinism and with being the dominant element in “Britishness” to be deployed in that way.

Attempts to shore up a progressive English “patriotism” have either slid into irrelevance or collapsed into pale imitations of the hard-right anti-immigrant populism. There is, of course, the alternative of a radical left internationalism, but that remains in its germinal phase, and the Corbynite wing of politics is in no hurry to define itself on the national question.

As long as the crisis works itself out predominantly on this axis, it is the Right which holds the initiative. It doesn’t have to be this way, and there are fresh lines of antagonism emerging all the time, for example over tax evasion, the health service, and selection in the school system. The current state of affairs in which the Right dominates is as fragile as the nascent experiment on radical Labour politics.

But for as long as the terrain is structured in this way, it leaves Britain an increasingly bunkered island-state, in which for large numbers of people the settlement of questions of allocation and desert are decided by an exclusionary form of national belonging. And in which the precious currency of national betrayal is forever accumulating on the side of reaction.