Mad Dogs and Englishmen : The EU referendum and its Other Scene

1.Mad Dogs  

Like most of you, I have been following the public debate about the EU referendum  with   horrified fascination  and growing anxiety. Listening to the claims and counter-claims of the Remainders and Brexiteers reminded me of that  famous opening verse of Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

What is clearly  falling apart is the managed consensus of  the Westminster political class, with its electoral pre-occupation  of capturing the ideological  centre ground. As for the ceremony of innocence, the widespread disenchantment  with mainstream party politics has opened up a space for  more  authentic and expressive  forms  of civic engagement,  to reclaim authentic principles of hope  in danger of being drowned out by the media spin machine. Yet the more populist response has been from  the Right  not Left field.  What passionate intensity there has been, is largely from the leading Tory Brexiteers, while Corbyn’s lack of conviction in backing Remain   is all too palpable.

We are familiar with   a bi-polar political culture with its rapid moods swings  from manic denial of painful or  unpalatable  realities, to the depressive recognition that no –one has the political will or capacity to do anything to change them for the better. On the Left we are used to  hollow triumphalism being  capped by rampant defeatism.  But in the case of the referendum debate, ever more inflated prophecies of doom (from economic meltdown  to a third world war)    have not been trumped  by visions of New Dawn. The   choice has simply been between two different scenarios of how things might get a whole lot worse, if we make the wrong choice. On one side the spirit of free enterprise  is stifled by Brussels  bureaucracy, while  our public services  are swamped  by hordes of EU immigrants who  take our jobs, our housing  and even our exams. On the other side, the  flight of capital, collapse of investment, and consequent loss of jobs is  accompanied by a fiscal crisis  which precipitates another recession.

There has been much talk of ‘project fear’, but less attention paid to the way existing  idioms of moral panic associated with  perceived threats to  public order ( terrorists, sexual predators, criminal gangs, and carriers of ‘alien’ ideas and cultures) have been mobilised as  tokens of  political stakes around issues of sovereignty and border control. Both sides have traded in the false currencies of in/security, offering  impossible protective measures that only serve to fuel  public alarm and despondency.

We are dealing here with a form of hysteria which has not only seized hold of the political class, but which the two campaigns are seeking to   inject into civil society.  It is worth remembering   that hysteria is a form of dissimulation. The hysterical symptom   masks the trauma of a reality  whose trace it bears like scar, and which also constitutes  a blind spot, something that cannot be put into words.  In this context, conflicts internal  to the body politic are first ’somatised’ –that is they are experienced as organic  or integral to its mode of functioning- and then disavowed, by being projected onto an external   body, in this case the EU, where they can be dealt with through purely symbolic action : voting to stay in or leave. So for example, the widening  inequalities in British  society, the enormous disparities in wealth, power  and opportunity ,  not only in term of class formation but in  their regional distribution,  are  taken for granted as an inherent part of an unchangeable  political and economic landscape,  but, at the same time,  they are also held to originate from  outside as a result of globalisation, and to be either mitigated or reinforced by membership of the EU.

Hysteria, as a structure of mobilised  political feeling, involves a strategy of displacement, a play of substitutions, involving the classical  mechanisms of denial, projection and splitting. The two campaigns  faithfully  mirror one another in their style  of vituperation  as in the mechanisms of scapegoating that  they  authorise.  At the same time  we must not forget that  hysteria is a defence against a trauma of the real. In this context the real is the fact that  our culture, history and political economy is inextricably bound up with that  of Europe and its key institutions, including the EU itself  That relation can  best be described in   terms of the famous Uncle Remus story about  the’tar baby’. You will recall that, Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it with some clothes. When Br’er Rabbit comes along he addresses the tar baby amiably, but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes enraged  by what he perceives as the Tar-Baby’s bad manners, punches it, and in doing so becomes stuck. The more Br’er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar “baby”, the worse he gets stuck.

This first part of the story pretty accurately describes how the British political class, of whatever ideological persuasion, perceives their dealings with  the Eurocrats. Brussels  commitment to ‘ever greater political union’ and   indifference to  this country’s ‘special needs’ has forced us  to get ever more mired in the  workings of the organisation, and the more we struggle to get free, the more trapped we become.

However in the second half of the story it turns out that Brer Rabbit has a trick up his sleeve and succeeds in turning the tables on Brer Fox.  He pleads  “Do anything you want with me — roast me, hang me, skin me, drown me — but please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” prompting the gloating  Br’er Fox to do exactly that. As thickets are home from home to rabbits,  the resourceful Br’er Rabbit escapes.

For  both camps the referendum is  their  briar patch, where they are on home ground and can escape the  tar baby’s clutches, either  by outfoxing    the Eurocrats  who wants to skin us alive, by insisting that our burrows ( or bolt holes) are none of their business  or by joining forces with them  to ensure that rabbits are a protected species.

The point of the analogy is to suggest that  the referendum debate, for all  its obsession with facts, has another, more unconscious dimension,  not a  deliberately hidden  agenda, but  what Freud called ‘its other scene’. For all that both sides claim that the issue is a matter of rational calculation  couched in the language of relative costs and benefits, the war of statistics has proved to be central to the politics of  what we might call hysterical materialism : the belief that the mere assertion of material facts   has a performative effect and  will bring about the desired state of affairs.

Two very different concepts of the future are at stake here. The first is the one we are familiar with, the extrapolation of present trends to predict  what society will be like if they continue. This form of futurology relies on setting up a number of different scenarios and then working out  how  various kinds of agency are likely to behave. It is usually a precautionary analysis designed to minimise or mitigate risk  and underpins the proverbial conservatism  of common sense : rather the devil you know than the devil you don’t, look before you leap etc etc..  The second perspective on the future sees it not as an extension of the present, but as a break with it  and conducts a thought experiment to map out an emergent horizon of possibilities under different  sets of circumstance.  It is more like an adventure story, than a cautionary tale,  focussing of what is in process of becoming rather than what is, what might be gained rather than lost.

In principle the Remainders should favour the first  approach and the Brexiteers the second, but the situation is complicated by a profound shift in what we might call the chrono-topography  of  contemporary political discourse, the way in which past, present and future is constructed  and narrated as a site of political action.  The model  most of us grew up with  might be called  proto-modernist and is about the constant process of modernisation linked to advances in science and technology and a growth in public enlightenment through mass education. Within this frame, the past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs the unfolding of processes in  historical time.

Until  the late 20th century  proto-modernism  was closely entailed in the notion of historical progress as an incremental step by step change for the betterment of the human condition  (greater tolerance, less everyday violence, longer life spans etc). But increasingly progress has come to mean the simple intensification or acceleration of present trends into the future. Indeed there is a whole discourse of ‘futurology’ built on this premise.

The second chrono-topography might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved but as something that has never quite happened, is basically unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, split off from a past which never fades but continues to be re-presented and recycled, and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable.  History is now de-composed into a series of   unconnected fragments, mashed up by an unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments.

At one level, this model involves a profound de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which decreases in value over time, and, if unchecked hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the social imaginary, for the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, and sponsors various kinds of retro-chic culture.

The Remainders are by instinct and principle proto-modernist, whereas the Brexeteers are more sanguine, more sceptical about ‘progress,’   more likely to mourn the world they have lost through globalisation and to be more apprehensive about future outcomes of present trends. This does not make them full fledged retro-modernists however, since the break with the present they want to engineer  is in order to re- establish a principle of continuity with the past. But it does put them in a strong position to draw support from the  dystopian strain in popular culture  which  has injected a pervasive retro-modernism into working class views of the world. In contrast a dissident intelligentsia, largely concentrated in the universities and creative industries,    have developed a positive form of retro-modernism, whether as a rhetorical or aesthetic device,  to dissociate themselves from what they regard as bourgeois and reactionary  modes of proto-modernist thought. As such they   have an elective affinity with  the Remainders even if they do not share their one dimensional view of progress, nor subscribe to  the new Whig interpretation of British history which sees membership of the EU  as the only way to keep the union intact and the increasingly centrifugal forces of the national-popular at bay.


Political hysteria is a manic defence mechanism which, in its alarmist  rhetoric,  simulates the presence of uncontrollable  forces in the body politic in order to dissimulate the capacity to  tame or control them. There is a method in its madness. In the referendum debate, as Anthony Barnett’s timely dissection of its provenance  has   brilliantly demonstrated, this madness  is centred on national identity politics  and its method consists in reconfiguring the status of the English as an imagined community, both  in  relation to what is still widely regarded from an Anglo-islish perspective  as ‘the Celtic Fringe’  ( viz,Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and  to Europe and the wider world.

The referendum debate has been an  exercise in collective navel gazing. The umbilical chord which hitherto attached large sections of the population, across class and partly political divides, to a shared myth of national origins and destiny, in which the English  inhabitants of this small and providential offshore  island  had a birthright in freedom and popular sovereignty which also entitled them to exercise hegemony over the rest of the country and its far flung dominions overseas, that trope has now largely shed its narcissistic structuring, and become  merely  a functionless and shrivelled reminder of our  severance  from the original phantasm of a  nurturing womb from which  a unitary identity is produced. That fact does not stop large number of people wanting to re-create an Englishness in its image, but it also points to a form of the national-popular that is more about  constructing new platforms of civic engagement that are more directly democratic as well as more inclusive  in  their conception of sovereignty. There is a widespread longing to discover and celebrate a ‘deep England’ which predates the age of Industry and Empire, which is not implicated in the appropriation of Arcadian pastoral by anglo-saxon racism, and which now might offer an ecological template  for a post-industrial and post- imperial sense of belonging in the world.    This confusing mix of  resurgent and emergent forms of   English nationalism, pointing in quite different political directions is the central mis-en- scene of the referendum debate, and will remain critical  whatever the outcome  on June 23.

To understand what is at stake here, another poem, by a near contemporary of Yeats  came to  mind. In ‘ Dover Beach’ Mathew Arnold maps out the contours  of a melancholic sensibility to loss etched into the English land and sea scape, a sensibility which has continued to echo in the current debate around sovereignty.

.. the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast,out in the tranquil bay

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, norr light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This poem with its beautiful and tremulous  cadences  was  picked up not only in the music of Elgar, Butterworth, Ireland and Vaughan Williams,   but reprised in  Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, and in more recent work by George Benjamin and Thomas Ades;  it leads us on a journey whose  features take on a new and powerful set of connotations in  the structures of sentiment and belief mobilised around the referendum.  Dover may stand for some as a natural symbol of a now vanished fortress of anglo-ilish independence  from continental Europe but the town now hosts a rich mix of migrants from the EU, as well as internal refugees from the collapse of  the welfare state. The note of sadness is no longer external, it has become an intrinsic feature of post imperial melancholia, the long withdrawing roar of English football crowds as the national team fades once again into the sporting twilight, a feeling whose bitterness only partly assuaged by sardonic self referential humour as in the Noel Coward song. Under these circumstances,the world which  seems to lie before us, like the  land  of our dreams, whether these be of socialism in one country, or some broader vision of international solidarity, promises neither deliverance  from pain, nor the certainty of success, and so we find ourselves once more on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, passive witnesses to the spectacle of two ignorant armies clashing nightly on TV.

The choice we seem to be offered  is  between a Greater England, with its own parliament and liberated from the toils of belonging to a foreign neo-liberal superstate ( the progressive Brexeteer position)   and a Little Britain, still anglo-ilish, clinging on to a disintegrating Union  but  leading the campaign  for the democratic reform  of EU institutions ( the progressive Remainder position articulated most clearly by Varoufakis). Put this way the issue is truly undecidable. We would like both please, and worry that we may end up with neither, whichever way the vote goes. Cameron’s style of corporate Euro-populism insists we can have the best of both worlds- enjoy the advantages of EU membership ( subsidiarity) without the disadvantages ( increased migration of workers into the low wage,low skill sectors of the economy). The Brexeteers are actually more realistic, in arguing that there are strings with everything.

The brutal binarism of the referendum has become a double bind, in which  we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, because any proposition about a specific policy ( for example  in shore fishing  quotas) is instantly met by some higher order principle which countermands it. In this example if we leave the EU and de-regulate fishing by  home boats  in our territorial waters, the advantage to our local fishing industry is countermanded by the threat of overfishing. If alternatively we stick with the strict EU rules on ecological grounds then  the local fishing industry suffers. What is good for the fish is just not good for the fisherman, and vice versa because foreign competition from Russian, Japanese and other EU trawlers is so intense and largely beyond governmental control.

To think that a remain vote will mean ‘business as usual’ either in political or economic terms is as illusory as to think that an exit vote means that in one bound Anglo-Britain will be free to rediscover its spirit of national enterprise along with its sovereignty. But where is the perspective from the Left which would offer  an alternative way forward?

The paralysis of  the Left  is partly due to the profound  Euro-scepticism of many of its  party members ( and not only its leader), partly due to fear of even further alienating its  residual white working class support which is haemorrhaging to UKIP in England, and has already deserted to the SNP in Scotland, and partly down to the fact that  it is heir  to an introverted    home grown culture of popular radicalism; this  goes back as far as  anglo-saxon protests against the ‘Norman Yoke’, and runs like a scarlet thread through labour history from  suspicion of ‘foreign’ ideas  like Anarchism and Marxism, amongst the Fabians, to the celebration of  ‘ancient liberties’ of the commons associated with the customary rights of the free born Englishman  by  RH Tawney and the Guild Socialists and more recently by E.P.Thompson, Raphael Samuels  and from  a less introspective standpoint, Peter Linebaugh.  The insularities of the English  labour movement  die hard and have proved  quite compatible with a loose rhetoric of internationalism. The fact that members of the BAME communities, heavily unionised in the public sector, and also concentrated in SME businesses,   have largely resisted the temptation to draw the line under their own feet and vote Brexit is encouraging, and may yet decide the outcome, given that immigration has become the central issue.

Nevertheless political hysteria around issues of security, which are inextricably material and symbolic, and variously    fuelled by post imperial melancholy or new identity politics is unlikely to go away, any more than the conditions of chronic precarity  experienced by increasingly  large sections of the population, young and old, native born English and EU arrivants,  middle class students and working class NEETS, single parents and large families. There is already a demographic majority against austerity politics and the faltering hegemony of neo-liberalism. In or out of the EU the work the Left has to do is to help build a coalition of these forces for a progressive, democratic politics around  the need for and right to affordable housing, decent well paid jobs, long term investment,  popular planning and widening  access to  free educational and cultural resources.  The emergence of new forms of workplace, community and environmental activism are creating platforms of civic engagement in which intellectuals and artists can break out of their  individual creative bubbles and work alongside  ordinary people whose aspirations for a better life are both more urgent, more frustrated and perhaps more generous.   The referendum debate in all its hysterical  banality is part of the symptomatic crisis of a dying political culture. A new one has yet to be born, but at least the debate may have hastened  the  transition.


Some people have interpreted this text  as a plea to abstain. In fact I am voting to remain as the least worse option. While I am happy to say a plague on both your houses to the Cameron/Osborne and Johnson/Duncan-Smith camps, not to mention Farage &Co,   the progressive case for ‎both Remain and Leave merits a decision. On balance I think the Varoufakis argument is stronger, even though the development of a European wide movement for the democratic reform of the EU and it’s adoption of anti austerity policies seems remote, to say the least. However  I did campaign for a Socialist Europe way back in 1975 at a a time when the entire labour movement and Left was  against joining . So despite all the odds  I am sticking to that decision.


 References/Further reading

Anthony Barnett ‘ Blimey it could be Brexit’   Open Democracy  2016

Elisabeth Bronfen The Knotted Subject :Hysteria and its discontents Princeton 1991

Phil Cohen ‘The Centre will not Hold’  Soundings Summer 2015

Frank Furedi  Culture of Fear: risk taking and the morality of low expectation Continuum 2006

Jeremy Gilbert  Common Ground : democracy and collectivity in an age of individualism Pluto Press 2013

Martijn Koonings  The Emotional Logic of Late Capitalism:what progressives have missed Verso 2010

Bruno Latour We have never been Modern Harvester Wheatcheaf 1993

Peter Linebaugh The Magna Carta Manifesto: liberties and commons for all University of California Press 2008

Elaine Showalter Hystories:hysterical epidemics and modern culture Picador 1997

Yanis Varoufakis   And the Weak suffer what they may ? Nation Books 2016