It’s Our Party and We’ll Rejoin if We Want To

Technology helped take us out of the EU. Could it be instrumental in creating the political party which takes us back in?

In the autumn of 1987 I was in New York demonstrating electronic equipment which, at the time, was considered innovative enough to patent. The PC graphics card displayed live video in a window on a PC screen, enabling Wall Street traders to watch TV news while buying and selling shares. The timing couldn’t have been worse: in the months following Black Monday the market for trading terminals tanked. Everyone in the room was trying desperately to think of new applications for what, months earlier, had been regarded as a ‘game-changer’. Then a marketing executive earned himself a disapproving frown by suggesting the technology would be ideal for watching porn in the office.

In retrospect there was strong evidence to suggest that adult-entertainment companies would be early adopters of PC video equipment. Less obvious was how the technology would impact on the media industry and, when networked, how it could be exploited by politicians. But this was ten years before the Dot Com boom brought the Internet to the masses and two decades before Nigel Farage began using YouTube as a weapon in his battle with the European Union (EU).

When watching – in a window on my laptop screen – the Brexit celebrations in Parliament Square and Boris Johnson’s social media video address, I recalled that afternoon in the Reuters office on Long Island over thirty years earlier. One technology-driven political revolution was now over; another was about to begin.

An hour before midnight on 31 January 2020, the dial on Britain’s political machine was turned through 180 degrees. Those who had voted to remain in the EU replaced Brexiteers as the country’s ‘left behind’. They were now the citizens unrepresented by the two main political parties. Far from repairing the fissure in UK politics, the country’s official separation from the EU agreement widened the chasm between those nostalgic for the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s and a younger generation nostalgic for a Europe of which they no longer felt a part. In the age of identity politics, Britain had acquired another self-identifying cohort of voters: those who regard themselves, in no particular order, as both British and European. Watching Nigel Farage disappear in a cloud of celebratory smoke there was a feeling that somewhere within the primordial political swamp of disenfranchised voters a new party would evolve.

Already among the remnants of the Remainer Movement there are various groups pressing for Britain to rejoin the EU, which for the Labour and Conservative parties would be political Kryptonite. It is also unlikely any new party would be able to take Britain back into an unreformed EU, which is itself experiencing something of a mid-life crisis.

The EU, or the ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community) as it was known in 1951, emerged in the wake of the destructive global clash of two competing ideologies: communism and fascism. For over a decade, Europeans lived in fear of being killed by the Nazis or having their furniture stolen by the Red Army.

At the end of the conflict France and Belgium believed the ECSC would contain and restrain Germany, and by controlling its production of steel would limit Germany’s ability to build battleships and tanks. France initially saw the ECSC evolving into a political and military union, with itself at the head, although it pulled back when Germany’s rapid economic expansion once again saw it become the dominant force in Europe. For Germany, the ECSC provided a chink of daylight for a people still frightened of the darkness they had bought to Europe.

Rejecting both rabid nationalism and enforced egalitarianism, the EU embraced liberalism; an unambitious philosophy which, nevertheless, allowed Europeans to live without fear of being shot or having to drag their worldly goods across the continent in a handcart.

Even though European integration was a concept mooted by Winston Churchill – ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’ – Britain viewed the ECSC as a distraction, and still saw itself as global power. Only in the late 1960s, after being pushed off the world stage by the USA and the Soviet Union, did Britain – as France had done a decade earlier – come to regard Europe as an ersatz Empire.

The British officials that colonised Brussels encouraged closer European integration, as well as the enlargement and expansion of the Common Market’s regulatory framework. But a crisis of confidence saw Britain lose faith in its new role in the world – perhaps, catching sight of itself in the mirror, it disliked what it saw. The neglect that followed contrasted the enthusiasm with which countries such as Ireland embraced a Union that had been, in large part, of Britain’s own making.

Ireland consistently held a plebiscite before signing up to EU treaties that impacted on the country’s constitution. Brexiteers claimed that the EU Commission merely forced states to rerun referendums until voters produced the correct answer. In reality, engaging the electorate strengthened the Irish Government’s hand during the redrafting of treaties; one of the reasons there is a relatively positive attitude towards the EU in Ireland. Britain saw fit not to consult the electorate on the Nice and, more importantly, the Lisbon Treaties. The British public came to believe that the only way they could affect EU reform was to send Nigel Farage or David Cameron to bang their shoes on the table.

Among those who still identify as ‘Remainers’ are various groups now campaigning for Britain to rejoin the EU; an uphill task for two reasons. Firstly, although someone living in Houston identifies as both Texan and American, few people in Hartlepool, or anywhere else in Britain, identify as both British and European. Secondly, the EU of today bears little resemblance to the original Common Market, and the political climate that encouraged European states to join has also changed.

The euphoria of 1989 has evaporated and with it some of the enthusiasm of Eastern-European states who signed up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. France and Germany are struggling to redefine their roles within the EU as memories of the Second World War slip from living memory. That no one is entirely sure what the function of the EU is in the twenty-first century was clear at the recent Munich Security Conference. But if the EU needs to justify its existence with a modern-day equivalent of the pan-European struggle against fascism, perhaps it needs look no further than the war that industrialised countries have declared on the environment.

Nature is the Mother of all Fascists: she views democracy in much the same way as Hitler and Mussolini did – your house will burn down in a wildfire regardless of your political beliefs; and your crops will fail no matter which party you voted for. In the global battle with the environment, we have reached our Stalingrad. This time, however, it is an alliance of democratic nations facing a war of attrition. The harder we fight it, the more destructive Nature becomes. It has us under siege in our flooded towns; it threatens to disrupt our food-supply chains with drought and fire. Nothing highlights the failure of conventional politics quite like the inability to agree a strategy to arrest climate change. Even Greta Thunberg admits that outpourings of emotion are pointless if the economic and political framework of democratic countries is unable to affect change. China’s State Capitalism model seemed to provide an answer, as its targeted financial aid drove down the price of solar panels used to produce cheap green electricity. China seems to have won the battle against coronavirus, but, even so, it too is losing its war with the natural world.

Climate change is one of the challenges which ‘Rejoiners’ highlight as a problem that individual European states cannot address on their own. Unfortunately, an unreformed EU seems as ill-equipped for the task as China does. EU reform is something the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is passionate about: he supported the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) in the run-up to the 2019 EU elections. He also tried to persuade Jeremy Corbyn to adopt a ‘remain and reform’ position on Brexit as Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution struck a chord with members of DiEM25. Surprisingly, the usually internationalist Corbyn rejected Varoufakis’s advances in favour of Len McCluskey’s rather more parochial socialist agenda. Unfortunately, the currency of politics is power and absolute rule over an impoverished electorate, which are often seen as preferable to sharing control of a relative prosperous one as part of a federation.

Today those wishing to remain as EU citizens have no political party to represent them or campaign on their behalf for Britain to rejoin the Union. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator, is holding out the prospect of Associate Membership for British individuals who still identify as European. The seeds of this revolutionary idea were sown in the mid-1990s when some believed ‘cyberspace’ could act as a virtual laboratory in which to experiment with radically new political and philosophical concepts. Little did anyone realise at the time that this infosphere would eventually become the new political sphere. Social media and Dominic Cummings delivered Brexit in an orgy of technology-driven creative destruction, although construction is pending.

Verhofstadt’s vision could represent the next stage in a revolution that provides a platform for the disenfranchised who no longer wish to be constrained by dated concepts such as borders and nationality. The emergence of the ‘digital citizen’, who does not confront or challenge established parties until their movement has achieved scale and supremacy, would fit well with the trajectory of online politics. Such a movement might also provide the cohesive structure the EU needs to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Although technology-related predictions such as these are made more easily in retrospect, for many in Britain it does seem that the EU is a virtual foreign country – and they will do things differently there.