As the Brexit negotiations finally get under way, even the doziest political commentators are starting to understand the Brexit referendum was a vote for change. The thing is, while opposing the status quo is straightforward building support for alternatives is considerably more difficult.
The even bigger problem is that while the vote itself was a blunt force, the negotiations are invariably intricate, technocratic and smothered in legalese. Running commentaries on high political horse-trading will not, almost certainly cannot, productively harness the hunger for change. At some point between now and the next general election the British political class will need to address issues of culture, imagination, belonging.
To do this it might be time for the left to take seriously the idea of UK independence, to pluck the phrase out of the grasp of UKIP and actively work with it. To see the Brexit negotiations as an opportunity to forge the UK’s own post-colonial moment. This is not as unlikely as it at first sounds.
When Dr Kwame Nkrumah became the first President of Ghana his government faced severe problems of social cohesion. What had been the Gold Coast was cobbled together out of a number of regions, tribes and ethnicities. One of the key tasks of independence was for Nkrumah’s government to invent what it was to be ‘Ghanaian’.
It was a big task that posed even bigger questions – it would have been reckless to throw away all the colonial structures but if you didn’t move on from them then where, when and how could you build an independent Ghana? It begged the question of where Ghanaians would be able to feel their freedom, and how could they understand their independence, if so little was to change in the interim. There was a need to build cultural self-esteem.
The analogies with what is likely to be Britain’s long and drawn out divorce from the EU are suggestive. It is entirely possible that the length of the process will see an angry negativity come to define the national and political mood. Whatever happens one legacy is likely to be a rump of sullen and disillusioned people.
In Nkrumah’s case the response was a wave of institution building – an Art Council, a Museums Board, a Stamps committee – which employed Ghanaians alongside architects and artists from the UK, the US and Eastern Europe to create new symbols, rituals and institutions. Everything from fashions to turns-of-phrase via sports facilities, sculptures and civic spaces were created. As far as it can be pithily summarised the aesthetic was best described as a mixture of ultra modernist and deep African.
Nkrumah’s example reminds us that to culturally own Brexit you would need to meld a hyper-modern outward-looking approach with a deep, mythical foundation story. By joining together the distant past with a future just over the horizon you build a group identity without leaving a foothold for sectarianism. The analogy with the UK today barely needs spelling out. National, regional, religious and class divides are approaching Edwardian levels of rawness. Values like reciprocity, mutuality and collectivism could not be more out of fashion.
Materially, Brexit era UK has substantially less need for a megalithic programme of cultural infrastructure then mid-century Ghana, especially as dubious regeneration schemes from the New Labour era are still fresh in the memory. But regional arts and libraries have been decimated since the great financial crisis and they urgently need to be rebuilt if were are to prevent the London cultural scene doing to the rest of the UK what the Premier League has done to grassroots football. This is not a vision of the arts that sees them as a palliative for post-industrial decline, but as an animistic force that can reenergise community.
The political left will also need to begin to project a new story about Britain overseas. Linguistically Brexit is configuered as an ending, but it up offers an opportunity to emotionally rebrand the nation in a way that could prepare it for life after the rapidly approaching end of the New Elizabethan age. On top of renewing and revamping Britain’s cultural infrastructure the task of building a new symbolic vocabulary will be fundamentally important. If the British political left is to triumph, Brexit needs to become a Brebirth, a way of stepping into the future.
Here again Nkrumah’s example is worth drawing on. In particular the ways in which foreign artists and intellectuals were invited to contribute to the task of building a new Ghana. Doing this hardwired an openness about identity and citizenship into the new nation. It prevented ‘Ghanianness’ from being captured by any of the competing regions, tribes or ethnicities. It was about offering imaginative asylum as much as nativism.
Rebuilding an international image is something that desperately needs to be done. It’s also something that the British cannot do alone. As the singer MIA said recently, ‘with Brexit the idea was to get away from Europe and reinvent our identity. So everyone now is like, “oh shit, what is Britain?”’ Are we going to rewind back to the 1800s? We can’t.’
More cynically, whatever the result of the Brexit talks it’s likely that the systemic economic and social problems that the country has faced for the last forty years will remain exactly the same over the short-medium term.
Without a strong and convincing vision of the future that is embedded in a wider cultural project, both the politicians, the mainstream media and ultimately voters themselves will be easy prey for the myriad of vested interests looking to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
There is plenty that post-Brexit Britain wouldn’t want to learn from Nkrumah, such as the vanity, the Leninist authoritarianism and the disastrous agricultural policies. But while not all of his regime’s cultural interventions had purchase, it’s still an example that gives much to ponder.
Post-Brexit it’s crucial that people know where they can feel their freedom, where they can see positive manifestations of their new found sovereignty and how they can contribute to the rebuilding of Britain’s reputation overseas. This is just to scratch the surface of what Brexit Britain could learn from a post-colonial moment that was every bit as divisive and contradictory as last year’s referendum.
Scott Anthony is a journalist and historian from the UK who has written in the past for The New Statesman, The Guardian and The Times among many others.