Brexit is a distinctive – if long drawn out – moment in this conjuncture. For some, it marks a turning point as a new configuration of forces, identities and possibilities is established. For others, it resembles an unfinished transition, an ‘interregnum’ that is marked (in a much-quoted phrase from Gramsci) by the ‘variety of morbid symptoms’ that arise ‘when the old is dying and the new cannot be born’. This chapter critically examines three ways in which Brexit has been accounted for:
• as a variant of a wider contemporary shift towards populist politics;
• as a revolt against neoliberal globalisation;
• and as the revenge of the ‘left behind’.
Each provides reasons for thinking conjuncturally, especially about social antagonisms, social forces and their political-cultural articulation and mobilisation. The chapter draws attention to the symbolic struggles and their mediations through both social media and the ‘tabloidisation’ of the Brexit conflict. Ideas of the ‘left behind’, however, link popular, mediatised and academic arguments in important ways and provided one route to the ‘rediscovery of class’ in the moment of Brexit.
The continued accumulation of crises suggests that the Brexit moment has not given rise to a stabilised social and political-cultural equilibrium. Rather, the pace of accumulation has increased as long-running crises acquire increasing urgency (the climate catastrophe) and encounter deepening ones (the intensification of inequality), while the challenge of making the spatial, scalar and sovereignty imaginaries of Brexit materialise has proved difficult, both internationally and domestically. New crises kept arriving, from the pandemic to international conflicts, and from economic instabilities to the many forms taken by the deepening climate catastrophe. Meanwhile, finding ways of sustaining and subsidising capital, at least since 2008, has expended public resources on private wealth (through taxation, subsidy and contracting out, for example). This accumulation of crises has been shadowed by a rise of ‘counter movements’ challenging dominant political norms and narratives.
This book addresses the social, political and economic turbulence in which the UK is embroiled. Drawing on Cultural Studies, it explores proliferating crises and conflicts, from the multiplying varieties of social dissent through the stagnation of rentier capitalism to the looming climate catastrophe.
Examining arguments about Brexit, class and ‘race’, and the changing character of the state, the book is underpinned by a transnational and relational conception of the UK. It traces the entangled dynamics of time and space that have shaped the current conjuncture.
Questioning whether increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian strategies can provide a resolution to these troubles, it explores how the accumulating crises and conflicts have produced a deepening ‘crisis of authority’ that forms the terrain of the Battle for Britain.
The concluding chapter reflects back on some of the organising themes of the book and its approach to conjunctural analysis. It explores the relevance of particular ideas taken from Gramsci that have been used to address the present moment: the conjuncture, interregnum and counter-hegemonic possibilities. I consider some of the ways in which the current field of the political is being shrunk and rendered inhospitable. In response, I explore lines of thinking opened out by geographers in terms of ‘countertopographies’ and topological ‘power-geometries’. The chapter concludes by considering how the practices of reimagining, repairing and rearticulating might be ways of approaching the challenge of creating other futures.
Many of these accumulating crises were exacerbated by the pandemic. COVID-19 exposed the hollowed-out nature of the British state and was followed by failures of the favoured models of subcontracting. Although successful vaccination programmes averted some of the crisis (and partly rescued the government’s reputation), other troubles became apparent. Central among these was the concentration of risks of infection and death among racialised minorities. The visibility of such inequalities coincided dramatically with the killing of George Floyd (not least in the global resonance of the phrase “I can’t breathe”) in the midst of a series of ongoing challenges to racialised inequalities (attacks on the Windrush generation, racist policing, and more). The government attempted to deflect, delay and displace these challenges, not least into the register of ‘culture wars’. The idea of ‘culture wars’ poses important questions about the relationships between culture and politics, in which different intersections of politics, power and culture are mobilised – and contested. As I have already suggested, the (shifting) relationships between politics and culture are vital to understanding this conjuncture.
Developing the previous chapter’s understanding of social forces, this chapter draws on Stuart Hall’s concept of articulation to argue for a view of political mobilisation as accomplished through selective and contingent articulations. Rather than claims about decisive shifts in the political-cultural landscape, the chapter suggests that contemporary populisms and nationalisms have involved a distinctive practice of ‘vernacular ventriloquism’ as they imagine and project distinctions between the ‘people’ and their ‘enemies’. The Leave campaigns for Brexit developed a distinctive British populism (entwined with English nationalism) that assembled a particular bloc for the referendum, articulating many forms of loss, grievance and frustration. Stabilising this bloc has proved challenging: its coherence was challenged by the Corbyn-led Labour Party in the 2017 general election which voiced different popular anxieties and desires. It was, however, reassembled in the ‘Boris bloc’ of 2019, although, by 2022, this was coming apart, partly because of its internal contradictions and partly because of the proliferating crises that the Conservative government had to confront.
The strategy of recasting challenges into ‘culture wars’ was only one element of a much larger repertoire. The Johnson government (like others) sought to ‘retool the state’, aiming to shrink democratic capacities and to enlarge policing powers. State centralisation, anti-democratic strategies, deepening authoritarianism and a narrowing conception of ‘the people’ dominated – and return us to the problematic of ‘policing the crisis’. This chapter explores the ways in which the condensed crises and proliferating disaffection and dissent created instabilities that profoundly unsettled both the Conservative government (and Party) and the dominant bloc.
This introduction establishes the key concerns and approaches of the book. It introduces the ‘Battle for Britain’, noting that different accounts of, and time frames for, the conflicts involved exist. The Introduction argues instead for an approach through conjunctural analysis, treating a conjuncture as a distinctive configuration of time and space in which multiple contradictions, conflicts and crises are condensed. The Introduction briefly traces the significance of this approach in Cultural Studies and my own relationship to it. It then provides a summary outline of the ten chapters of the book.
Brexit exemplified the ways in which the national question became central to contemporary political movements; yet it needs to be revisited in the space between ‘methodological nationalism’ and ‘methodological globalism’. My exploration of the spatial aspects of the spatio-temporal formation of the conjuncture starts from conceiving places as the nodes of multiple spatial relationships (following Doreen Massey). Concretely, this is developed through an examination of the transnational relationships that dominate the formation of Britain (exemplified in the figures of America, Empire and Europe). These are difficult, ambivalent and contested relationships as the recent struggles over Europe indicate. At the same time, the unstable formation of the ‘United Kingdom’ has become increasingly unsettled by Brexit and its aftermath. Internal and external relationships have been recast by the rise of a distinctive variant of English Nationalism.
This book addresses the social, political and economic turbulence in which the UK is embroiled. Drawing on approaches from Cultural Studies, it explores proliferating crises and conflicts, from the multiplying varieties of social dissent through the stagnation of rentier capitalism to the looming climate catastrophe.
Examining arguments about Brexit, class and ‘race’, and the changing character of the state, the book is underpinned by a transnational and relational conception of the UK, ranging from the legacies of Empire to the turbulent relationships with Europe. It traces the entangled dynamics of time and space that have shaped the current conjuncture. In the process it gives particular attention to the rise of nationalist populism and its implications for an increasingly disunited Kingdom.
It gives particular attention to the political-cultural work of articulation that underpins the assembling of political blocs – rather than assuming that Britain is divided by identity politics. It focuses on the stresses and strains in the current bloc.
Questioning whether increasingly anti-democratic and authoritarian strategies can provide a resolution to these troubles, it examines how the accumulating crises and conflicts have produced a deepening ‘crisis of authority’ that forms the terrain of the Battle for Britain.