Making grand, sweeping pronouncements on the future of anything, let alone what’s going to happen to an entire country undergoing an unprecedented constitutional shift, is a mug’s game. There are too many unknowns, too many variables. Nobody knows how events will shake out, mere hours after a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union. Anyone who says otherwise is at best a hopeless delusionist.
That said, my posting history suggests I am in fact a fatally misinformed drinking receptacle. So, in short, we’re all boned.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, so I’m not going to recap stuff for people who haven’t followed the campaign. But in this particular moment the way the referendum campaign was debated has to take precedence. Beyond the simple result, the political establishment has to understand why the vote went the way it did. Why were people so manifestly against the EU, and why was the vote so starkly split along regional and class lines?
For instance, Scotland was wholly and unambiguously in favour of remaining, as was Northern Ireland. Wales was narrowly in favour of leaving. And most of England, outside of major cities, was somewhere between slightly and wholeheartedly sick of the whole international cooperation thing and wanted their ball back.
Moreover, people with degrees and higher incomes were significantly more likely to vote Remain, while working class voters with fewer formal qualifications tended to vote Leave. What appears to be emerging is a relatively well-off middle class of city-dwelling professionals voting to remain in the EU whilst a poorer, more rural working class votes to Leave.
The class divide in the vote echoes what we’ve seen in the American presidential primaries over the last year. Working class people who’ve been left behind by globalisation and relocation of industry try to strike back against the establishment and retake their lives. When ‘the establishment’ is responsible for closing down a factory that’s the major source of employment in your town, leaving thousands of people without a job because of free trade, kicking back against that establishment is an understandable response. Even if that particular branch of the establishment isn’t actually to blame.
It’s no coincidence that the slogan of the Leave campaign became ‘Take Back Control’. For people who feel like they’ve lost any say over their own lives because of global economic forces that are beyond their power to influence, the idea of having some say in their future becomes incredibly attractive. Globalisation has meant a proliferation of multinational, inter- or intra-governmental, cross-border free trade, which has become largely detached from democratic decision making processes. The World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank Group, among others, aren’t particularly susceptible to the will of the people.
And that’s not a good thing! Globalisation has essentially created an oligarchy wherein global wealth controls global power and only utilises this power to further entrench inequality. This neoliberal fever dream has been stomping uncontrollably over the dreams and aspirations of the developing world for some time now.
Developed countries have felt the effects of this transfer of power as well. The Port Talbot steelworks closure, probably the event that pushed Wales into voting Leave, was because an Indian multinational decided it wasn’t making enough money due in part to Chinese steel imports. Steelworkers themselves had nothing to do with it, but suddenly found themselves faced with a sacking.
In this context, feeling powerless is completely understandable. Jobs and security for ordinary people are under threat in a world where more and more money is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The problem is, that feeling was ruthlessly and dishonestly exploited by a few venal, craven members of that selfsame elite.
Let’s talk about what the Mayor of London dubbed “Project Hate”.
That picture is of someone who is apparently the leader of a major political party in a modern liberal democracy. And he admittedly doesn’t represent the Leave campaign as a whole, but that picture is illustrative of what the referendum became a proxy debate about.
Explaining to people that their jobs are under threat because of rampant global market forces and abstract movements of capital doesn’t satisfy their need for someone or something to blame for their predicament. People can’t, and shouldn’t have to, accept that in a changing world and changing country, their skills are no longer valued. And thanks to the austerity rhetoric that has been peddled by the global elite, voters have been conditioned to think that cuts to public services are a good thing to the extent that they even voted for it.
So none of these can be blamed for increasing costs of living or lack of public services. When you go to see a doctor and can’t get an appointment for twelve weeks, it can’t be because the NHS is chronically underfunded, the government is openly trying to browbeat medical professionals into submission, or that training schemes to provide staff have been savaged in order to satisfy Britain’s fetishisation of austerity. When your child can’t get a place in a good school nearby, it can’t be because cuts to local authority budgets have left them unable to provide anything beyond the most basic level of service. When house prices are inexorably rising and housing shortages are such that an entire generation might spend their lives renting, it can’t be because successive governments have failed to build houses for 30 years.
More specifically, none of these problems can be blamed on policies that people enthusiastically voted for. Austerity or the right to buy social housing have nothing to do with any of these problems.
Because then people might have to face up to the fact that they asked for this. And so, as has been the case throughout our long and lamentable history of such matters, social ills are blamed on immigrants. Helpfully, when you kick immigrants, they don’t kick back.
Free movement of people is a cornerstone of the European Project. Therefore, when countries with significantly lower wages than the UK acceded to the EU, a number of their nationals moved over here to work. These arrivals were disproportionately distributed, and a fund established to redress this impact was abolished by the Coalition government in 2010.
And so, people in parts of England tried to see a doctor, were told they had to wait for weeks, and then saw a waiting room with immigrants in it. A tangible scapegoat was staring them in the face. It was this easy explanation, this facile straw man, that the Leave campaign seized on.
The facts are that immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take out. Young, healthy people in work unsurprisingly pay lots of tax and are less likely to use health services than, say, a non-tax paying, ageing British population.Immigrants are of negligible impact on the NHS; the reason that costs for the health service have gone up in recent years is because Britain is getting older and more infirm. And Polish plumbers had about as much to do with Port Talbot as my left bollock.
Immigration isn’t to blame for the problems that the Leave campaign highlighted in the referendum. Austerity is. Neoliberalism is. A wealthy elite seeking to reinforce its own influence is.
It’s a good thing that the Leave campaign wasn’t led by a rich, privately educated, Oxbridge graduate then, or else it might run the risk of being slightly hypocritical. And it’d be even more hypocritical if it then seemed that a post-Brexit government would be formed of members of that neoliberal, free-marketeering elite.
Yeah, good thing that none of that’s going to happen. Because then people might have to face up to the fundamental dishonesty of the Leave campaign. And when the immigrants are all gone and everything’s worse because the British economy’s crashed and our labour market’s been drained and Scotland and Northern Ireland have both left the UK, then people might have to find someone else to blame. Someone who’s not an ‘Other’, or an easy target.
Britain has voted to take back control. So when it all goes sour, the only people voters have left to blame will be themselves.