David Runciman, Neal Ascherson, James Butler, T.J. Clark, Jonathan Coe, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, Daniel Finn, Dawn Foster, Jeremy Harding, Colin Kidd, Ross McKibbin, Philippe Marlière, James Meek, Pankaj Mishra, Jan-Werner Müller, Susan Pedersen, J.G.A. Pocock, Nick Richardson, Nicholas Spice, Wolfgang Streeck, Daniel Trilling
So who is to blame? Please don’t say the voters: 17,410,742 is an awful lot of people to be wrong on a question of this magnitude. They are not simply suckers and/or closet racists – in fact, relatively few of them are – and they are not plain ignorant. You can’t fool that many people, even for a relatively short period of time. And yes it was close, but it wasn’t that close. The margin between the two sides – 3.8 per cent – was roughly the same as the margin by which Obama defeated Romney in the 2012 presidential election (3.9 per cent), and you don’t hear a lot of people complaining about the legitimacy of that, not even Republicans (well, not that many). Plus, turnout in the referendum, at 72.2 per cent, was nearly 18 per cent higher than in the last presidential election. The difference, of course, is that a general election is a constitutional necessity whereas the EU referendum was a political choice. If you don’t like the outcome, don’t say it was the wrong answer to the question. It was the wrong question, put at the wrong time, in the wrong way. And that’s the fault of the politicians.
Cameron must shoulder the lion’s share of the responsibility. It was a reckless gamble, given that the stakes were so high. No one can say how this will play out, but it has already put enormous pressure on the basic functioning of the British state, something that Conservatives are meant to value above all else. As Scotland pushes for independence, Irish nationalists agitate for unification, Wales explores its relationship with England, Labour faces a split that may lead some of the party to an explicit embrace of extra-parliamentary politics, and Farage stirs the pot, the situation is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon. This has the makings of a full-blown constitutional crisis that the Conservative Party, no matter who becomes its next leader, may struggle to contain. No Conservative leader, least of all one as essentially pragmatic as Cameron, would open the door to such a possibility lightly.
Prime among Cameron’s reasons for doing just that was the belief he would win. When he went to Brussels earlier this year to brief his fellow European leaders about his plans, he is reported to have told them not to worry because he was a ‘winner’ and knew how to get the result he needed. This wasn’t just bluster. Till last week’s fatal reverse he had a remarkably successful track record: two general elections, two referendums (the 2011 one on the Alternative Vote system as well as the 2014 Scottish one) and before that winning the Tory leadership when the odds seemed stacked against him. What was different this time was that he wasn’t able to take the key players in his party with him. Johnson’s defection was perhaps to be expected – though Cameron does not appear to have prepared for it – but Gove’s was not. Had Cameron known that his decision would split the Tory Party at the very top, including his own inner circle, it might have given him pause. The other difference is that neither of the two previous referendums was really Cameron’s personal initiative: one was a sop to the Lib Dems, the other a concession to the SNP. This meant that his warnings of disaster carried some conviction, since he could plausibly say that none of it had been his idea. This time he had no one to blame but himself, and the voters could tell.
What about Corbyn? I don’t believe that a different leader, fighting a more full-throated campaign, would have made much difference to the final outcome: most Labour voters went for Remain anyway and many of those who didn’t were sufficiently alienated to be resistant to all persuasion. Nevertheless, if Labour had had a different leader there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be in this mess. Yvette Cooper might have been no better at convincing people in Labour’s heartlands to turn out in support of an unloved and distant institution – she might well have been worse – but she would have been far better at convincing the Tory government to think a bit harder about the risks it was running in holding the referendum, including the risk of defeat at a subsequent general election. Along with Cameron’s recklessness we need an explanation for Johnson’s and Gove’s. Part of it, unquestionably, came from their sense that Labour was no longer a serious party of government and therefore that their own freedom of action was commensurably broader. The chancers chanced it because they thought they’d get away with it.
In politics, secondary effects matter just as much as primary ones. Corbyn’s election as leader was designed to promote a new kind of politics, along with the values that underpin it. But it also loosened the constraints that held his opponents in check. So a very different kind of politics is what we’ve now got. The other secondary effect that has had profound consequences is the annihilation of the Liberal Democrats at the last general election. Had Cameron been forced into another coalition with the Lib Dems it would have been much harder for him to take a punt on this referendum; or to put it another way, it would have been much easier for him to renege on his manifesto commitment to hold it, as part of the price of remaining in office. The deep public anxiety that drove the Leave vote – especially about uncontrolled immigration – would not have gone away. Nor would the appeal of Ukip. But both would have had to be channelled through less incendiary mechanisms than a binary plebiscite.
Having said that the voters cannot be blamed for the consequences of this referendum, I can hardly blame them for not having foreseen the consequences of failing to keep a few more Lib Dems in post at the last election. Thinking through the secondary effects of the choices we make is incredibly hard. That’s why constitutional arrangements matter too. There are many hypotheticals relating to the referendum result that are very difficult to assess. Would a concession from Merkel allowing an emergency brake on the free movement of workers have been enough to tip the balance? Would either Johnson or Gove have gone it alone if the other hadn’t been there to provide cover? Did the murder of Jo Cox, counter-intuitively, harden rather than soften the resolve of some Leave voters not to be dictated to by politicians? But there is one ‘what if’ about which I am confident. We would not be in this situation if our electoral system worked on the basis of proportional representation. PR more or less guarantees a coalition government, which, as I’ve said, makes it much harder for any prime minister to take such a leap in the dark. At the same time, the weakness of the Labour Party would not have encouraged him in such a step, because the party would already have split. Under those electoral conditions Corbyn might be leading a minority leftist party and would feel free to speak his mind on the desirability of leaving the EU. But the majority Labour Party representing the mainstream of Labour voters would have been able to counter him.
The primary cause of this referendum result is the first-past-the-post system, albeit through its secondary effects. It empowered Cameron to take a huge gamble despite his tiny minority. It forced the entire Labour movement to line up behind a leader who was not competent to lead them. It wiped out the Lib Dems, who for all their faults have been sorely missed. Proportional representation is usually dressed up as an issue of fairness, but as the AV referendum showed, that line of argument doesn’t have much appeal for ordinary voters, who tend to see fairness in more bread-and-butter terms. But there is a better argument: it is a matter of basic security against misrule by careless and cavalier politicians. Of course, European countries that have proportional representation face profound challenges and politicians as a class are no more loved there than they are here. In Spain it is proving difficult to form a government at all. And if things really go wrong and the Euro project finally falls apart, PR will not save it. It isn’t a panacea. But it also isn’t a coincidence that the two places where truly destabilising populist politics have been let off the leash are Britain and the United States. Looking at what we have allowed to happen, Trump must be licking his lips. Under winner-take-all systems, people who are happy to gamble away their nation’s security only have to get lucky once. Let’s hope it is only once.
This is the third time the island has given notice to Europe. The first brief and bloody, the second powerful and long-lasting, the third stupid and calamitous. A Dutch marine officer in the Roman forces called M. Mausaeus Carausius tried it in 286. He proclaimed himself emperor, beat off imperial expeditions crossing the Channel and struck a great many silver and copper coins with his bearded face on them. Like the Leave campaigners, he told the Brits that together they would ‘take their country back’ (‘Restitutor Britanniae’). He had ‘Genius Britanniae’ stamped on his coins, along with quotes from Virgil. Carausius, seen by some romantic Victorians as the pioneer of British independence, didn’t last long. He was murdered by his chancellor of the exchequer, a certain Allectus, in 293. Soon afterwards, Britain was back in Roman Europe.
The second break with Europe was English rather than British. Henry VIII’s decision to ‘take back control’ from faceless foreign cardinals and unelected popes was an immense event, tearing apart the seamless robe of European Catholic Christendom and shaping English reservations about the Continent for five centuries. Anti-Catholic prejudice became a pillar of English insular identity, associated with ‘Protestant freedom’ and suspicion of European immigrants. The Scottish Reformation, though even less tolerant towards ‘Rome’, was less solidly home-grown in inspiration. John Knox’s church drew its theological ideas from constant European travel, the movement of black-clad divines between Edinburgh and the Calvinist centres in Geneva, the Netherlands and Germany.
The third attempt to turn the white cliffs into a red line is the farce we are watching now. The battle of Brexit came about not because of any serious demand for national change but for the reasons that the Wars of the Roses came about: a power vendetta within a tiny group of privileged men, which they managed to spread beyond their own followers to huge numbers of discontented subjects as if it were their own quarrel.
Everyone seemed to lie. The Leave leaders lied to themselves as well as the public: it’s not possible that they actually believed their extraordinary promise to replace every EU support payment, grant and subsidy after Brexit. Voters lied to themselves: many pretended to think that immigrants were responsible for public decay, when in reality they just disliked ‘too many foreigners in our streets’. An English rebellion against control by cynical establishment politicians has left the rebels under tighter control by exactly those politicians. It has left Britain poorer and weaker, Europe dangerously hurt, the flow of immigration probably undiminished. This is not what those ‘Leave’ voters meant. Brexit itself is flapping loose in the wind. Boris, like Carausius, has been stabbed by his henchman in his hour of triumph. ‘What have we done?’
A prophecy: Britain will spend three years trying to get out, and the next three years trying to get back in. A nightmare, my own: to be locked in a dark, stuffy nursery cupboard with Boris, Michael, Nigel and their pals. England will become a place the young want to get out of, in search of fresh air and light.
There is now a knot at the centre of British politics. If politicians push for inclusion in the European Economic Area, in the hope of stabilising the economy and avoiding a deep recession, they will need to accept freedom of movement. If they accept freedom of movement, they will be accused of betraying the will of the people, and political turbulence will follow. For many Leave voters, the referendum was a proxy ballot on migration: only a sharp decrease in migrant numbers – EU, non-EU, asylum-seekers, ‘Muslims’ as one Brexit voter told Channel 4 – will satisfy them.
If the UK establishment decides it can’t face economic arson, Ukip will have a powerful grievance with which to fight the next general election, especially in the 118 seats in which it polled second in 2015 – places where people do not perceive the economic benefits of EU membership, and feel they ‘don’t have a voice’. That is the sunnier aspect of the scenario. The darker expressions would not be electoral but social, of which the graffiti on a Polish centre in Hammersmith and a petrol-bombed halal butcher’s in Walsall are foretastes.
We may be headed that way in any event. Both Europe and migration have for decades been the go-to excuses for media and politicians who want somewhere to put the blame for inert economies and hollowed-out towns. As the link with Europe loosens, it will be no surprise to see a renewed focus on the remaining scapegoat. The plasticity of the category of ‘migrant’ makes it a resilient excuse: it expands to fit the need.
Expulsions or mass deportations are unlikely. It’s more probable that we will see a gradual ratcheting in the difficulty of claiming settlement rights, or welfare and health rights. We have already seen an increase in displays of public xenophobia. The Sun’s talk of ‘streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English’, days after the vote, is a sign of things to come. Should the French decide to junk Le Touquet, the agreement governing border controls at Calais, there will be an explosion of resentment.
It’s a commonplace that xenophobia feeds on economic insecurity. The answer to the question ‘Why can’t I make ends meet?’ presents itself in the job-stealing migrant or the benefit-guzzling migrant or the civilisation-destroying migrant. The deeper economic and political questions go unexamined: it’s easier to blame outsiders. In recent coverage, the UK’s ludicrously inflated property market was blamed on foreign ownership of a few luxury flats in London.
In Europe, the vote has been seized on as proof that Continental policy on migration and asylum must now become even harsher (little of the reporting on the vote in Europe has grasped the level of antipathy in the UK to migrants from within the EU). Farage’s triumphant address to the European Parliament laid responsibility squarely at Angela Merkel’s feet, for calling on ‘as many people as possible to cross the Mediterranean’. Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán have lost no time in capitalising. The consequences of Brexit for migrants in the UK look dark, but the prospects for the desperate at Europe’s borders are even worse.
I voted Leave , without enthusiasm, mainly because I had promised to do so in Greece last July. What Dijsselbloem and Schäuble did to Greece back then seemed an indication of what the EU was truly for. It remains our best clue to how ‘Europe’ would act if a left government, of a nation less hopelessly enfeebled than post-Pasok Greece or post-Blair-and-Brown Britain, dared, say, to resist TTIP’s final promulgation of the neoliberal rule of law. Certainly the relevant point of comparison for the 17 million Leave votes is the No to ‘austerity’ registered by the Greeks, again in the face of all respectable opinion, a year ago. And everything will now be done, as then, to make sure the scandal of democratic refusal doesn’t get in the way of business. I have no doubt that already, behind the smokescreen of Article 50, Dijsselbloem and Schäuble’s intermediaries are sitting down with Carney and Osborne to settle the outlines of the no-but-on-the-other-hand-not-really.
Global capitalism, in other words, is inconvenienced by the verdict from the UK zones of sacrifice, and naively disdainful of it, but well equipped to cope with the casualties’ ingratitude. It will soldier on. The intelligentsia can be depended on to froth in its favour. Facebook, an American friend tells me, ‘has become an unbearable liberal wailing wall’. Conversations with young Southern European immigrants in London – one recently with a Bulgarian woman sticks in the mind – are a welcome reality check. They know all too well what the ‘free movement of labour’ means for people like them, and how much the discipline of the euro is responsible for driving them north. No lessons in the mechanics of wage suppression or Deutsche Bundesbank’s anti-Keynesianism are needed.
It is one thing, however, to have an optimistic (or pessimistic) view of capitalism’s ability to weather the storm blowing from working-class Britain, another to underestimate the system’s endogenous vulnerabilities. What happened in 2008 will happen again. The break-up of the eurozone is one step nearer, the question now being whether it will be ‘managed’ from New York and Berlin or plunged into pell-mell. What political forms will be invented in response – what battle between successor Golden Dawns and Syrizas, Five Star Movements and Freedom Parties – remains to be seen. The risks are enormous here, the monstrosities close – the only words worth pondering from the Brexit charade are ‘My name is Death to Traitors’ – but there seems to me no turning back. The political question therefore is this: could there be a future circumstance in which such a moment of capitalist crisis, or sequence of moments, none of them ‘final’, could be greeted, in various nation-states (including a suitably shrunken and chastened Britain, robbed at last of its ‘role in the world’ and no longer ‘punching above its weight’ for Washington), by the beginnings – the first steps in a long reconstruction – of a minimal anti-capitalist resistance?
There will be such resistance, I am sure – though the days since the referendum in Britain only confirm how little our politics is likely to contribute to it. The Leave vote in England and Wales, with its unmistakable working-class character, including elements of dangerous rudderless vindictiveness, ought to have presented a movement of the left with a challenge and opportunity. A Labour Party capable of even the baby steps of political thinking would immediately have pivoted from its previous Remain position. The vote spoke irrefutably to the reality of Osborne-land. The Tories had once again proved their inability to reconcile their real-world City ‘internationalism’ with their unreal-world, but indispensable, dream of national sovereignty. No doubt they would pretend to put divisions behind them and govern (always they are better at this than Labour), but the pretence might have started to wear thin if it had been met by an EU exit strategy that truly countered the Conservative one, setting out the recalibrated priorities that Leave made possible. What might have then followed, in a Britain with a better politics, would be a battle to make the upshots of the Leave vote – the terms of a new social settlement – precisely those the right wanted never to be thinkable again. But that could have happened, clearly, only if Labour had recognised what the No in its heartlands signified.
I wake from my counterfactual. It is a week since the vote. The Tories appear to have found their Hillary Clinton, and disposed of their Donald Trump. The real Hillary Clinton will be breathing a sigh of relief. The Labour Party, precisely because it realised that Corbyn might be contemplating the kind of pivot described above, has risen in arms to preserve its essential City connection. What will remain of Labour as a result is not clear. Not much, by the look of it. A columnist in the Financial Times – always a good read when markets are roiling – reminds his constituency that ‘financial capitalism survived the 2008 global crash. Liberal democracy has not fared so well. There is a connection … Capitalism needed saving, but in bailing out the financial institutions with taxpayers’ money, governments transferred the stresses from markets to politics.’ Racism and xenophobia are the stresses’ most familiar symptoms. And everything is conspiring in Britain, yet again, not to allow the stressed – the broken, resentful, precarious and disoriented – the least chance of political representation.
‘The story of the referendum,’ a friend wrote to me this week, ‘is one of people taking a joke too seriously.’ Always hard to tell, in the case of Boris Johnson, where the joke fizzles out and the cold ambition begins. Was the whole thing, to him, a jape that went sour at the end, or was it indeed a cynical grab for power that didn’t pan out? Now that we’ve been reminded, courtesy of Martin Fletcher’s celebrated Facebook post, that it was Johnson himself (as Brussels correspondent of the Telegraph in the 1990s) who created the whole fantasy version of the bureaucratic, undemocratic, Britain-bashing EU which, twenty years later, he successfully campaigned against, we have a new and somewhat awestruck sense of just how much damage the average Etonian’s talent for flippant and entitled prankery can do. Clearly I underestimated him when I wrote about him in these pages three years ago (LRB, 18 July 2013) and concluded merely that ‘Johnson has become his own satirist.’ His destructive powers have turned out to have been much greater than that and, although he has retired to the shadows to lick his wounds, he’ll be back.
Where that leaves the 51.9 per cent of voters (51.9 per cent of the 72.2 per cent who turned out to vote, that is) who placed their faith in Johnson and Gove to deliver more money for the NHS and significant curbs on immigration, God knows. The Leave campaigners threw around promises as if this were a general election and they were in a position to offer manifesto pledges. One of them has now scarpered and the other one has already gone back on a promise (not to stand for leadership of his party) which he once said he would be prepared to write on parchment using his own blood. It doesn’t bode well for the Brexit supporters who voted for them in good faith: if they come to think that they’ve been sold a pup there may be hell to pay, but the culprits are bound to find a way of avoiding responsibility. And sadly, the EU itself will no longer be there to serve as a lightning rod for everyone’s grievances.
As a passionate Remainer I’m trying to accept the result with good grace but it’s hard when it was brought about by a campaign eloquently described by Robert Harris as ‘the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime’: words which, incidentally, were written before the announcement of the murder of Jo Cox, the defacement of London’s Polish Social and Cultural Association, and the prominent appearance of a member of Combat 18 among those celebrating the result on the front page of the Sun. I feel, at least, that I understand my country a little better now than I did before 24 June. But I love it a good deal less. Charlie Hebdo’s cover this week showed a bowler-hatted gent sitting on the loo, legs akimbo, pants round his ankles, reading the Sun, ensconced in a tiny wooden khazi on a tiny desert island, with the caption ‘Les Anglais enfin maîtres chez eux.’ It seems a brutally fair portrait of the nation we have revealed ourselves to be.
The EU referendum might have been ‘advisory’ only, but there is dispute over what this means. Can its results be ignored? Could there be a second referendum? Must Parliament enact authorising legislation, or at least give its consent, before Article 50 of the EU Treaty can be triggered? The UK will take one of the most momentous decisions of its recent history amid legal uncertainty as to which procedures should govern this.
As the UK moves into implementing its exit from the EU, the scope for constitutional havoc only increases. The UK has been an EU member for more than forty years, and this has had a huge impact on our constitutional and legal systems which cannot be eradicated overnight. Some have suggested that a withdrawal treaty with the EU is not necessary, that Parliament can simply repeal the European Communities Act of 1972. This is a terrible idea. It would mean the UK openly flouting EU and international law, and threaten the country’s reputation as a reliable treaty partner. There will have to be an EU withdrawal treaty, and then domestic law will have to be changed to expunge EU law from the UK statute books. The European Communities Act will need to be repealed, along with Acts of Parliament implementing EU directives if we do not wish to replace them. Parliament will have to vote in favour of all of this, which cannot be taken for granted. There will be huge gaps in the law, because much EU law is, in the legal jargon, directly effective, which means if the treaties no longer apply, the law no longer applies. So in many important areas – from the regulation of medicines, through to environment law and so on – the UK will have to formulate its own replacements very quickly. Will there be enough civil servants to manage this (there always seem to be enough lawyers)? One suggestion is to accomplish much of this by statutory instrument, or even by what is known as a Henry VIII clause (a ministerial order which can bypass or even overturn Acts of Parliament), but such procedures have a highly undemocratic air and their use would seem rather curious, if the point of Brexit was indeed to regain democracy.
Then there is the potential impact on devolution. In order for EU law to cease to apply domestically, provisions in the devolution statutes, such as the Scotland Act 1998, will have to be repealed to remove the requirement that these legislatures comply with EU law. But the Sewel Convention states that devolved legislatures must give their consent to the repeal, and Nicola Sturgeon has made clear this will not be forthcoming. If the government went ahead nonetheless, it would clearly be acting unconstitutionally, possibly provoking a constitutional crisis – and this before we even consider the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum.
Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but Brexit will mean the creation of an external border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This is a highly significant border, once of course highly militarised. What would happen to the peace process if it were re-established? EU membership of both the UK and Ireland is written into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which is an international treaty in form. Must some of its terms now be renegotiated?
The different nations of the UK have exercised different preferences. It seems that the UK (ironically, rather like the EU) is made up of peoples (those of the four distinct nations of the UK) rather than one people. Does this mean that their distinct votes in the referendum must be respected?
Parliamentary sovereignty was much stressed during the referendum campaign. But it’s unclear what we mean by it. Do we believe in popular sovereignty (as expressed in the voice of the people in a referendum) or in parliamentary sovereignty, even if that means Parliament could overturn the referendum result? And what of the voice of the people in the constituent parts of the UK? Even if the UK does leave the EU, it will still have to cede some parliamentary sovereignty in the thousands of non-EU international treaties it has signed (acting on its external sovereignty in international relations), in which it has accepted the premise of international law: sometimes states give up some sovereignty to gain the benefits of shared actions, and through this ultimately to gain power and sovereignty in certain areas. All of these notions of sovereignty were confused in the referendum debates. These are times of constitutional doubt, possibly chaos.
Northern Ireland ’s deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, greeted the news of the referendum result (56 per cent of the local electorate voted Remain) by embracing one of the principal slogans of the Leave camp. ‘You can have your country back’ was the unmistakable subtext to his demand for a poll on Irish unification. His Brexit-supporting coalition partner, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party, brushed the call aside. Having spent decades calling for majority rule within Northern Ireland, the DUP weren’t keen on putting that principle into practice.
McGuinness must have known that the superficial parallel between Scotland and Northern Ireland was just that. There is no reason to think that a poll on Irish unification would deliver the outcome he hopes for; recent surveys suggest that even the Catholic minority can’t be relied on to vote in overwhelming numbers for a united Ireland. The Brexit vote split roughly along communal lines, with strongly nationalist constituencies like South Down, Foyle and West Belfast delivering the biggest Remain majorities, while unionist strongholds such as North Antrim went for Leave. It can’t have helped the Leave cause among nationalists that its Tory advocates included the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. A report published days before the vote found that RUC Special Branch officers had protected the loyalist paramilitaries who murdered six men as they watched a World Cup match in a country pub in 1994. Villiers had aggressively dismissed talk of state collusion in paramilitary killings as ‘pernicious’; she refused to apologise after the report was published, instead repeating her remarks. Perhaps the joys of untrammelled British sovereignty appeared less appealing after her words, even if the Remain voters can’t all have been nationalists.
If Brexit proves to have a corrosive impact on the union, it will be over the long run, through the crisis it may provoke for the British state. If Scotland breaks away, the multinational polity celebrated by unionist leaders would look rather threadbare (a poll by Lord Ashcroft suggested that Leave voters were more than twice as likely to consider themselves ‘English not British’ or ‘more English than British’). In the short term, Brexit raises questions about the Good Friday Agreement, since the peace settlement is predicated on the Irish and British states remaining members of the EU. John Hume, one of the chief architects of that settlement, once held up European integration as proof that we were entering a ‘post-national’ age when disputes over state sovereignty would no longer be an issue. With the national question rearing its head from Glasgow to Barcelona, his view now seems quixotic.
An Oxfam staffer offered to pick me up from Cardiff Central. The bus service is so depleted and irregular in the Dulais Valley in South Wales that it’s pointless trying to use it for short trips. For people in Banwen, jobs are few and far between, and the lack of public transport doesn’t help. I heard of one case in which Amazon was offering a day’s work on zero-hours contracts at one of its nearby warehouses. They only let you know on the day itself whether or not you’re needed, but the text message they send out arrives too late for you to get the first bus. Rather than risk losing the work, several locals slept in a bus shelter the night before on the off-chance they would be needed.
Outside London, Wales has the highest relative poverty rate anywhere in the UK: one in four adults and one in three children are living below the breadline. Disability rates are alarmingly high, especially in the valleys, down in part to the number of people previously engaged in physically stressful manual work, but there are also high rates of depression. Wales needs infrastructure, and the jobs that would follow. The EU has poured a sizeable sum into Welsh development in the past few decades. Yet in the referendum 52.5 per cent of Welsh voters chose Leave.
In Newport, my home town, Ukip came second in the 2015 general election. I left in 2006, and remember hearing locals grumble back then that Labour thought the seat too safe to be worth their attention. In 2010, the Labour vote dropped by 6.5 per cent in Wales. The Blair years had been positive for Wales at first, but poverty rates remained stubborn, and the jobs that did materialise were often low paid or didn’t last – outsourced to India, like the evening call-centre job I had during my A-Levels. When the coalition government undertook its programme of cuts, benefit sanctions and the bedroom tax fell especially hard on Wales, which has a surplus of family homes and relatively few small dwellings. Jessica Morden, the MP for Newport East, conducted research showing that 51 per cent of people who weren’t in arrears before the bedroom tax was levied, were six months later. Yet many Labour MPs remained reluctant to come out against austerity.
The many people in Wales who have spoken to me see that their own lives are getting harder, and that their children’s future is bleak. They’ve had Labour MPs for decades, under Labour governments and Tory governments, but nothing very much has happened to change their lives or bring jobs. When Tata Steel announced potential job losses in Port Talbot, it merely felt like a continuation of the story that began with the closing of the mines, and the repeated downsizing and mothballing of the steelworks in Newport. Ukip do especially well in Wales because they are seen as anti-establishment. Nigel Farage might have gone to Dulwich College, but he didn’t go to university, and presents himself very differently from the Oxbridge set. Direct democracy offers the opportunity of a protest vote for the disgruntled, especially in the safe seats of Wales: voting to leave was a chance to be heard for once, to kick back at Westminster and the vast majority of Welsh MPs who voted to remain in the EU. And it worked: Wales was heard. And its economic future has been scuppered.
The big guns of the international liberal order were wheeled out to stop us going headlong for the Puerto Rican option: the IMF, the WTO, the OECD. Ten Nobel economists added to the din; Obama wagged a finger; Clinton too. Then Soros. In reply a forest of fingers was stuck in the air. This was a vote against experts and technocrats, and the architects of austerity; it was also a vote against ‘free’, as in free trade and, above all, free movement: the ‘free’ of the global markets and the single European market. People know by now what’s meant by market democracy: markets.
Migrants compound their antagonism, not because they’re everywhere to be seen – much of the Brexit vote came from places where there are very few – but because they epitomise the contradictions of globalisation, between inside and outside, nation and union, and the differing scales which come into play when we start to think about community (remember the European Economic Community) and decide to favour a narrow, tangible definition, based on national exception.
Citizens in other EU countries have had the same trouble with these questions, especially since the Maastricht Treaty. The word ‘treaty’ reminds us that our grandparents were at war seventy years ago. But Brexit is a festive, can-do secession, which blurs memories of the short 20th century, even among pensioners. Not so long ago – at the end of the 1990s – advocates of immigration took their cue from the OECD and argued that without new migrants, coming generations of the elderly would have no one to pay for their pensions. The case for migrants as pension fodder is still being made, even in Germany, with its huge intake of refugees, but it’s another piece of economistic reasoning that doesn’t fly.
In the early 1990s the number of EU-born, non-British people working in the UK was around half a million. The 14 member-states they came from now account for roughly 750,000 migrants in paid work in the UK. But since 2004, the year of the A8 enlargement, the number of European workers from the accession states has grown tenfold from about 120,000 to 1.2 million. (Unlike most of the 15 existing members, the UK under the Blair government chose not to restrict the intake in 2004.) There are now some 3.3 million EU citizens born outside the UK residing in Britain, of whom around two million are in work. I make that around 5 per cent of the total population, and 6 or 7 per cent of the workforce. Perhaps there are still Brexiters who think that being a self-serving annex outside the union – leaning in, like Switzerland, or a member of the EEA, like Norway – would see off EU migration. But even if their absolute intakes are lower, Switzerland and Norway have higher numbers of EU immigrants per head of population than the UK does.
The Migrant Advisory Committee reported in 2014 that of 13 million low-skilled UK jobs in total, two million were taken by migrants, and of those, roughly 40 per cent – 800,0000 – were people born in another EU country. It’s a fair guess that migrants, EU and non-EU, are exploited, though ‘flexible’ working conditions are something we value: according to the MAC, an employer can expect a minimum-wage inspection from Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue once every 250 years. We’re still waiting for proof that native wages at the lower end of the scale are undermined by immigrants. But suppose we’d had it: would that have accounted for 17.4 million votes to leave the EU?
Strictly speaking , Brexit – British departure from the EU – was never on the table. Its champions were given due warning that leaving the EU would jeopardise the very existence of the UK. The result of Thursday’s vote undermines Scottish unionists, one of whose central arguments in 2014 was that independence threatened Scotland’s place in the EU. It also destabilises the Northern Ireland peace process, which depends on a soft border between the six counties and the Republic. The SNP leadership – which was in no hurry to hold a second referendum on independence, unless there was a ‘material change’ in Scotland’s circumstances – has been bounced into that option, which might turn out to be the only way to keep Scotland in the EU; and Martin McGuinness has called for a referendum on Irish unity.
I have learned from bitter experience as a Scottish unionist that the biggest problem we confronted was not the SNP’s dubious case for independence, but the words and deeds of our supposed friends in England, most obviously David Cameron with his disastrous English nationalist speech on the morning after the referendum in 2014, and now the Leave vote. Scotland, as the two recent referendums have shown, has – or had – a double-unionist majority, willing to cling to the UK for fear of something worse, but strongly committed to the EU. Scots have got used to centuries of sovereignty-pooling, and even the ostensible ‘nationalists’ of the SNP – inspired by the party’s in-house legal philosopher, the late Neil MacCormick – had come to embrace interdependence and shared sovereignty. The Anglo-Scottish Union is on life support, and I can see only one way to preserve it: what might be called the ‘reverse Greenland’ solution. Greenland is a self-governing territory of an EU member state, Denmark, but left the EU after a referendum in 1985. Is it possible somehow to reconfigure the UK as a loose confederation of states, with Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted Remain, becoming autonomous member states of the EU in their own right? It would certainly be much less dangerous to have a hard frontier between the EU and Brexitland at the narrow Anglo-Scottish border than along the straggling line of partition between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The maintenance of some kind of connection with Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom would also be essential to keep Ulster Unionists on board, though some shades of unionism have flirted with ideas of Ulster autonomy since the flare up of the Troubles in the late 1960s. Of course, this utopian blueprint is a product of straw-clutching desperation. In Scotland the SNP no longer needs to appeal for independence. All that’s required now is that the SNP persuade Scotland’s double-unionists to support continued ‘union’ with Europe. Yet we are no nearer an answer on the Scottish currency question, and in the wake of the oil price collapse the sums clearly don’t add up; and we shouldn’t forget the obstinate fact that Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK vastly outweighs its trade with the EU. On the other hand, the balance of risk – reputational as well as economic – has shifted decisively. Better Together with whom?
Despite appearances , the referendum has not fatally damaged the Labour Party: its essential character has not changed, though the balance between its strengths and weaknesses probably has. Brexit is simply the latest step in the fundamental rearrangement of the party system, a system that has become increasingly unstable and has already almost destroyed the Lib Dems and, possibly, what survives of the posher Tory leadership. That Cameron was driven to hold two very risky referendums – in a country traditionally hostile to direct democracy – in order to prop it up demonstrates how dysfunctional it had become.
Probably more important for Labour were the 2008 financial crisis, the Scottish referendum and the election of Corbyn as leader. The financial crisis and the 2010 election finished off New Labour as an electorally viable force, while the Scottish referendum drove Labour out of Scotland – an indispensable source of its support. Corbyn’s election via a fatally flawed mechanism that left the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party unable or unwilling to work with him probably hastened the process of decay. But the EU referendum, and the way Labour conducted itself during the campaign, has added nothing new in principle to the problems of the PLP or the wider labour movement. These sooner or later were going to come to a head irrespective of how the country voted on 23 June. When and with what result at the moment we don’t know.
The EU referendum has, nonetheless, revealed how incompatible the various sections of the Labour electorate have become. Corbyn’s unenthusiastic support for Remain, the sense that he was simply going through the motions, which clearly enraged many Labour MPs, means that he is probably closer to the feelings of much of the Labour electorate than the PLP. How the leader and his fellow Labour MPs are to be made compatible is anyone’s guess.
Labour remains strong in many of the areas that voted Leave, and, perplexingly, many that voted Remain: the smaller towns in the industrial North or the outer London boroughs, on the one hand, and the large cities (except Birmingham), the university towns (Labour won nearly all of them at the last election) and Inner London, on the other. The Labour vote is a continuum: at one end are voters who are young or from ethnic minorities or university-educated (or all three); at the other, voters who are older, whiter and not university-educated. In the middle jostle people who are a bit of all these. This is a fragile social base. The party has always been a rocky alliance between the unionised working class and the ‘progressive’ middle class; but its contemporary alliance between the despised Europeanised metropolitan elites and what remains of a unionised industrial working class is looking very rocky – as unstable as the party system itself. It is unlikely that Brexit made it more unstable, though it has possibly hastened its eventual dissolution.
In 2005, the French went to the polls to ratify the proposed EU constitution. They emphatically rejected it. Frexit was not on the cards then, but I remember that there were passionate debates across France. People organised reading groups in cafés to discuss the long and tedious text – one of the best-selling books of the year. There were conflicting narratives: some argued that the new constitution contained progressive provisions, others that it read like an appalling neoliberal prospectus, or even that it was an attack on French sovereignty. The debate helped to clarify the choice the French people would be making.
Despite the high stakes and emotional investment of campaigners on both sides, the debate around Brexit failed to do that. The Remain camp sought to defend an EU that many who were supposed to be on its side – notably Cameron and Corbyn – were not particularly fond of. The Brexit camp was often confused and confusing, but it at least seemed to offer solutions to concrete issues. This is why, in the end, Brexit prevailed.
As a French academic who has been in the UK for the past 22 years, I certainly could not support Brexit, which is going to hit British universities badly. I am the father of a 13-year-old Franco-Portuguese daughter who was born in London and is quintessentially ‘European’. Despite all this, I was not enthused by the Remain message. I am of the view that the EU has shown no interest in fostering solidarity and greater equality. It may be good for business and the markets, but it is not kind to ordinary people. Nonetheless towards the end of the campaign, I outed myself as pro-Remain, because I could no longer stomach the xenophobic message of the Brexit camp.
My French friends, who are for the most part liberal progressives and radical lefties, assumed that British voters had kicked the ‘neoliberal EU’ in the teeth. I explained to them that while this may have been some voters’ intention, Brexit was dominated by conservative and xenophobic forces, and neoliberalism and austerity had therefore been strengthened by the vote.
Afterwards, reflecting on Corbyn’s campaign travails, I wondered why Labour had failed to propose an alternative narrative to that of the Tories. If the EU is undemocratic and harmful to ordinary citizens, why was there no attempt to formulate a Lexit? A positive take on the EU would have talked up the benefits of being part of it, and promoted the idea of a common space in which the values of co-operation and solidarity can thrive. The free movement of people is at the heart of this vision, and contrary to tabloid propaganda, it is a popular idea in Britain and across Europe. Millions of Britons experience the benefits of it when they travel to the Continent to work, study or take holidays. The Labour leader awkwardly tried to articulate this viewpoint, but he was isolated within his own party.
As usual, the Labour right wanted to have its cake and eat it. Most of Labour’s Remain campaigners had no qualms about sharing platforms with Cameron and Osborne. This was highly problematic: though not subjected to the European Stability and Growth Pact, this government has been one of the most zealous proponents of austerity policies in the EU. Yet the Labour campaign kept using the Tories’ discredited economic language, bombarding people with data about GDP, inflation and trade surpluses. Why would any of that appeal to the ‘left behind’ in the Labour heartlands?
While campaigning for the economic status quo – broadly speaking, an EU tailored to maximise the gains of business and the markets – the Labour right went along with the idea that immigration was the reason for people’s misery. Obviously, immigration has to be monitored and organised. That is the responsibility of the government, and the current Tory executive has been inept at it. Successive governments have turned a blind eye to the fact that companies have been paying migrants less than British workers. But the Labour right didn’t question this situation. Instead of looking at raising the minimum wage and protecting the rights of British and foreign workers, Hilary Benn and Co gave credence to the idea that immigration was responsible for the nation’s ills.
Could the left have defended a Lexit? The idea was floated by journalists like Owen Jones and Paul Mason in the early days of the campaign. Both quickly retreated when they realised that the mainstream left had nothing positive to say to its constituencies. They felt that supporting Brexit in the context of a campaign dominated by nationalists, bigots and right-wing careerists would not only be useless but would also backfire for the left. They were right. When xenophobes and demagogues are on the rise it is not the time to argue about the shortcomings of capitalism in a liberal democracy.
The left has good reasons to be critical of the EU in its current form. But it also needed a positive message. The problem for Labour and the unions was not that they didn’t address the question of immigration, but that they went into this battle with no vision, no plan and no ideas.
The strange thing about the EU referendum, which has engendered such heartache, and was supposed to be so definitive, is that it hasn’t settled anything. Will Britain continue to have high levels of immigration or not? We don’t know. Will house prices fall, rise or stay the same? Don’t know. Will Britain continue to be part of the European free trade zone? No idea. Will there be a bonfire of EU environmental regulations? Might be. Might not. Find out some day. Will Scotland stay in the UK, will Ulster, will the British fishing fleet grow or shrink, will foreign investment in Britain collapse or boom, will the City dwindle or thrive, will we ever actually even leave the EU? We don’t know.
Will the referendum help, hinder or make no difference to solving Britain’s problems – the underfunded NHS, tax evasion, the ageing population, the subsistence economy, the privatisation and chainification of the universal networks? We don’t know. The country has been shown to be split down the middle – but didn’t we know that already, and might there not have been a better way to work through it? Like, you know, an election, with policies?
A referendum that settles nothing may still have consequences. While we do not know what plan will eventually be concocted in response to the result, we can be sure now that it will be an enormous waste of time and money.
Another consequence is the endorsement of racism by the Leave campaign. Trying to work out last year why school shootings were carried out by relatively easygoing kids, and not only obsessive loners, Malcolm Gladwell picked up on the work of the sociologist Mark Granovetter, who studied riots. Granovetter concluded that different individuals had different thresholds for looting and throwing rocks, triggered according to how many others they saw doing it. Zero threshold rioters would riot at the drop of a hat, 1 threshold rioters would need to see a first mover act before they joined in, and so on until at a certain point mass disorder would spread to the normally respectable.
It is rational to assume that most of the Vote Leave voters are not racists; we know some of them are eminent, internationalist speakers for the left. But the threshold effect is at work here. After the toxic anti-immigrant campaign of pro-Brexit newspapers, posters, flyers and politicians, extending to Boris Johnson’s crude dig at the ‘part-Kenyan’ Barack Obama, it clearly looks to low-threshold racists as if 17 million Britons just voted to make foreigner-hounding legal, if not an actual duty.
A referendum that settles nothing may be revealing. We now know that we require new political parties, rather than new leaders of the hapless coalitions masquerading as parties. The change hinted at in the first EU referendum, when Tony Benn shared an anti-EU platform with Enoch Powell, has come to pass. Measured by how people would have voted in the 1990s, the referendum was won and lost by half the Conservative and half the Labour Party each: won by the nationalist-patriotic right allied with its traditional class enemy, the working-class left; lost by the libertarian globalist right allied to the liberal globalist left.
We also have confirmation that people don’t object to being lied to, as long as they like the lie. I voted Remain, but I can imagine voting Leave in certain circumstances. I can’t imagine taking such a leap in the dark, no matter how pure my motives, in support of a campaign whose leaders insisted, day after day, night after night, that 350 minus 102 equals 350. One of the leaders who endorsed this claim, Michael Gove, was once entrusted with the education of Britain’s children. I wouldn’t trust him to buy a pint of milk from the corner shop and come back with the right change, but 17 million Britons were sufficiently unbothered about the whole mainstream arithmetic thing to go with his assessment of what the right change was.
‘Sunderland’s citizens,’ the New York Times reports, ‘seem to have voted against their own interests.’ Apparently, the city battered by Thatcherism is ‘a big recipient of European money’ and ‘also the home of a Nissan car factory, Britain’s largest’, and should have voted to remain inside the European Union. Versions of ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ exasperation have proliferated since Brexit; so has the contention that those who voted to exit will not, after all, receive their expected benefits. But the Brexit result is another reminder that individuals and groups, especially those at the receiving end of neoliberalism, may not be inclined to validate rational-choice theory.
Much political activism and responsible journalism aims to banish false consciousness, and to alert its victims to the real sources of their welfare. But success in this endeavour seems more and more elusive, especially in the country that has hosted, in lieu of class struggle, a rancorous culture of ressentiment.
The fires of self-interest flicker here and there among those in India who elected Narendra Modi to power, hoping that he’ll create new industrial jobs for the one million young Indians entering the workforce every month; they certainly blaze brightly among the Davos men who embraced the Hindu supremacist. But what is self-interest in a deindustrialised country wounded by austerity, humiliated by handouts and enraged by a metropolitan elite alternating between callousness and mendacity?
In the neoliberal and technocratic worldview, the quantitative emphasis on what counts and what can therefore be counted (empirical data) has long obscured what does not count (subjective emotions). Today, GDP cultists and pollsters everywhere find themselves helpless before angry electorates convinced, as Belinsky was in his own hopeless situation, that ‘negation is my god.’ Nor can vulgar rationalism cope with the possibility that now universally emergent Underground Man may take pleasure in defying his rational self-interest.
Ressentiment in post-Thatcher Britain was long lucratively stoked by its tabloids, keeping left-behind masses roused with everyday ambushes of evidently globalised elites and their swarthy multicultural wards. It now seems that the vindictive passions were looking for a spectacular final act of negation.
The Etonians who ranged themselves on either side of a reckless referendum confirmed the cunning of unreason. Most of Sunderland’s – and England’s – electorate then found a chance to enact the Underground Man’s rebellion against an overpowering and demeaning reality. ‘Of course,’ he admits, ‘I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it … but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.’
In the space of a year the European Union has lived through two dramatic referendums. The reactions to them on the part of Brussels and national leaders could hardly have been more different, or so it seems. The Greek Oxi wasn’t merely ignored; the EU imposed even harsher terms than it had offered Athens in the first place. The British No was greeted by Jean-Claude Juncker with the lament ‘Je suis triste’; Angela Merkel confessed that she shared the feeling, but also insisted ‘We are politicians,’ and that dwelling on one’s feelings was not part of the job. So, the British government is actually being held to the result; no fudging or referendums until the results are right, as with the Lisbon Treaty. Leave means leave. What do these two reactions tell us about the future of the EU? That sometimes democratic decisions are respected, and sometimes not?
The outcome is not as arbitrary as it might seem. In both cases, the EU wanted to deter copycats: hold a national referendum on a particular policy question and you might get something even more painful than what comes of a compromise worked out in Brussels; do an in-out vote cynically calculated to get a special deal and you may really be out. Within the EU, policy decisions cannot be made subject to national referendums whenever it suits particular politicians – although the EU has yet to be consistent in its application of this princple. Victor Orbán is set to hold a referendum in the autumn on the question: ‘Do you want the EU, even without the approval of the Hungarian parliament, to be able to prescribe the mandatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?’ The government in Budapest is already engaged in a massive campaign to ensure a No vote. It is not clear how Brussels will react. What is clear, though, is that the EU would be finished if everyone did this sort of thing.
A clear in-out is a different matter. The EU is at a point where many projects of integration are half-finished. As a result, it is plainly dysfunctional: we have one currency, but not one economic government to address imbalances in the Eurozone; there is one border, but no coherent border protection regime in the Schengen zone. These projects could be completed, or perhaps they should be dismantled; but they cannot work in their present state. Hence there is a certain logic in accepting that countries wanting nothing to do with them (but, like the UK, eager to preserve a veto for the sake of special interests like the City) would be better out altogether.
It is a huge symbolic blow for the EU that a country is leaving which in many respects is the most Europeanised (the British higher education system, for example, is in effect the pan-European higher education system) and that has shaped the Union in its image in decisive ways (see my article in the LRB of 2 June). But it is not illegitimate in the way that national free-riding is – the likes of Orbán want all the benefits and none of the burdens. For politicians who claim to do analysis and not affect, Brexit is a real loss (not least for Europe’s power on the world stage). But it is also a potential moment of clarity or even, as Matteo Renzi put it, Kairos: the EU might be shocked into cleaning up its act.
I’m an American (sort of), but by a fluke I was in a hotel in Cheltenham on the night of the vote, trying to get a decent post-transatlantic flight’s sleep before driving north with the family on holiday. I’d never been to Cheltenham before, and nothing I found there enlightened me about the referendum result. True, as in most British cities, your coffee is made by a twenty-something Spaniard and your hotel room cleaned by a thirty-something Eastern European. Perhaps this is what the Leavers object to, but the (English) hotel clerk had voted Remain, as had all his friends and as had the town. He was as bewildered and disconcerted as all the other young people interviewed on BBC News that morning.
But I couldn’t spend my time glued to the TV screen, because by 5.30 a.m. I was en route to the local A&E department with a child with a blinding headache. The plastic chairs and lino floors in the waiting room seemed reassuringly familiar, the only new note the large signs warning those not entitled to NHS service to be prepared to pay. But when I tried, neither the kind nurse who gave my son a painkiller nor the doctor who efficiently diagnosed his ear infection nor the pharmacist who filled the prescription showed much interest in my money. Children aren’t charged for prescriptions, the pharmacist told me when I tried to pay her.
It’s nice to find this reflexive kindliness and solidarity still exists, given how hard the last few governments have worked to eradicate it. Nothing was so dispiriting about the run-up to this referendum as the inability of most politicians backing Remain to articulate any common purpose for ‘Europe’ beyond the need to keep the global market going. Unsurprisingly, this argument had no effect on a population sick of insecure employment and benefit cuts; it fed all too neatly into Nigel Farage’s duplicitous and idiotic claim that an exit from Europe would free up huge stashes of cash for welfare spending and the NHS. Few things are certain right now, but the idea that a post-Cameron Conservative government will break with austerity and adopt redistributive policies seems especially delusional. It was the EU that mandated aid to depressed regions like Cornwall which voted Leave anyway and are now – in a bleary, morning-after sort of way – scrambling to secure comparable support from central government.
I am a privileged, rootless cosmopolitan. I was born in one country, hold nationality in a second and third, and study a fourth. I sometimes feel apologetic about my lack of national belonging, but with xenophobia on the march across Europe and (especially) the United States, it seems particularly urgent to find more forms of solidarity that are not based on nationality. John Stuart Mill opposed Irish Home Rule not, as many of his fellow Englishmen did, because he thought the Irish backward and incapable of self-government, but because he thought the connection saved both the English and the Irish from cultural insularity.
That is still the best argument for the EU. And, amid the wreckage of the present moment, with both major political parties fissuring, I find it heartening that the overwhelming majority of Britons under thirty appear to be Millians, repelled by anti-immigrant rhetoric and seeing themselves as Europeans as well as Londoners or Liverpudlians or Glaswegians. Those generations will, thankfully, be around long after Farage is gone. Referendums are a terrible way to conduct foreign policy: I admire Angela Merkel’s willingness to promise asylum to a million Syrians, but I’m glad she wasn’t stupid enough to submit that promise to a popular referendum. But, for all its flaws, the European project won the support of 48 per cent of the population of its most historically ambivalent and carping member. I don’t think that loyalty can be undone by one narrow vote.
Profoundly anti-democratic and anti-constitutional, the EU obliges you to leave by the only act it recognises: the referendum, which can be ignored as a snap decision you didn’t really mean. If you are to go ahead, it must be by your own constitutional machinery: crown, parliament and people; election, debate and statute. This will take time and deliberation, which is the way decisions of any magnitude should be taken.
The Scots will come along, or not, deciding to live in their own history, which is not what the global market wants us to do. Avoid further referendums and act for yourselves as you know how to act and be.
We have been told that the referendum represents some kind of ‘victory for democracy’ (Express). ‘The great thing about Thursday,’ Ian Leslie wrote in the New Statesman, ‘is that so many people voted’; ‘Brexit brought democracy back,’ Giles Fraser said in the Guardian; many others have said similar things. Yes, the consequences of Brexit are going to be painful, perhaps especially for those who voted for it, but the people have spoken.
But what most Leavers voted for is not what’s going to happen. The reality of Brexit is not a reflection of the will of the people. Huge numbers of Leave voters were swayed either by the claim that leaving the EU would save us loads of money, which could then be spent on such things as the NHS, or that it would reduce the number of immigrants coming to live in the UK. Both of these claims, as leading figures in the Leave campaign have now admitted, were false. Iain Duncan Smith distanced himself from Vote Leave’s assertion that Brexit would free up £350 million for reinvestment in the NHS; Nigel Farage agreed that the claim had been ‘a mistake’. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP, told the BBC that Leave voters expecting to see a significant drop in immigration from the EU should prepare to be ‘disappointed’. The UK’s fishermen, it turns out, will still have to abide by EU quotas. As it has become clear that the Brexit we’ll get, if we get one at all, is not the Brexit they were sold, a sad and sorry procession of Leave voters has come forward saying they regret their vote. Other Leavers will continue to insist that the post-referendum government conform to the fantasy that seduced them, and throw tantrums – there have been a few already – when it fails to do so.
Deceit is a widely tolerated aspect of the way ‘democracy’ functions in the UK. (In 2010 the Tories said they’d balance the books by 2015, get net immigration down to tens of thousands, be tough on tax avoidance, not raise VAT, protect the NHS, end child poverty by 2020, cut the number of MPs and be the greenest government ever. They were lying.) Indeed, the deceitful character of Westminster politics was one of the things that encouraged people to vote Leave, little suspecting that their own side was even more mendacious. One of the most infuriating things about the way the referendum played out is that the information was available to show people planning to vote Leave that they were being conned – it just didn’t get through to them. ‘If the UK Votes to Leave’, for instance, a pamphlet published by the Centre for European Reform in January, makes it very clear that the options for Britain post-Brexit that look least like harakiri – joining the EEA (the Norwegian option), signing up to the single market for goods but not for services (the Swiss option), or signing up to some other customised trade agreement – all involve continuing to contribute to the EU budget and accepting the free movement of labour. Among other things, Leave was a protest vote against globalisation, but post-Brexit, there’s every chance we’ll get more of that, not less. Instead of telling people this, George Osborne threatened them with punitive tax hikes if they voted to Leave, a gesture pretty much guaranteed to trigger the big ‘Up Yours’. It also didn’t help that Corbyn didn’t seem able to endorse his party’s line without also slagging off the EU. When asked how passionate he was, on a scale of one to ten, about Remaining, he replied: ‘seven, or seven and a half’.
Anyone who thought Boris Johnson was the rough beast whose hour had come, should consider Arron Banks. In 2014, Banks, a businessman with an estimated wealth of £100 million, defected from the Tory Party to fund Ukip. As the main backer of Leave.EU, the unofficial Leave campaign, Banks adopted ‘an American style media approach’: ‘Facts don’t work,’ he said. ‘You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’ Banks now says he intends to replace Ukip (and Nigel Farage) with a new party: ‘I think Ukip needs to be reformed root and branch and we will be looking at that. With a million supporters there’s also a wonderful opportunity if we want to do something, to back something. I think a new party, a brand new party … I think we have a good shot at taking over from Labour as the opposition because Labour are imploding and Labour voters for the first time ever have defied their party, voting for Leave … We are not above causing trouble. Our job is that the public get what they voted for.’ For the time being, Banks has thrown his weight behind Andrea Leadsom, the most right-wing of the candidates for the Tory leadership.
In the absence of a halfway believable Labour Party, and unless the next Tory administration squares the circle and reconciles tight control of immigration with economic prosperity, a resurgent Ukip, unencumbered by liberal scruples or a need to respect facts, could plausibly clean up in the Leaver heartlands. Who knows, maybe it will end up holding the balance of power. If you want to get a sense of the kind of world that would bring closer, go and read Arron Banks’s Wikipedia entry.
The decomposition of the modern state has reached a new stage, in the very country where the modern state was invented. It was the UK under Thatcher that blocked the development of the EU into a supranational welfare state on the postwar British model associated with Keynes, Beveridge and T.H. Marshall. Since then the neoliberal revolution, led by the US and the UK, has for ever closed this window. Instead of protecting Europeans from the maelstrom of the world market, the EU has turned into a powerful engine of liberalisation in the service of a deep economistic restructuring of social life. Under the aegis of the EU, the UK has reverted to being two nations, a nation of winners using the globalised world as their extended playing field, and a nation of losers driven from their commons by another firestorm of primitive accumulation. Seeking refuge in democratic protection, popular rule, local autonomy, collective goods and egalitarian traditions, the losers under neoliberal internationalism, unexpectedly returning to political participation, place their hopes on their nation-state. But the existing architecture of statehood is no longer designed to accommodate them, certainly not in the land of Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. Here, those lucky enough to command subnational political and institutional resources, in Scotland in particular, hope to use the EU’s supranational state regime to break up the national state regime of the UK, nota bene to regain and extend local control, and clearly not to cede it to an authority even more remote than London.
Discontent is widespread. In many other European countries, a similar referendum would have had a similar result. Clearly supranational superstate-building has failed as a political programme, and so, as is now becoming apparent, has the centralised market-building nation-state designed by Thatcher. What comes next? The extent of post-referendum confusion in Britain shows how difficult the issues are. That, for different reasons, the Leave supporters had no Plan A, and the sitting government no Plan B, should not be a surprise. What is surprising are the calls for another referendum, Brussels style, ‘until they get it right’ – and more surprising still is the anti-Corbyn putsch got up by the same Blairites who were so crushingly deserted by Labour voters. The agenda is daunting. How to balance local and cosmopolitan identity, and how to deal with their different combinations of places, classes, interests? How to combine local protection and global participation? Distinguish protection of traditional ways of life and diversity from xenophobia and racism, and progressivism from elitism? Where to draw the lines, where to open up, to defend borders, work out compromises, accept living with conflicts and contradictions, and respect passions and interests that we don’t share?
In the end it will be up to the left to find constructive answers. At the level of European institution-building, one might think about using the impending negotiations on Britain’s links with the remainder of the EU to make Europe more flexible, less hierarchical, more voluntary, and more in line with what is called ‘subsidiarity’ in Eurospeak. A Europe of ‘variable geometry’ might be attractive not just to post-membership Britain, and pre-membership Scotland, but also to the small countries on the margins of today’s EU, like Denmark and Switzerland, not to speak of would-be countries like Catalonia or, perhaps, Wales. I could imagine something like an EU-lite, a platform for voluntary co-operation between countries and regions through treaties and conventions, a flexible social compact of self-governing political units, often smaller than the large nation-states of today and taking advantage of their small size and the associated ease of movement and decision-making to position themselves productively in the global system, according to their specific resources and capabilities. Such a structure would have to be created bottom-up, bypassing the would-be Leviathan, or Behemoth, in Brussels; it would offer an alternative pattern of European integration and perhaps of modern international statehood, below the superstate envisaged under the ‘ever closer union’ formula of the old, now outdated treaties, and open to all EU member countries, including members of the EMU. (Interesting models of a two-level currency union are now in circulation.) Not a Europe of two speeds, as French and German integrationists have sometimes proposed, but one of two kinds, competing for national and subnational adherence until France and Germany are left as the only members of the old Brussels establishment.
Every fortnight the Institute of Race Relations publishes a round-up of racist incidents and far right activity. Many of the stories – verbal abuse on public transport, vandalism of religious memorials or places of worship, poorly attended protests by extremist groups – are culled from the local press. They’re not usually considered important enough to merit national media attention.
Now they are. On Saturday, a photograph of a National Front demonstration in Newcastle, at which a handful of supporters hung a banner demanding the ‘repatriation’ of immigrants, went viral on Twitter. Reports of EU migrants and British citizens of visible ethnic minority backgrounds being insulted or told to ‘go home’, collected under the hashtag #postrefracism, began to flow in. A Polish cultural centre in West London was sprayed with graffiti. Sima Kotecha, a Today programme reporter, was called a ‘Paki’ in her home town during a discussion on immigration and Brexit. According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, 85 hate crimes were reported between Thursday and Sunday, an increase of 57 per cent compared with the equivalent four days last month.
Anecdotes on Twitter are difficult to verify, and reports of hate crimes can go up when more people are looking out for them, but even so it seems clear that the referendum has led to a spike in public harassment. Yet it would be a mistake to think that the referendum campaign created this racism out of nothing, or that it’s the preserve only of those who voted Brexit. While the Leave campaigns focused on a series of racist myths – the effect of Turkey’s proposed accession to the EU; a flood of refugees from the Middle East – politicians on the Remain side have also taken xenophobic positions. It was Cameron’s government that introduced the recent immigration act which turns landlords into an extension of the border police, and Cameron himself who talked of ‘swarms’ of migrants at Calais. Labour carved the words ‘controls on immigration’ into a stone tablet during the 2015 general election campaign.
Two destructive myths now circulate in British public life. One is that the ‘white working class’ is an endangered species that needs to be pandered to by politicians of left and right. The other is that Brexit was the fault of a stupid and racist underclass who should be put back in their box as quickly as possible. Neither does justice to the complexity of British society or to the grievances of people from different ethnic backgrounds whose communities have been set adrift by deindustrialisation and decades of inequality. It’s a shame that another photo from Newcastle, of the much larger anti-fascist demonstration across the road, didn’t circulate as widely. The National Front has been demanding the repatriation of immigrants since 1967. And like every other far right movement in British history, it has been vociferously opposed from within the communities it enters. Brexit, which was also supported by a large and rather less closely examined proportion of middle-class voters, has emboldened racists and given right-wing demagogues an unprecedented opportunity. What we need now are politicians with the confidence to push back.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.