The Brexit Symptom
So the UK has voted to leave the EU, a public referendum with a 72% turnout leading to a result of 52% out vs 48% in.
This is devastating of course, both in real terms (as you can see from the signs already taking place, such as the pound dropping the most it’s ever done, over $2 trillion being wiped off global markets as a result, and various international firms already talking about relocating their European headquarters to places that are still actually European), as well as symbolically. This is a victory for the type of people who fronted the Leave campaign – the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – who are already rowing back on their bold “assertions” (read: “outright lies”) that they used to coax the public into voting for them, in a backtracking speed impressive even for politics. The two most immediately noticeable ones are those based on two of the main reasons people voted Leave in the first place – Farage has admitted that the 350 a week sent to the EU that could be spent on the NHS instead will not in fact be going to the NHS, and Hannan has admitted that despite this being all about controlling foreign labour, leaving the EU will not actually affect the movement of foreign labour in any real sense.
So what won the referendum for the Leave campaign? There appeared to be three main points that lent them power:
- We send so much money to the EU, when they do nothing for us – we could spend that money on ourselves, in particular our ailing National Health Service.
- Immigration is out of control, but there’s nothing we can do about it as EU rules mean free movement – so we can’t stop that until we vote out.
- We’ve lost control of our sovereignty, as our laws are now dictated by the unelected EU government rather than our own elected UK government. Leaving is the democratic choice.
We have already, within the first 24 hours of the result being announced, had the first two retracted by those who led the campaigns in the first place. The third has been thoroughly debunked plenty in the past few weeks/months, and it’s only a matter of time before someone from the Leave campaign admits that’s a huge lie as well (from the link, the UK has been on “the losing side” in Brussels on just 2% of occasions in 17 years).
But there is plenty out there on that stuff, so I’m not going to dwell on it. But given the central focus of immigration in this campaign, it’s easy to see this as a win by small-minded, self-interested, xenophobic “Little Englanders”, who hate those damn immigrants and want those dark faces out of “their” country. And to a certain extent, that’s true. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that, and I don’t want to dwell on that either. I think it’s the logical conclusion of a political style that has been building for a long time in the mainstream, and a warning for all the other countries out there currently walking down exactly the same path.
The voting was pretty neatly divided along certain lines. Those who voted to Leave tended to be older, poorer people of lower education. They tended to live in rural areas. Voters who were younger, better educated, or of higher income, also those who tended to live in the cities (especially London) voted to Remain. You have to feel bad for Scotland, who just last year held their own referendum on independence from the UK, and ultimately decided to stay in – largely due to wanting to stay in the EU.
So why would the older, poorer, less educated people in rural Britain be so against immigration and the EU? After all, they are surely the ones least affected by it. Floods of Bulgarian immigrants aren’t pouring over the border to settle in Boston or South Holland – the two regions where the Leave vote was the strongest.
It’s hard to say how long exactly, but over the last 10, 15, 20 years, it would probably be fair to say that Britain has become a worse place to live for many people. Perhaps not objectively, on absolute terms – we have high-speed internet and access to many things that we did not have previously, for example – but in relative terms. Especially noticeable since the 2008 financial crash, the government has consistently pursued policies that aim to protect and advance the financial elite, while abandoning the vast majority of the people, and making them pay the cost. Anywhere outside of London has essentially been ignored or sacrificed. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has steadily increased, and instead of trying to address this and make the country a decent place for people to live, the government has instead gone out of its way to obfuscate the figures, proliferating things like zero-hour contracts to bring the unemployment figures down, while creating a complete lack of job security. The cost of living has gone up, and the available funds people have, have gone down.
Targets to develop affordable housing to meet demand have consistently failed to be met, putting intense pressure on a market that has then completely failed to be meaningfully regulated in any way, allowing property prices, and as a consequence, rent, to balloon thoroughly out of control, resulting in the now-widely-recognised fact that an entire generation has essentially been priced out of ever being homeowners. A slightly different form of feudalism is appearing, where a few landowners lord over the common people, dictating their terms of life, while the serfs toil daily in the new version of the fields, just trying to earn enough to pay their board – which results in the fortunes of the few increasing ever further, allowing them to buy up more property…
Many people are angry at the way things have developed. There is a seething resentment at the way things are, bubbling under the surface of the public. This has been known for a long time – pieces on the need for a “revolution” or some kind of total breakdown of the current broken capitalist structure of cronyism as the only way to fix the mess have frequently appeared. But the rise of the career politician has meant that rather than fix these issues and help the country, the politicians are more interested in pointing the finger elsewhere while trawling in as much personal cash and influence with both arms as possible while they can.
In that environment, the EU referendum was called – itself an irresponsible vote-grab by the Tories in an attempt to once again point the finger elsewhere – all our troubles come from the EU! Not farcical internal mismanagement by your own government! – based on the gamble that enough of the country would be smart enough to remain in the EU, which would allow the government a further cushion of unaccountability. In the result of a Remain vote (which everybody predicted), the government could continue to act with impunity, as every point of blame that would arise in the future could be turned back on the public: “Well, this is the EU’s fault, and you voted to stay with them, so really, it’s your fault!”.
But in typical Tory fashion, they failed to engage with the real people living in their country, and failed to see just how angry the people were. In London, where most of the debate took place, the majority voted to Remain. The rest of the country, marginalised and insulted for at least the past 15 years, finally had an opportunity to rail against an identifiable target that they were constantly being told was the source of all their misery. And they took it. The rhetoric from the government over the past years, and particularly the past few months, has been consistently toxic and accusatory, and facts have taken a very distant back seat. In fact, it turns out that it’s not until after the vote that people have thought to actually find out what they’ve just voted for, and on seeing the results after having their moment of releasing their frustration, many regret their decision – this information was certainly not prominent during the campaign. The result is that the country is now starting a slide back to an even worse place, the lives of those who voted for it will continue to get worse (as there is no doubt, at least under this current government, that the rest of the country will be sold up the river to any degree necessary in order to create the barest amount of help for the financial industry – the only industry the government cares about), and once again, the people themselves will be blamed for it.
The scariest part of all this, and the part that I desperately want people to notice, isn’t the fact that the UK has just taken a massive step down (and will likely continue to take more as the years roll on). I feel that the most important lesson now is to realise that the environment that caused this huge act of self-harm is not unique to the UK. Brexit is a symptom of a people who have been repeatedly sidelined, insulted, sacrificed, devalued and lied to. The UK in this respect is quite typical to many other countries out there right now. The US is on the verge of voting in Donald Trump based on much of the same sentiment. NZ and Australia continue to vote in governments following the same path. All across Europe, far-right parties are coming to the fore and gaining unprecedented support for similar reasons. It’s not inconceivable that the entire world is on the verge of breaking.
The European Union was created in the ashes of World War II in the hopes that united countries would find more in common with each other and stop the war and bloodshed that had characterised the continent for much of the previous millennium. People were prepared to stop blaming each other for their problems, stop acting entirely in their own self-interest, and start working together. Those messages are now gone. All around the world, the only interest anybody seems to have is in themselves. A gain to oneself of $10 at the expense of $1,000 to another is seen as a perfectly fair decision – and in fact in many circles, the only sensible one. The real solution should be to create mutual wealth – if everyone follows that path, we all end up poorer, but if we all went the other way, and sacrificed a little each, we’d all end up so much richer. The problems our societies are facing are largely not due to the shadowy “them”, they are due to the smirking faces right in front of us, shovelling cash into their pockets as they distract us by pointing fingers across the sea. They need to be held accountable. There needs to be a resurgence of unity, and the left, and a condemnation of the right, who have risen themselves up so high on platforms of suspicion, fear, selfishness and pettiness.
The UK is gone, but hopefully this can at least be a wakeup call for other countries to change direction and not go down the same path. Please.