Friday, 24 June 2016 06:56

A Brexit Reaction: Why this feels like a national mistake

Written by
Brexit UK2
Photo courtesy: Isabell Wutz;

Unsurprisingly, waking up this morning to see that the people of the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union was a tough pill to swallow. It's not how I voted, and it's not how my lefty-liberal bubble voted. Alas that doesn't matter, and as a progressive Brit, it feels like it's now partially my responsibility to work and campaign to make sure that the scenarios we've all been scared of don't come to pass.

There is something devastating about this though.

My fear now of course is that 'popular opinion' is irrevocably different from my own: That I share very little with the people who have voted to put the UK on an ill-defined, probably isolationist cause. Rhetoric in my comforting Twitter corner had been reassuringly reflective of my state of mind—tired, hysterical, a little desperate but yet again it leaves me beyond apprehensive about the political conversations other people are having.

Whilst this is alarmist and an exaggeration borne out of disappointment, it is probably true to say that major cultural and ideological divides in UK politics has been exposed over the past few weeks. (This in itself is not surprising, but that the divide is not, on the whole, between the main political parties just might be.)

Demographically divided polls have repeatedly suggested that in this referendum the British public has been split along lines of class, age, education and geography. These fault lines look unlikely to disappear any time soon. The two major political parties in the UK —the Conservatives who are, for the time being, led by the Prime Minister David Cameron (Author's note: Not any more), and the Labour Party, are simultaneously split in different ways. The Conservatives (Tories) roughly down the middle, whilst the Labour Party continues to struggle between, as Novara Media's Aaron Bastani explains in the London Review of Books, serving its young, metropolitan and well-educated members and campaigners, and the traditional blue collar voters who overwhelmingly seem to have supported leave in England's regions. This is a progressive political problem, not a people problem, and somehow, it's up to progressive politicians to win back the trust of people who have overwhelmingly voted in a manner expressing their disaffection. 

I guess it's up to young people to find it.

Then there is Nigel Farage's Ukip, a party its leader has characterised as 'the canary in the mineshaft' in regard to the EU and this debate, and whose raison d'etre has long been to force a referendum like yesterday's. Ukip's base is largely drawn from the same white working class voters who have flocked to Donald Trump in the US and similar populist right-wing parties across Europe. A particularly odious poster portraying migrants in Slovenia last year paired with the phrase 'Breaking Point' was both a nadir, and illustrative of Ukip's political positions. They may have only won one parliamentary seat at the May 2015 General Election, but finished second in many (particularly Northern) constituencies, and many commentators expect them to seriously threaten many Labour seats in the next election. Especially now. Especially after today.

What this all means is that the campaigning of the last few months and the result announced this morning will have emboldened many in a fiercely divided country. Political disaffection and the almost comical lack of trust placed in professional or 'expert' opinions during the campaigns has signalled a malignancy in our democracy, and frankly it's hard to know what happens next. In the absence of a coherent Opposition, it is currently difficult to see much hope. I guess it's up to young people to find it.

The death of the Labour MP Jo Cox last week was a watershed moment. That a fascist terrorist gunned down a model MP, who proudly campaigned for compassionate attitudes to migration felt like one of the darkest moments for the United Kingdom in my lifetime. You see, in truth this whole situation has been barely really about leaving the EU at all, as much as that feels a huge national mistake. This debate has become a proxy fight over what the UK believes in. Whether we like it or not. Whether that’s what our government wanted or not. This thing, probably just intended as a negotiating point in a coalition agreement long ago, took on another, rougher dimension, and this is what we've been left with— a country divided, a country that was utterly desperate to find some outsider (in this case the EU) to blame for our ills. We've probably just voted our way into a recession, another Scottish Independence vote, and who knows what else. (The Leave campaign certainly have long seemed to have little concrete ideas. I hear we get our sovereignty back, because we all know this makes up for the myriad benefits of being a part of the EU.)

It feels as though the people in the country have been used as part of some horrible political game.

Elsewhere it's hard not to feel that the disingenuous Leave campaign, the years upon years of lurid, misleading-at-best tabloid newspaper headlines, and the denigration of statistics and expertise has been a dirty and upsetting way to win a campaign. It feels as though the people in the country have been used as part of some horrible political game. This precedent is horrifying to me. Nigel Farage (schoolboy fascist?)being believed and Boris Johnson's politicking have resulted in something drastic. People have literally voted against their own economic interests based on gut feelings and dog-whistle speeches. Some will have had an idea of the occasionally voiced intellectual argument for leaving, but let's not kid ourselves, that's not the campaign the leavers have run— many people have voted out of insecurity about their jobs and their communities. Because that's what they've been told. 

We are on the cusp of something awful — a solidifying of national (and international, see: Trump, D) sentiment in a way that is wholly unpleasant and scary, but maybe it’s a ‘darkest before the dawn’ moment, and it’s up to us to come up with something to believe in again.

The generational divide I mentioned earlier is confusingly both one of the more miserable elements of the whole Brexit debate, and also one of the reasons for hope. Young people have polled as dramatically more in favour of the EU, and indirectly of compassionate treatment of refugees and a generally more open-minded and progressive approach to the world. Older The Financial Times illustrated this well earlier in the month. 

As the wreckage settles and I look ahead with trepidation to no longer sharing EU citizenship with many of you, that's what I'm clinging to. Let's hope that one of the most astounding political projects of the last century doesn't capitulate because of this, and let's hope that the Britain which emerges from this decision is able to confront its prejudices. For the sake of jobs and personal finances, let's hope so-called Project Fear really was as ridiculous as the Brexiteers made it sound. (Author's note: The financial markets appear to think it was more like Project Honest. I hope someone has some gold handy.)

As a Brit I'm nervous about the next few years and I'm nervous about what this means for the rest of Europe — will France or the Netherlands follow our disreputable lead and seek to leave the EU? Will an independent Scotland join the EU? Most of all though, I'm nervous that this is only the start. What on earth are the implications of this day? The UK Prime Minister has already resigned, what next?

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Last modified on Friday, 24 June 2016 21:13

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