All posts, Articles, Politics & Public Administration

BREXIT: The road to God-knows where

By Owen Worth, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

On the 23rd June the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU, thus becoming the first nation to endorse an exit since Greenland in 1985 and the first sovereign state. Due to the rather ad hoc nature of the British Constitution it is unclear how binding the vote is, but it is expected that the British Government will activate article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which will start the process of withdrawal. The fall-out of the result has led to the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, confusion over his successor and has plunged the Labour Party into further turmoil. 

What is perhaps of even more concern is the nature of the post-Brexit landscape that will emerge and the knock-on effect this will have in Britain, Ireland, Europe and beyond. Talk of a Norwegian or a Swiss style model where the UK stay in the European Economic Area (EEA) but remain outside of the EU institutions has been mooted. This however would mean that they will have to approve a freedom of movement policy. Along with Ireland, the UK brokered a deal with the EU to ensure that certain controls on border checks remained. The fact that the central message of the leave campaign was against the very fabric of freedom of movement and that these controls did not go far enough to stem the tide of migration to Britain make it very difficult for any subsequent government merely to ignore it. Therefore, unless the UK can negotiate a special relationship where they remain inside the EEA and influence an EU policy on freedom of movement from a position outside of the intuitions where they are government, the UK may have to isolate itself from European Economic Regionalism altogether. This would mean it would either have to make bilateral trade relations alone or form special relationships with the many regional trading bodies across the world (EU, NAFTA, ASEAN etc).

From an Irish point of view, not only has Brexit the potential of plunging the Republic’s economy back into serious recession due the close trading and consumer relationship between the two Islands, but it could lead to the restoration of a land border in Ireland if the UK cannot address the freedom of movement in the EEA/EU negotiations. Feelings within the six counties have already been stirred during the referendum, with strong Unionist areas favouring Brexit against others that overwhelmingly favoured Remain. This led Martin McGuinness to question the legal validity of the North remaining part of an UK outside of the EU jurisdiction. Results elsewhere have led to more serious questions over the future existence of the UK as it currently is. The sheer polarisation of the vote where remain in Scotland won every single constituency and where in London they overwhelming came out on top suggest that a greater constitutional crisis is imminent. A second Scottish referendum on independence seems inevitable and with the London Assembly looking to flex its muscles to keep the financial heartland within Europe, the health of United Kingdom appears terminal. The Brexit negotiations therefore might just resemble an attempt to keep a structure together, whilst pulling out the bottom layer of bricks.

From Socialism to Nationalism?

So why did the UK endorse such a withdrawal? Many commentators have already been quick to claim that the vote was the result of an emergence of xenophobia and racism brought about as a backlash to the EU’s freedom of movements. Others have suggested that it has been more of a class reaction, and, to quote from the Guardian’s John Harris, a belief that ‘if you’ve got money, you vote in, if you haven’t you vote out’. Both conclusions have been partly true but do not tell the whole story. The reality was that the vote polarised Britain like never before. Voter cleavages were apparent between the rural and the urban, the metropolitan and the small town, ethnic groups and the old and the young. These were far more profound than the traditional north/south divide in England and saw (for example) Bournemouth and the New Forest gain similar splits to Doncaster and Barnsley. Large cities saw affluent areas and ethnically dominated impoverished inter-city areas voting to remain, whilst those more ‘middle of the road’ or ‘traditional’ wards favoured Leave. Perhaps more alarmingly however was the estimation that younger voters under 25 voted as much as 80% to stay in the EU, whilst those over retirement age (65) endorsed leave by up to 65-70%. This in itself provides us with the bizarre reality that those who will contribute towards the working economy of a post-Brexit would have endorsed to remain in an EU that they are now leaving.

When taking in these statistics, explanations that voters looked to restore an ‘England of a bygone era’ might have led to some voting the way they did. The conviction that leaving the EU would somehow lead to a New England where its indigenous cultures are maintained amidst the multiculturalism that has marked modern Europe. In this way, it can be seen as a reactionary attack on the fabric of not just the EU, but on immigration, multiculturalism and the socio-economic dimension of globalisation. It would also suggest that this is a project of ‘English Nationalism’ rather than a nostalgia of the ‘British Empire’. In traditional working class towns it also suggests something else. The post-war socialism which was built in such areas through the labour movement within the factory and the mill has been replaced by a nationalism which the young are increasingly disenfranchised. The historical narrative here would explain how Thatcherism destroyed such communities, New Labour abandoned them for the new urban elites and then Cameron and Osborne added austerity to the mix. UKIP, the BNP (before them) and groups such as Britain First provide a way out and immigration becomes a convenient scapegoat. It is also in these areas that the young did not come out to vote. Whilst those under 25 might have overwhelming voted in favour of the EU, under 40% actually voted with a higher percentage in more deprived areas both in smaller towns and in larger urban areas.

Yet, the vote was not just about nationalism. In Wales, the national newspaper the Western Mail claimed hours before the count that the large majority would follow Scotland and London into voting Remain. The final result however saw a narrow leave victory which although down from England was on a par with the overall average across the UK. The reasons for this included a rejection of the political class, which they thought had deserted them and – as politicians in Wales placed all their efforts into the previous month’s election – the belief that the referendum could be used as a protest vote. Despite providing Wales with funds to enable the Assembly to prosper, the negative connotations of the EU – elitism, anti-democratic, the favourer of big business and heightened by the negative reports of the troika impact in neighbouring Ireland made the protest vote popular. This was not helped by the wider threats which they perceived were coming from the EU if they dared to challenge their authority.

Back in Northern England, for some voters, the old labour rejection of the EU, typified by the now deceased socialist stalwart Tony Benn and still held by similar influential veterans such Arthur Scargill and Denis Skinner, held as much weight now as it did when the 27 EU members were much just 8 or 9 in the 70s and early 80s. A leave vote provided a chance for traditional socialism to have a final say against a world that had transformed against it since Thatcherism overwhelmed and defeated the Bennites three debates beforehand. Broken communities long broken providing a final change to kick back against a political system that it felt has long since gave up on them. The ‘lexit’ (or left-wing) argument that had been aired during the campaign, which contended that a Leave vote would strike the first blow against neoliberal capitalism was not one that really took off beyond academic debate. Yet, it was in the industrial waste-lands of Northern England and South Wales that communities were still battle scared from the strikes of the 1980s and where the veterans of those battles came out to vote. For them, the EU was just as much of an ally to big business as Thatcher was decades before.

 Cameron joins the ‘Upper-Class Twits’

If all these factors had the potential to materialise and destabilise the country, it begs the question why did Cameron risk it? He knew that for generations the British political culture was inclined to use the EU as an excuse for its own failings and therefore risking a vote was always dangerous. Especially as, unlike in the previous referendum in 1975, the popular printed press favoured an exit. Rupert Murdoch for one, whose Sun newspaper had not backed a loser in a General Election since he took over, was well-known for his disdain of the EU, once exclaiming that ‘unlike Downing Street, it does not do what I tell it to’. Cameron made two fateful errors. Firstly, he believed that he would not win the 2015 general election outright. His pledge to ‘renegotiate the terms of entry of the EU’ and to have a referendum was only in the event of a Tory majority, which he didn’t think he would get. Secondly, he completely misread the significance of UKIP, who he felt had the potential to severely cut into the Conservative Party’s support in the 2015 General Election, especially in its South East heartlands. In the end UKIP only won one seat in 2015, with leader Nigel Farage failing to gain the seat in Kent that he had been much tipped to win. By insisting upon the action in his manifesto, Cameron was obliged to act as he did and this allowed Farage centre stage. Perhaps this has provided the greatest irony in the many that have marked the referendum. Nigel Farage, a man who made his name lampooning the undemocratic nature of the EU, yet has never been elected to Westminster himself despite umpteen attempts, was given a unique and unprecedented platform to unveil his own campaign. This included scare tactics, xenophobia and poster images that had remarkable similarities to those used in Nazi Germany. In the days after the referendum the effects of this are now beginning to emerge with a rise in racist and xenophobic attacks that have followed the murder of Remain campaigner Jo Cox which seemed to mark the overall negativity of the campaign.

One of the lessons that British politics could take from the referendum would be to take the potential effects that Farage and UKIP in general have had on political society far more seriously. For whilst groups such as Britain First and the BNP have been branded as ‘toxic’, ‘extremist’ and have been explicitly attacked on television, such as Nick Griffin’s appearance on the BBCs ‘Question Time’ when he was leader of the BNP, UKIP have been given a much easier ride. Despite alluding to similar views on multiculturalism and immigration, UKIP figureheads have generally been accepting into mainstream politics and their views largely seen as ‘harmless’. As I have previously argued such views were also legitimized during the campaign by Gove and Johnson and have given each more credibility within mainstream society (http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/brexit-populist-farce-2834352-Jun2016/). Post-Brexit society will have to consider how to deal with the growth of far-right groups and how to nurture the multi-cultural society which has always characterised the UK.

For Cameron himself however, history beckons. Despite rescuing the Conservative Party from obscurity to electoral success, he will now be remembered as the man who arrogantly took a number of far-reaching proposals for granted in order to forge his own unique legacy. Neville Chamberlain thought he had secured world peace at Munich in 1938, whilst Anthony Eden thought the British could still practice old Imperialist aims by invading Egypt in a new era dominated by the US and the USSR. Like Cameron both were educated at elite ‘public’ schools, both at Oxford and had a world shaped by this inward looking view. Whilst other European States relegated their aristocracy from politics as they progressed, the United Kingdom sought to maintain them. Boris Johnson and David Cameron played the referendum off as if they were in the senior boy’s common room at Eton. Yet the final irony of this result might be the eradication of such an aristocracy. The disintegration of the United Kingdom might see the institutions which they and the Conservative Party have retain and protected (the Monarchy, the Lords, The Privy Council etc) lose any binding significance. The ‘Upper Class Twits’ might have just served to destroy themselves.

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