Cover Story

Brexit shock

Print edition : July 22, 2016

In London as the results of the referendum were coming in. Photo: ANDREW TESTA/NYT

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to the media on June 28 during an E.U. summit in Brussels. Photo: JOHN THYS/AFP

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader, speaks on immigration and moving on after the referendum, in central London on June 25. Photo: Neil Hall/REUTERS

Nigel Farage, leader of the pro-"Leave" UKIP, at a plenary session of the European Parliament on the Brexit outcome, in Brussels on June 28. Photo: ERIC VIDAL/REUTERS

The European Parliament in session in Strasbourg, France. A file picture. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP

The Leave verdict in the United Kingdom has spotlighted the despair and anger of its working class that have their origins in the multiple burdens successive governments imposed on it. But the deeper meaning of the vote that was informed by a campaign of fearmongering and disinformation is unclear.

AT a political rally in London a few days after the referendum of June 23, which saw the United Kingdom take the momentous step of breaking its 43-year historical association with the European Union, a speaker described the post-Brexit mayhem as “our world turned upside down”.

That indeed is what happened. In the shock vote that the electorate delivered, 52 per cent voted to leave the E.U. and 48 per cent to remain. The result stood Britain, its economy and its politics, on its head.

The results also opened up a vista of uncertainties for the country. This was a referendum announced by Prime Minister David Cameron on the smug assumption that the vote would uphold the status quo. A few months of an unedifying campaign based on fear-mongering and myth-manufacturing preceded the vote. Then came the course-changing result that no one quite expected, and, finally, the deluge that left upheaval, disarray and unpreparedness in its wake.

Brexit’s reverberations have gone beyond the borders of the U.K. and into neighbouring Europe. It is being felt in Commonwealth countries, former colonies of Britain, from whose shores migrants have come in waves into the U.K. over the last 50 years. And across the Atlantic, in the United States, the Brexit message has fed into the anti-immigration election rhetoric of the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In Britain itself, the Brexit verdict has spotlighted the despair and anger of the working classes that have been forced to shoulder the multiple burdens that successive governments imposed on them. Thatcherite deindustrialisation and privatisation first threw them out of secure jobs and into uncertain and low-paying employment. Then came the recession of 2008, which again they bore the brunt of. Finally, in the post-recession period of recovery, they were hit yet again by austerity economics. It took Brexit to reveal the deep schism between the majority of the people, in terms of their experiences and aspirations, and the Westminster consensus.

As of the time of going to press, both Conservative and Labour parties were facing leadership crises, and the markets were still in shock at the fall of the sterling to its lowest in the last 30 years. Prime Minister Cameron, who promised the referendum in 2013 in an attempt to outmanoeuvre both the Eurosceptics within his party and the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), has resigned thereby shrugging off his responsibility to address a crisis of his making. The Conservatives are to elect a new Prime Minister in September, and he or she is expected to call fresh elections. The Labour Party, a force capable of channelling popular discontent that has arisen largely from within its voting base, is facing its own inner-party strife as the stand-off between its parliamentary wing and popular membership continues. Scotland has threatened to hold another independence referendum if it fails to get some form of E.U. access as a nation.

Questions behind verdict

The deeper meaning and import of the Brexit vote is still unclear. Was it driven by exasperation at the non-transparent and fundamentally undemocratic structures of the E.U., or was it a xenophobic vote against immigration and immigrants as many believe? Does it reflect the inequalities generated by the rural-urban divide, or was it a demonstration of anti-establishment fury by the losers of globalisation against those who have profited from it? Paralysed by the ferocity of the Brexit outcome, the Westminster establishment has not even begun to examine these issues.

Speaking to party members a day after the referendum, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn analysed the vote thus: “Across many parts of England there is a feeling of powerlessness among communities that have felt abandoned from the destruction of the mining industries onwards, where high-skill unionised jobs were lost in the 1980s and 90s and have not been replaced, or were replaced by insecure low-paid employment.”

He continued: “When there is deregulation of the labour market combined with a lack of investment, the poor are hit the hardest…. It is many of these communities in former industrial heartlands that have voted to leave the E.U. They have taken the full force of austerity and government economic failure. Local services have been hit the hardest there, while the richest got the tax breaks.”

Corbyn illustrated his argument by pointing out that if a map of poverty in Britain was to be overlaid with a map of low central government investment in local government, they would be exactly the same. “Those areas with the deepest poverty, the highest levels of unemployment, and the most insecure levels of employment conditions for those in work have also had the biggest cuts in central government support.”

How Britain voted

A post-referendum survey by the respected psephologist Lord Ashcroft (lordashcroftpolls.com) on how Britain voted broadly supports Corbyn’s analysis. His survey shows that the majority of those working full time or part-time voted to remain in the E.U., while the majority of those not working voted to leave. Of those on a private pension, more than half voted to leave, as did two-thirds of those on a retired pension.

Two-thirds of council and housing association tenants voted to leave. The majority of those with a university degree voted to remain, as did 64 per cent of those with a higher degree. Among those whose formal education ended at secondary school or earlier, the large majority voted to leave.

Using established indices of social class in Britain, the picture of a class divide in respect of people’s voting preferences emerged. In the AB social group (professionals and managers), the majority (57 per cent) voted to remain. C1s (supervisory or clerical, junior managerial) were evenly divided. Among C2DEs (C2: skilled manual workers, D: semi and unskilled manual workers, E: state pensioners, widows with no support, casual or lowest grade workers), nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) voted to leave the E.U.

Reading the result of the referendum outcome is complex, as Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation writes: “Clearly the unprecedented squeeze on living standards since the early 2000s has played a big part in underpinning the loss of faith many people feel in both British politics and in the idea that our economy has much to offer them. And they’ve got a point—earnings in the U.K. still lie well behind levels seen before the crisis.”

The past, however, does not explain it all, he argues. Some areas with big pay boosts voted to leave (Christchurch in Dorset) and some that have fared poorly in the last decade and a half voted to stay in the E.U. (Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire). However, he says, it is true that the relative levels of pay in an area do matter for how people voted. “Areas that voted to leave the E.U. weren’t those that did badly in recent years, but areas in which people simply earn less. Contrast, for example, a leave vote of 76 per cent in Boston (the local authority with the lowest pay of all last year) to a leave vote of 31 per cent in Richmond-upon-Thames (the highest paid area),” he notes. (www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/blog/the-referendum-living-standards-and-inequality/)

Qualitative accounts only enhance the picture of change. Writing for The Guardian, Mike Carter, who walked from Liverpool to London, a distance of 340 miles (547 kilometres), admits that the result did not even remotely surprise him. He walked in the footsteps of People’s March for Jobs, comprising over 300 unemployed men and women, his father one of them, who did the same walk 35 years ago. Carter’s journey took him through “wastelands of industrial decay” and through towns and cities where pubs and local shops were boarded up and real estate sharks from the south were moving in for the kill, buying up properties put up for sale, “building property portfolios in the poverty, as if this was one giant fire sale”.

“Leave” posters were everywhere, he noted, but there was not a single one for “Remain”. He observed the ubiquitous betting shops, next door to each of which is a pawnbroker or payday lender. The answers he received to his ‘in’ or ‘out’ questions—“we have been left behind”, “politicians don’t care”, “immigration is ruining the country”—made the same point of poverty and neglect.

The campaign

The most significant aspect of the referendum campaign lay in the political stratification within the Remain and Leave camps. Both had “official” campaign organisations—Remain with “Britain Stronger in Europe” led by David Cameron, and Leave with “Vote Leave” led by Boris Johnson. However, many groups did not join the official campaigns. For example, the Labour Party and trade unions had their own platform, Labour for Remain. “Another Europe is Possible” was yet another distinct group of Remainers comprising a non-party but broadly progressive platform of groups and individuals that included the Green Party. On the Leave side, a small section of trade unions carved out their own identity, calling themselves Lexit, or the Left for Brexit. Isolated from all in the Leave camp stood “Grassroots Out”, the campaign forum set up by the UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

A multiplicity of campaign groups divided by irreconcilable political differences but on the same side resulted in a blast of mixed-messaging and spurious claims on both sides, especially by the official platforms. Remain spokespersons offered dire predictions, including the possibility of a Third World War if Britain voted Leave. The Leave groups sneered at these “fearmongering tactics” but themselves made claims based on misleading and often fudged data. A Commons Treasury Select Committee came down heavily on “the arms race of ever more lurid claims and counterclaims”.

Most dangerous and vitiating of all, however, was the anti-immigrant and racist UKIP campaign. The party warned of an immigrant deluge into Britain if it stayed in the E.U. It said, once Turkey joined the E.U., Britain would be overrun by Turkish “criminals”; increasing immigration would put pressure on schools, the National Health Service (NHS) and housing; jobs of British workers would be “stolen” by immigrants on low wages; the refugee flow into Europe would flood the U.K.; and so on. For an electorate deeply disgruntled with Westminster, the “take back control of our borders” slogan proved an easy message to internalise.

The murder, by a hard-right fanatic, of the young and upcoming Labour Member of Parliament Jo Fox in her constituency of Bately and Spen during the campaign must be seen in the light of the toxic atmosphere created by the UKIP. Her shocking death acted as a sudden dampener and introduced a degree of introspection into the campaign—alas too late as the damage had been done. On the morning of her death, the UKIP released a campaign poster that hit the depths of hate. Under the heading Breaking Out, a photograph showed long lines of weary Syrian immigrants at a border crossing. The poster was withdrawn under pressure from political parties, but it had already made the point. Immigration as an issue to leave the E.U. appeared to have won the day over the economic argument that focussed on the impact an exit would have on jobs and economic prosperity.

The referendum results showed that the Leave sentiment had overwhelmed Britain. But for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the rest of the U.K. voted to exit the E.U. England voted strongly for Brexit, by 53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent, as did Wales, with Leave getting 52.5 per cent of the vote and Remain 47.5 per cent.

Scotland backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, while 55.8 per cent in Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2 per cent Leave.

The referendum turnout was 71.8 per cent, with more than 30 million people voting. It was the highest turnout in a U.K.-wide vote since the 1992 general election.

The referendum left the major political parties, Conservative and Labour, bruised by infighting over party leadership. This has particularly damaged Labour, the main opposition party, which has seen calls by the majority of parliamentary Labour members for Corbyn to step down and make way for an “electable” leader to lead the party into the next elections. If that does happen, it will see a shift of the party to the Right, in the direction of the “austerity-lite” platform of the former leader Ed Miliband. Labour’s heavy losses in the 2015 general election was precisely because it offered but a watered-down version of the Conservatives’ economic plan. Corbyn legitimately argues that as he was elected leader by the party membership, he can only be removed by the membership in a fresh leadership contest. He still retains a considerable hold on the membership of the party and the unions affiliated to it. But even if he were to be re-elected, it would be near impossible for him to function given that two-thirds of the parliamentary party have vowed not to work with him.

The referendum has exposed the unpreparedness of the Leave campaign to handle the post-Brexit negotiations with the E.U. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allows an E.U. member to opt out voluntarily. The countdown to a full exit begins after Article 50 is triggered and will take two years. The present government has held back from doing this partly because of the leadership vacuum created by Cameron’s resignation planned for September and partly because it has no plan. Britain is desperate for access to the European free market, but without the underlying condition of free border movement, a demand that has received a resounding no from other E.U. member states. In the stern words of European Council Chairman Donald Tusk: “It’s not single market a la carte.”

Lack of credible plan

The lack of a credible plan on Britain’s negotiating stance with the E.U. even in the official Leave camp left observers stunned. Former First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Alex Salmond was quick to expose this flaw. In the Scottish Referendum of 2014, the SNP prepared a detailed vision of an independent Scotland with supporting plans in a 600-page white paper. The party had even prepared a contingency plan on the immediate steps they would take on the day of the referendum results, if the country voted for independence. There is no such preparation in evidence here. The divorce with the E.U., therefore, promises to be a protracted affair, during which time the U.K. will enjoy none of the rights or financial support accruing to an E.U. member. There is little on the table domestically to fill the vacuum.

There are other imponderables. The SNP in Scotland, which voted to Remain, has raised the possibility of a second independence referendum, arguing that the result has given it the mandate to negotiate its own settlement with the E.U. The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, a consummate politician, lost no time in going to Brussels and meeting E.U. leaders to negotiate what she calls the “protection of Scotland’s interests”. If she does not make headway in pushing her case for the accommodation of Scotland in some form at the E.U. table, she will then press her case for a fresh independence referendum, which she is optimistic she will win.

Rebottling the genie is not an option for Britain. Of course, Brexit can be turned into an opportunity given the right vision in addressing the causes that lie behind what the Labour MP Diane Abbott called “the roar of rage against Westminster”. In the meanwhile, the extreme end of the Leave spectrum has unleashed political forces that can undermine any forward progress. Britain with its history of migration and multiculturalism has seen racist outbreaks in the past. Junctures of transition and social discontent of the kind the country is experiencing now are times when backward-looking social forces see opportunities to revitalise themselves. Since the referendum there have been a spate of hate crimes against minority groups by Far-Right activists. Racist attitudes seeping into communities are an even more potent danger that can set back even the most progressive of national agendas. This is surely the biggest challenge that a post-Brexit Britain faces.

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