Brexit: Reflections From A New Britain
When I closed my eyes on the eve of the 23rd, I had no idea that I would be waking up at 5 am to the face of Nigel Farage, laughing hysterically. For the majority of people waking up on the 24th of June, the result of the referendum was nothing short of a complete and utter shock. Britain had democratically decided to end its relationship with the European Union; and no one had a clue what was going to happen next.
The last few days have been some of the most politically engaging in my life. I have found myself glued to Twitter and the news, waiting eagerly for any developments in this unfolding drama. Yet the pace of the unfolding seems to be mired in the same sense of confusion and realisation that an entire nation has found itself in. The confusion of a nation that has been permanently split down the middle, and the realisation that politics in Britain will never be the same again.
The most alarming split within the UK is between the England and Scotland. Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain within the European Union and has been pulled out against its will by the Leave campaign’s surprisingly good performance in England. Nicola Sturgeon, speaking after all the votes were counted, spoke of this development as “democratically unacceptable”. And she is completely right. The distribution of votes between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom are stark indicators of the end of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Sturgeon also assured the people of Scotland that a second independence referendum has to be on the table for negotiations to continue as there has been a “significant and material change in the circumstances in which Scotland voted against independence”. A poll released this morning shows that 59% of the Scottish population would vote for independence – a certified majority. So, Cameron’s legacy may not only include bringing the UK out of the EU; but also of destroying the Union. Quite the result to for a referendum that he used to simply appease the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party, and prevent a few MPs deflecting to UKIP (which they did anyway).
Another alarming lesson to take away form the referendum result is the shocking indifference of the youth in Britain. Polls show that amongst 18 – 24 year olds, voter turnout was only 35%. This is deeply disconcerting when you consider that this is the group of people who will have to deal with the unfolding – and possibly unending – consequences of a Brexit. Conversely, the voter turnout amongst 65 year olds and older was a staggering 85%. These stats help you understand the complaints of a disgruntled British youth, denied a future by those who enjoyed a level of prosperity that the young of today can only dream of. For those young people who actually bothered to vote, they voted fiercely in favour of remaining in the EU – 75%. For me, this is the really depressing part. The discourse around the Remain campaign made voting to stay in the EU seem like the brave, courageous, and progressive thing to do. This only emphasises the toxicity of our political reality when the bravest political action is to vote in favour of the status quo; in favour of militarised borders; in favour of unfettered neoliberalism. The EU has come out of this looking quite good, despite the undeniable problems it has – problems that cannot be reformed. The British, on the other hand, look abjectly idiotic. The youth of Britain have a lot to answer for, but this vote will radicalise a generation to actually fight for the future that they want. Because right now they feel like there is no future.
Domestic politics in the UK has turned into a complete shit storm. Both of the largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour, have let themselves slip into post-Brexit chaos. After the result was confirmed, David Cameron announced his resignation, cementing himself in British history as the most divisive prime minister of all time. His resignation has led to a leadership campaign within the party which no one actually wants to win. Boris Johnson is the favourite, but whether he wants the job of triggering article 50, leading the negotiations in Brussels, and perhaps pushing the British economy into irreversible damage, is yet to be seen. I am still patiently waiting for the intricacies of the Tory leadership election to become clear, but all that is clear is that it will certainly favour the right-wing of the party.
The Labour party, staying consistent with recent behaviour, has decided to descend into bitter power battles within the party. A coup has been launched on Corbyn, which will inevitably fail, and the Blairites are calling for blood to be spilt. The mind boggles at the behaviour of these politicians. Amongst the rubble of a post-EU Britain, as the markets continued to descend into unknown territory, the politicians that purport to represent the working class and poor have decided to further only their careers prospects. Instead of offering progressive solutions to Brexit, assuring workers that their rights will not be eroded, or making sure that living standards do not slide, the party finds itself embroiled in chaos. 11 of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet (a cabinet constructed in order to appease the entire political spectrum of the party) have resigned and this morning have been replaced with Corbyn loyalists. This may be the first time Corbyn has shown any actual leadership, but it only highlights the cracks in the Labour party as a “broad church”.
Events are unfolding at a relentless rate, and this article will probably be void in a matter of hours. Yet it is worth mentioning a few lessons from this debacle which will be relevant in the coming months and years. Firstly, the EU needs this to go terribly for the UK. A Brexit vote has legitimised and instrumentalist political rage that is widespread throughout Europe. Many member states will be calling for their own referendums, and the results might be similar to the UK’s. So, if the UK plunges further into turmoil, the political rage in other member states will be appeased. This seems like a sensible tactic for an institution that is so inert, so inherently conservative, that reforming itself is unthinkable. If, however, the Brexit is a success (wishful thinking, I know) then member states will be cueing up to leave the EU.
Secondly, the debate around the referendum in the UK was extremely narrow and myopic. It could be argued that the referendum was essentially a referendum on immigration. The Leave campaign exploited this to their utmost advantage, promising to curb immigration and spend the saved cash on Britain’s crumbling public services. This, of course, was a lie. The Leave campaign has already come out and said that it can do neither of these things: a free market needs free movement and the money isn’t there to be spent on the NHS. Despite the outright lies of the Leave side, the result seems to have legitimised the racist sentiment that was palpable within the Leave campaign. A significant amount of racially aggravated attacks have occurred since the result involving Polish migrants being beaten, as well as the children of migrants being told to “go home” by their fellow classmates. Racists and neo-fascists feel galvanised by the result of the referendum and are not afraid to take their sentiments to the streets, causing ugly scenes throughout the country.
Finally, the majority of Britain is now coming round to the realisation that they might just be fucked. Fucked because they have been lied to by those that purportedly represent them. Fucked because their country is now poorer in real terms, and is likely to get poorer as living standards begin to slide. And fucked because it is clear that the country is run on the whims and politicking of an elite who have nothing in common with the majority of the electorate.
The pessimist inside of me sees no end to this fuckery, with it engulfing all aspects of social life. I can see more cuts to public spending and social housing, the economy buckling, and racist rhetoric becoming the norm in politics. The optimist in me, however, sees opportunities amongst the chaos. An opportunity to mobilise, an opportunity to be heard, and an opportunity to truly shape the future that we want – whether that future is part of Europe, or not.