This post isn’t really for a particular audience (I guess even less so than normal on this site!).
Indeed I’m hoping writing it may simply be cathartic.
That all being said, I’ve also been asked regularly why the UK voted the way it did (yes, okay England and Wales voted the way they did) and, more recently, how it has made such a mess of things since the referendum. This has obviously all been covered elsewhere in various levels of detail (I’ve tried to avoid it on Twitter but did put some previous thoughts up there) but, as I say, I thought putting something down might be helpful for at least my own mind. Nuance is the challenge here as in many ways Brexit is about a multitude of things yet, at the same time, inherently a reaction to badly managed change.
First up an admission
My pencil lingered over the Leave option.
Not for long, but there was a linger.
Now, I was very much in the Remain camp all the way up to the vote but there were a number of factors why I considered Leave on the day and some of those issues are still very much in play. However, a key reason I did vote Remain was that I thought it would be close, closer than the opinion polls on the day had suggested and when I saw two women leave the polling station basically saying to each other “there are too many of them we have to vote leave” (despite clearly not being of British Isles heritage themselves) I thought that Leave could well win.
It was clear in the run up to the vote that there was a generational divide and whilst the narrative since the vote is that old people have ‘robbed young people of their futures’ it should also be recognised that some sympathy should lie with those who have seen the original 1975 EC referendum result morph progressively into today’s globalised EU with representatives that the people feel do not represent them and on issues (like foreign affairs) that many feel the EU never needed to deal with.
The referendum in the ’70s set a precedent that political parties have not followed through with in more recent changes to the EC/EU. Indeed one of the nightmares of the Brexit result is that it almost certainly has killed the desire for more referendums in Britain (due to the difficulty of putting complex questions into a poll-able vote) rather than encouraging more direct democracy where ‘the people’ would feel less distant from the ‘political classes’ (the role of representative and masses breaking down across the political spectrum).
The political (cl)ass
This bit is one area where it feels like the mainstream media continue to miss a trick, in part as they are too caught up in their own importance and the ‘Westminster bubble’. The vote was, for some, two fingers up at the Cameron government. For others it was two fingers up to the European elite for be unwilling to do more with regards to what Cameron wanted and other issues. However, whilst the media continues to focus on the impact of their own (predominately) anti-EU stance and the impact of Facebook advertising, etc. the reality is that the referendum campaign will have made no difference to voting intentions. Most people will have known what they were voting well in advance – as shown by the fact the %s have not changed much in opinion polls since (even with post Brexit implementation showing Leave had no real plans and that the EU is now so all encompassing it is incredibly difficult to leave) .
The previous UK-wide referendum, on changes to the electoral system, increasingly feels like a missed opportunity. That would have allowed for voices from UKIP, the Green and other parties to be heard to challenge the prevailing narratives in the media and the two main parties without giving Farage and others hero/outsider status. Alas many people argued against vote form, not least because of the likely increase in coalitions and the inevitable politicking that follows.
Yet we have seen Theresa May and the DUP in effective coalition, going against both of May’s 2017 promises that there was no ‘magic money tree’ and that she offered ‘strong and stable’ government. Ultimately it feels like a failure of the system and, in May, a cold and ineffective leader who has helped highlight the competence of previously derided predecessors such as John Major, Gordon Brown and ‘failures’ such as Ed Miliband. This thread is good on some of the crazy moments in the last 5 years of politics for quite how bizarre things have got.
The man who in many ways led the Brexit campaign was, though, Boris Johnson, already seen as an ass by many at the time of the Brexit bus tour his political failings are now transparent to many more people. That he still holds apparent sway over many in the Conservative party shows a respect for arrogance (and admittedly some intellect) that laughs in the face of good government (considering his waste in the form of water cannon, London buses, ‘garden bridges’ and more). Of course the laughing at Boris, his fame created on Have I Got News For You as much as anywhere else, is nothing new. It is just more tragic now.
The EU’s arrogance
Britain of course isn’t alone in all of this. Grexit for a long time looked like a real possibility whilst Italy and other nations have expressed their concerns.
Alas, the face the EU has put in front of the cameras to deal with this challenge to the post WW2 order in Europe amounts to a line up of ‘pale, male and stale’ in Juncker, Barnier and Tusk.
Whilst Tusk has shown quite a generous touch of late (not least on Twitter) the EU has failed throughout from a public relations perspective. Juncker is a personification of the EU’s failings in the eyes of many, being from a small country given disproportion levels of representation. That he is adjudged to have aided ‘bad’ globalisation with generous tax arrangements for corporations in 20 years as Luxembourg Prime Minister (a period of power that would not even be allowed in many sovereign states) makes him a target for left wing Brexiters. On the right meanwhile, whilst his opposition to the likes of Nigel Farage has often been correct, it has also failed to recognise the reasons for UKIP’s support and the popularity of the anti-EU block in European elections across the continent.
The ‘left behind’ in society therefore feel they have seen little from the EU or globalisation that benefits them – the volume of areas receiving EU help funds but still voting Leave showing the lack of impact of the EU’s good work with regards to dealing with societal issues.
Part of the issues leading to Brexit has undoubtedly been legacy snobbishness over British quality and exceptionalism.
The supposed superiority of British banks, universities, etc. is often laughable in the face of evidence and advantages they did have are fast fading away such as:
- language (English is now the business language in many organisations and cities worldwide, you do not need to be in London),
- facilities (undermined by austerity and with only really Crossrail to aid London in the coming decade),
- societal (violent crime and other issues up due to multiple issues including Brexit and austerity).
In some ways this feels a little like a British version of late Byzantium – still referring to itself as Rome but in reality a collapsing power, still with lots of fancy gold and jewels on show in the capital but a shadow of its former (large/imperial) self – with even Parliament no longer able to keep up the pretext as the roof, literally, falls in. If World War 2 and decolonialization were the ‘loss of the empire/west’ moment it feels like Brexit might be the sack of Constantinople by the Venetians (aka foreign interests funding Brexit giving what is left of the empire a good kicking under false pretext). The UK will struggle on even with a No Deal scenario but independence for, at least, Northern Ireland and Scotland could prove to be the equivalent of 1453.
Of course mentioning 1453 might not be very helpful given that the vote against remaining in the EU was, in part, thanks to anti-Turkish sentiment. Yep, folks, we’ve moved on a long way in 500 years… but not that far.
Now we really get onto the nub of the matter. Foreigners.
Whatever anyone says, Brexit has been driven in large quarter by anti-immigration feeling (see my comment about the two ladies departing the polling station above).
Britain’s seeming failure to deal with the latest wave of immigration (starting with riots against Portuguese people and then opposition to Poles, Bulgarians and more) is in part due to the drive for small government since Thatcher. Britain simply has not had the infrastructure to handle change management at the local level – and there are close links between immigration, crime and other issues in some areas. Even when very real issues like multiple occupied housing have been raised you suspect the will to enforce rules and laws simply doesn’t exist, in part due to lack of resources for the police and other agencies.
Britain has not put in place the rules around 90-days immigration that she could have, and you suspect it was in part due to the admin. An admin burden and cost now dwarfed by the huge expense of Brexit and ‘bringing back in-house’ functions from Brussels – or at least paying Kiwis and other consultants huge sums for consultancy to help Britain ‘go it alone’.
If then we acknowledge that this is about a complete failure of British society to absorb the latest wave(s) of immigration the question is why has this happened? Well, immigration in the post war period was largely recognised as needed (see Italians rebuilding large parts of the country) or a pay-off from the empire/commonwealth (Windrush, etc.). However, there are obviously still huge issues with racism (as visible in football recently) even when there was also a recognition of the part Indians, Africans and Antipodeans had played in both world wars. So perhaps it is simply a case of the volume combined with stagnant (or declining living standards). Indeed you suspect the Corbyn/left-wing view in support of Brexit would be protection of works and better wages – as unlikely as that seems with current problems.
The failure to deal with immigration and resulting change is not anything particularly new and of course not unique to the UK. President Trump (for example) has built on long standing issues with his ‘wall’t – as Limp Bizkit said:
“[be]Cause hate is all the world has ever seen lately “Take a Look Around, Limp Bizkit (2000)
Lets not forget that immigration controls were one of the “Ed Stone’s” promises. This ongoing desire (and another reason for the Leave vote) remains a strong view of British jobs for British people – of course the issue there is time to align what skills we need: another thing not very well done and the positive of immigration has been that it has covered over the cracks. As someone who spent a week looking through trade union archives from c.1900 as part of his university degree, whilst we’ve come a long way (a lot of the union pamphlets were unbelievably racist to modern eyes) some of the sentiments from the early 21st century are very similar to the early 20th.
Of course the other foreign aspect that lingers large is if Russians (and/or others) have had their fingers in the pie to disrupt the EU/UK/etc. The fact the British political system can be so funded by one man’s £9m is surely wrong no matter what (never mind the apparent dodginess of all as shown in this German investigation). Whatever happens politics needs to change, from funding, house/expense rules, etc. Unfortunately Farage and others have the opportunity to express this in completely the wrong language, failing to remember Jo Cox’s memory and ignoring that the whole point is that we vote for them as representatives – it is not ‘them and us’.
What next then?
Personally it feels like voting reform needs to come back on the agenda, the House of Commons needs to move to a new location, the house rules need modernising (watching Brexit through the House of Commons and the modern EU voting systems really are chalk and cheese) and much more.
Politicians, i.e. the new PM when May finally goes, needs to acknowledge that societal and structural reforms in the post-Thatcher era have failed – with far more needing to be done to reduce wealth inequality between the richest and poorest. Changing these issues was what encouraged support for Corbyn in 2017, that so many people seem to have not realised his pro-Brexit approach to this shows how limited engagement with politics is. Thus the press and other media need to reengage in a more positive way, focused on issues/facts and not personality. That said, politics is complicated (I’m sure not all of this post will be correct), lots of people are confused by what the referendum was meant to be, mending wounds is going to be difficult (not helped by all the name calling), etc.
As for Brexit, a second referendum seems the only sensible way forward – ideally followed up by further votes and more direct democracy. With the run-up to any second vote needing to be far clearer on growth for the UK, with clear means to deal with the issues people feel are limited by immigration (pressure on the NHS, house prices, school places, crime, etc.) via an end to austerity.