Exit, Folly, and Tragedy: The “Brexit” Referendum

July 2016
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The outcome of the 23 June 2016 referendum on EU membership stunned the world. “Britain Rattles Postwar Order and Its Place as Pillar of Stability,” the New York Times headlined. This was a coup in which populism took over the country, thus Tony Blair, writing in the same daily. “The unhappy English have delivered a body blow to the west, and to the ideals of international cooperation, liberal order and open societies to which England has in the past contributed so much,” the historian Timothy Garton Ash concludes in The Guardian. In the New Statesman, the journalist Andrew Marr dissects the vote as a “quietly devastating revolt by the English heartlands – southern and western suburbs; the urban sprawls of the Midlands and the north; former mining areas and devastated ex-industrial towns – against London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the so-called elites.” How did Britain manage to land in such a mess?

Organizing this referendum had a double aim: negotiating better terms with the EU, particularly concerning labour mobility, and, having obtained these terms, checkmating the Europhobe Conservative far right and the UK Independence Party. As many observers point out, this was a huge gamble with the country’s and the EU’s future. A gamble also with forty years of UK constitutional development (and 200 trade agreements negotiated by the EU that the UK or its successor states will have to renegotiate from scratch, without having the needed qualified officials). All this for merely tactical, party-political purposes. The gamble was taken by a PM empowered by the first-past-the-post system: “Under winner-take-all systems, people who are happy to gamble away their nation’s security only have to get lucky once,” the political scientist David Runciman notes in the London Review of Books, pointing also to the United States. Subjecting the vastly complex issues of Britain’s EU membership and future development to a single, binary referendum question – a referendum which few had asked for - was sheer folly. The better terms were not really obtained, as EU leaders were not prepared to accept an end to the free movement of labour. Moreover, as so often with referendums, this one also turned out to be about a host of issues and gripes, some of them essentially domestic and related only vaguely, if at all, to the EU.

During the campaign leading up to the referendum, facts and evidence-based rational argument had increasingly been eclipsed by feeling and fantasy (as the extreme-right “VoteLeave.EU” had explicitly aimed at). Uncontrolled immigration and (English) national identity became the all-overriding themes. Turkey, though steadily moving toward authoritarianism and away from European values, would soon join the EU and Britain would be swamped by millions of Turks, Leave campaigners claimed. Egged on by jingoist, extraordinarily partisan and mendacious tabloids, voters came to believe Britain hosts three times the number of EU migrants it actually has. Savings from Britain’s EU contribution, wildly exaggerated but widely touted, would be poured into the National Health Service, the Leave campaigners assured; the promise was retracted immediately after the referendum. As many have remarked, the Leave promises cannot possibly be fulfilled, which lays the groundwork for more resentment, anger and turmoil. The referendum has muddled everything and solved nothing. Vote Leave “conducted one of the most dishonest campaigns this country has ever seen,” the constitutional law scholar Michael Dougan exclaimed. Some, among them the author Kazuo Ishiguro, appalled by the Leave campaign’s mendacity and xenophobia, called for a second referendum, an idea dismissed by others as particularly incendiary in an electoral system where many votes don’t count – except in a referendum. “The total vote cast for exit, almost 52 percent, is higher than that won by any British governing party since 1931,” the political scientist Richard Rose observes. “We can’t just say: we lost, so retrospectively change the rules of the game,” Timothy Garton Ash states, adding hopefully that, “in time, the negative consequences of this decision will become clear.” Gibraltar (96% Remain) called for a new referendum once a post-Brexit deal with the EU is struck.

The referendum result, the political scientist Peter Hall writes in foreignaffairs.com, has two major roots. First, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty which mandated the creation of a monetary union devoid of the necessary mechanisms to share of risks among Eurozone members, leading to crises that created the wide impression – also beyond the UK – that the EU is “a defective enterprise incapable of delivering prosperity.” And second, the 2004 decision to take in eight east-central European states as members:

Seen as an effort to guarantee democracy there, this was a generous move that won the European Union the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. But because the EU’s ‘four freedoms’ include the right to free movement of workers, hundreds of thousands of workers flowed from the east into the United Kingdom, attracted by its universal language and open markets. Ironically, the British government had been a strong advocate for EU expansion, partly because an EU with a larger membership would be more like the free trade zone it favored than a political union.

While studies had highlighted the benefits of EU labour mobility for Britain, this mobility can affect working-class wages and job opportunities. Yet also in areas where migration is a comparatively minor issue (like Wigan or Derby), the perception of it as a threat did sway voters.

From its roots in EU developments, the Leave vote waxed into a broader rebellion against the elites and against an economic development model whose benefits bypass much of England, raising an ominous parallel with other societies. “As manufacturing has shrunk,” the Financial Times (FT) remarks, the services sector has grown from 44 per cent of UK employment in 1948, to 85 per cent today. “In Leave territory, many of these jobs are poorly paid.” The biggest Remain territory was London; from there, as noted in the FT, the Remain vote spread west “through Oxford to Bristol, south to Hampshire and Sussex, and north-east to Cambridge.” These Remain areas tend to vote as firmly Labour as many of the working-class Leave areas, highlighting the conundrum of a Labour party forced by the “first-past-the-post” electoral system to stick together and attempt to represent profoundly contradicting aspirations and worldviews. Still, two thirds of Labour supporters voted Remain, Labour’s leader stresses; support for Leave, Richard Rose reminds us, came predominantly from voters on the right.

The referendum was not foreordained: there are several ifs surrounding it, FT commentator Martin Wolf muses. If David Miliband had become Labour leader (instead of his brother Ed), the Conservatives might not have won the election, and the referendum would not have happened. Meanwhile, in the absence of a credible opposition, a small coterie of mostly upper class Conservatives felt free to scheme and bumble around in the political vacuum, acting out their irresponsibility. “Never has a revolution in Britain’s position in the world been advocated with such carelessness,” Nick Cohen concludes in The Guardian; it was “an act of vandalism,” the columnist Jonathan Freedland fumes in the same daily. As pointed out notably in the FT, about two thirds of MPs campaigned for Remain. Remain Conservatives, confronting a radical right demanding revolution, sought to defend the EU after having bashed it for decades, focusing on the dangers and costs of leaving, not on the broader merits of the European project.

Beyond the play of coincidences, personalities and coteries, the referendum result does reveal a profound malaise in British society. As David Runciman, the political scientist, puts it in Prospect: “The gap between the winners and losers from the political economy of the 21st century has been laid bare,” the gap “between people who can imagine a viable future for themselves in a networked world, and those who cannot.”

University towns voted overwhelmingly to remain… By contrast, many parts of the UK appear to feel that the vital connections that drive the flow of money and power in the 21st century are increasingly passing them by. The EU is symptomatic of this sense of exclusion, but it is not the cause. Education plays a big part: those with the fewest qualifications were by far the likeliest to vote ‘Leave’; those still in higher education were by far the likeliest to vote to Remain.

The referendum result, Runciman observes, “represents a rejection of the power of technocratic elites, yet it has undermined one of the few institutions that operates on a scale that might regulate and limit the power of those elites. After all, who is standing up against Google apart from the EU?”

In the long run, Runciman surmises, the networked world, “not confined by physical space or local identity,” will overcome the Brexit setback by increasing its distance from democratic politics. Hence the networked world will thrive, but the working-class Leave lands will suffer. In the belief that things couldn’t get any worse for them, they basically voted for more, better jobs and better public services, thus providing the margin of victory to a right-wing Conservative elite obsessed with sovereignty and free-market deregulation. Their victory may herald even less protection against globalization, less redistribution, and more working-class deprivation. In this sense, also, the result is tragic. Brexit supporters on the left who believe future government policy will give “priority to public services” seem to be banking on the triumph of hope. “In 2016, for the first time in sixty years, the combined parties of the right outnumbered those of the left and centre. The referendum is a further step in this rightward trajectory,” openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett notes drily in a passionate assessment. Even if Conservatives move toward the centre in order to lure voters from Labour, the power imbalance remains.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka