One way to look at the Brexit is as a failure of imagination. Not on the part of British voters as we might assume, but of mainstream politicians in the UK. These were represented by the feckless David Cameron, who refused to see the obvious and decided to play a dangerous game of chicken with the far right in their own party. It seems that these political professionals forgot to take non-Tory Britons into account. This included a large number of Labor supporters eager to vote Leave, if for different reasons than the knuckle dragging faction of the Conservative Party.
Little talked about, especially in North American coverage of the Brexit, was that far from being won exclusively by the populist right, the Leave vote was powered by areas that traditionally support the Labor Party. While racism certainly played a part in the way a small group of white nationalists voted, it strains credulity to believe that 52% of UK citizens are racists or the other argument most trotted out, that they are all, “uneducated’.
To bolster this reductive narrative of ignorant racists, the media was flooded with stories of immigrants and even second or third generation citizens, confronted with hateful graffiti and calls for them to “go home” soon after the vote. It makes one wonder if such people kept this obvious hatred to themselves prior to the Brexit. While these incidents are awful and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, similar incidents prior to the vote were probably deemed less newsworthy at the time and certainly didn’t receive any international coverage.
Anecdotally, there have been stories of people saying similar things to people, including children, of Latino descent at Trump rallies in th US; will we be told that this only started in the (unlikely) event he wins the election? Are we really supposed to be surprised when racists, on the losing side of history for more than 50 years and scorned throughout most of the world, are filled with glee when they (mistakenly) believe they’ve finally won something?
These mainstream commentators either don’t know or conveniently forget that it was many of the same people in the areas that overwhelmingly voted Leave that repudiated Tony Blair’s centrism by choosing Jeremy Corbyn, a true man of the left, to lead the UK’s Labor Party. Corbyn’s support for the EU was tepid (his own voting record as an MP over the years shows this) but his work, including a spirited debate on Sky TV with young people of all political persuasions before the vote, was meant to display some unity in a party whose most powerful faction despises him.
In my read, he graciously accepted the fact that he was outnumbered by Remain Labor MPs and wisely foresaw the need to keep lines of communication open with the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is very pro-Remain and might be a necessary component of a future Labor government. The cries now coming from the Blairite corner of his own party for Corbyn to resign equate his principle with Cameron’s stupidity in calling the referendum in the first place. This is a typical ploy by the New Labor faction who, much like their Conservative ‘enemies’, have never seen a job destroying trade deal or war they wouldn’t vote for.
Besides this, the Remain side made promises one would usually expect to hear from the political left, something that is almost completely absent from mainstream coverage in North America. The biggest of these promises was to use money earmarked for the EU to fund the popular National Health Service (NHS), which has been mercilessly cut by successive governments since the Thatcher era. The major establishment Leave voice, former London Mayor and Conservative Party ‘renegade’ Boris Johnson, “toured Britain in a bus emblazoned with the slogan: We’ll send the E.U. 350 million (Pounds) a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.”
Not to be outdone in terms of grandstanding, Nigel Farage, a right-wing populist, member of the EU Parliament and leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that had looser associations to the official Leave campaign, implied that the amount being sent to the EU was even higher and made the same NHS promise when campaigning for the Brexit.
After the Leave win, the former commodities broker quickly walked this NHS promise back, and even denied having said it, though it on the public record. He may have suddenly remembered what he said about the National Health Service back in 2012, “I think we are going to have to move to an insurance based system of healthcare. Frankly, I would feel more comfortable that my money would return value if I was able to do that through the marketplace of an insurance company, than just us trustingly giving 100bn (pounds) a year to central government and expecting them to organize the healthcare service from cradle to grave for us.”
In fairness, it should be noted that most other members of UKIP oppose this type of NHS privatization and the party itself seems to have rejected it. Still, it has been clear for a long time that Nigel Farage is all for the free movement of capital but against the same principle when it comes to people, and that this idea is fundamental to him and his party.
In fact, it is the internationalist wing of the English left that hears the cries of Greece and Ireland and fears that they might be the next victims of the unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels, who have sowed misery throughout southern Europe. These citizens have come to see the EU as a distant, undemocratic entity enforcing a neo-classical economic model that refuses to calculate the actual toll of increasing austerity at the expense of regular people within the 28 member union.
So Much for Democracy
Finally we come to the often obscured fact that the Brexit referendum is advisory in nature and is not politically binding. A future government could invoke Article 50 of the EU constitution, thus asking to begin the formal process of leaving. There would then be a two year period of negotiations to set the terms of same. To be clear, before these preliminary negotiations could even begin, a simple Parliamentary majority could stop the government from going forward, although this could be politically risky for MPs in areas that voted to leave the EU.
This parliamentary scenario, or a veto from either Scotland or Northern Ireland (who both overwhelmingly voted Remain), could halt the Brexit in its tracks. There is also the very real possibility that both countries might seek to leave the UK and rejoin Europe, a possibility that doesn’t seem to have been considered by rightwing Leavers.
Prime Minister David Cameron has already put the process off, saying he won’t pursue Article 50 himself, but rather hold elections to choose a new leader for his Party in October, who will then presumably begin soberly negotiating the country’s split from the European Union..
As reporter Robert Mackey pointed out in an informative article on the Intercept, bumbling Boris Johnson, himself a graduate, just like the current Prime Minister, of the prestigious Eton school, may not have intended to actually leave the EU, but rather to use the referendum as a negotiating tool. On joining the Leave campaign in February he was quoted as saying, “There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says ‘No’”.
All this to say, panic aside, that the Brexit is far from a done deal. In my opinion the idea was to pin the concept of direct democracy (the referendum) to an issue that Cameron and his people felt they couldn’t lose, establishing their democratic bonafides in the process. If this was their goal they failed spectacularly.
As for how this all plays out, only time, likely a lot of it, will tell. If France, Italy or the Netherlands were to follow up with Leave votes of their own it might truly be the end of an era but any predictions made now are likely as illusory as the majority of early polls and pundits saying that the UK would vote en masse to stay in the EU.
If nothing else, the reaction of elites in the media and elsewhere to this referendum is another example of how little they value democracy, which several prominent ‘public intellectuals’ have decided is too much responsibility for us ordinary folk to bear. “Reject tyranny,” they tell us, “by submitting to our authority”.