The result of the Brexit vote stunned the British political elite and sent shockwaves around the world; it was welcomed by separatist and rightwing populist movements in Europe and by Donald Trump as he visited his golf courses in Scotland. By just over a million votes in a high turnout referendum, the public voted to leave the European Union. The vote was uneven: Scotland voted by a large majority to remain, as did London.
It was a victory for the far right of the Tory party, which campaigned incessantly on restricting immigration. But there are other deep-seated reasons for the Brexit vote. Foremost among them is the resentment of the white working class, especially in the North, over deindustrialization, degradation of benefits like housing, health and education, which is blamed on immigrants as the most visible sign of what is in fact a neoliberal reconstruction of society.
Gary Younge argues: “Britain is no more sovereign today than it was yesterday. We have left the EU but we remain within the neoliberal system. … The chutzpah with which the Tory right – the very people who had pioneered austerity, damaging jobs, services and communities – blamed immigrants for the lack of resources was breathtaking.”
Owen Jones commented: “It may not have been the working-class revolt against the political establishment that many of us favoured, but it is undeniable that this result was achieved off the back of furious, alienated working-class votes. … Many of the communities that voted most decisively for leave were the same communities that have suffered the greatest battering under successive governments.”
What started as a maneuver by prime minister David Cameron to control the rightwing of his party resonated with the country in an unprecedented way. Younger voters and those living in metropolitan centres like London, Manchester and Liverpool voted for Remain, while in the deindustrialized north and midlands there were large majorities for Leave. The country is now intensively polarized and resentful of the other side.
The New York Times reported on the generational divide: “Leslie Driscoll, 55, sells hot cross buns in an English bakery in London. Having different cultures and communities is ‘fantastic,’ she said, ‘but what I don’t like is the fact that, through having that, we’ve now left ourselves open. I feel like a second-class citizen in my own country’.” Her daughter Louise grew up in the same area “but in a more prosperous, multicultural Britain than earlier generations had. In school, she was one of only two white students. Her friends are Eritrean, Nigerian and South African. Louise said she understood the pressures that immigration placed on schools and hospitals. But leaving the European Union worried her, she said, because it risked wrecking the economy and making it hard for young people to secure employment. It took her eight months to find work as a barista, she said.”
John Harris commented in the Guardian: “for millions of people, the word ‘immigration’ is reducible to yet another seismic change no one thought to ask them about, or even explain. What people seem to want is much the same as ever: security, stability, some sense of a viable future, and a reasonable degree of esteem. To be more specific, public housing is not a relic of the 20th century, but something that should surely sit at the core of our politics.”
Not that the vote will change that; if anything it will make things worse. Brexit voters were making a plea for a return to a self-contained economy with defined borders that would allow for a national compromise on jobs and benefits – in other words, Britain as it was before Thatcher, or rather an idealized country of the past.
Fintan O’Toole comments in The Irish Times: “The sense of grievance is undeniably powerful. It’s also highly contrary: it is rooted in the shrinking of British social democracy, but the outcome of Brexit will be an even firmer embrace of the unfettered neoliberalism that is causing that shrinkage. … The great cultural appeal of nationalism – we need independence or our culture will die – doesn’t wash. And besides, take immigrants out of English culture and what do you have left?”
Some on the left consider the result a progressive move that could lead to the weakening of neoliberalism. Joseph Choonara of the British Socialist Workers Party told Democracy Now that he hoped the vote “begins to precipitate the breakup of this huge bosses’ club. So that’s the basis on which we campaigned for exit of the U.K. from the EU. It was on the basis of an internationalist, anti-racist and progressive vote against neoliberalism. … The point is that there is going to be popular opposition to these kind of institutions. Does it receive a right focus or a left focus?” Alex Scrivener of Global Justice Now disagreed: “We’ve woken up today to a Britain in which it is a much, much scarier place to be a migrant. … Austria came within a whisker of electing a far-right president. We are living in very terrifying times. The National Front may be—is leading the polls at the moment for the French presidential election. You know, I think we’re on a level of political crisis here we haven’t seen since the 1930s. And I think that the sort of glee on some parts of the left about the EU breaking up, I think people are going to regret that, if that leads to a retreat into nationalism, which is already happening.”
In a similar debate on The Real News Network, John Hilary of War on Want said that the referendum gave a voice to voters’ desire for change: “so many millions of people voted saying, we do not trust our government and political elites anymore; we want a different type of politics which does not just serve the interests of the few … this is genuinely a return to a situation where we have direct democracy again, not a situation of the European Commission being able to hide all the time behind the democratic deficit that exists at the heart of the E.U.” Economics professor John Weeks responded: “Immigration was the issue people that voted on: we’ve got too many foreigners over here in Britain. That’s what the Out won on, and that is what they are going to pursue. And if I were the person that takes over after David Cameron, I would immediately call an election with the confidence that I could win it. And the reason that the Tories could win it is because the Labour Party is split. Most of Jeremy Corbyn’s MPs would love to see him defeated and will not work for a Labour Party to win. And when that happens, we could be in a very difficult situation indeed.”
The left needs to face up to the reality of the Brexit vote – the toxic nature of the Leave campaign created a nationalist backlash against immigrants who will need to be defended. The left has a huge responsibility and opportunity now, as Alex Scrivener of Global Justice said, “to fight for migrant rights, fight for those people who are going to lose hardest from this historic and tragic moment in our history.”
The idea that breaking up the EU means that opposition to neoliberalism will gain an advantage by only confronting a nationally delimited capitalist class is a fantasy. The UK was only ever an independent nation because it was sustained by a huge empire, and Thatcher carried out the last act of an independent nation-state when she opened up the country to international capital after the defeat of the miners’ year-long strike. Since then it’s been under the thrall of one neoliberal government after another.
Colonel Despard will be publishing a three-part reappraisal of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and its international implications, the lessons of which have still not been absorbed by the left. Watch for the first instalment next week.