On Thursday, 52 per cent of the British population voted against almost their entire political class, the IMF, the Bank of England, the World Bank, the multinationals, U.S. president Barack Obama, a range of other heads of state, all of the Guardian columnists, football player David Beckham, and the polls. Supporters of Quebec and Scottish independence need not worry about expert opinions and economic white papers: they’re clearly not needed!
This piece was originally published by Ricochet’s French edition, then translated and updated to reflect fast-moving events.
Enough with the jokes. A rejection of these experts was expected in a campaign that demonized “the Brussels bureaucracy,” and a look at the distribution of votes (except for Scotland) shows that it is a case of revolt against real and imagined elites — a revolt led by meatheads, often xenophobic ones at that, but a revolt nonetheless and a big flip of the bird to the European status quo.
To reduce the message of the vote to leave the EU simply to one of small-minded xenophobia would be to play into the hands of nationalist movements growing everywhere in Europe.
A rejection of elites and austerity
In a segment on Brexit, comedian and commentator John Oliver gleefully mocked the pro-Brexit campaign, including the racist and militant declarations of the UK Independence Party and the slogan on the bus of the Vote Leave campaign. The kind of economy they evoque doesn't make sense, but the slogan that might help make sense of voters’ motivations is the one sprawled across that bus: “Let’s fund our NHS instead.”
The NHS stands for the National Health Service, which is widely regarded as a public treasure in the United Kingdom. Until recently, the poster boys for the Leave campaign were pressing for its privatization — one of them, Michael Gove, even wanted it abolished — but for the cause of Brexit, they made the NHS one of their battle horses.
Within hours of the results, UKIP leader Nigel Farage had already disavowed this key promise of the Leave campaign, but it no doubt swayed many votes.
In a country heavily affected by cuts and readjustments, the race to the bottom with regards to working conditions and the erosion of public services were attributed to two scapegoats: immigration and the European Union.
If the latter deserves a large part of the blame, remember the main architects of austerity in Britain sit in Westminster, not in Brussels. Instead of raising the level of debate, Vote Leave took advantage of the economic insecurities of the British people to exploit their prejudices.
A neoliberal legacy
As for the anemic Vote Remain campaign, it had a lot to say on the EU: pro-Brexit voters, usually older, are so little attached to European identity that appealing to their emotions does not work. The defence of EU institutions does not work either. They are terribly bureaucratic, only a bit democratic and, in the eyes of millions of precarious Europeans, little more than guard dogs for the neoliberal status quo.
The only thing that they could have invoked was a sacrosanct economic stability that’s felt more in Kensington, Chelsea and Notting Hill than anywhere else. There was also, to meticulously follow the game plan of the campaign against Scottish independence in 2014, a litany of platitudes, followed by a “passionate” intervention by Gordon Brown at quarter to midnight. Oh, and the mocking of those who want to leave.
Progressives — and the political classes in general, well beyond the borders of the EU — will have to realize that decades of neoliberal governance coupled with distrust toward the electorate has led directly to this outcome.
What both campaigns had in common was that they were led by a typically British triumvirate: Prime Minister David Cameron for Remain, and former London mayor Boris Johnson and neoconservative MP Michael Gove for Leave. All three belong to the same generation of conservative politicians. All three are Oxford graduates. All three belong to the elites they claim to fight. They stole the limelight at the expense of women, immigrants and, above all, the left.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and its trade union allies tried to retake the mantra that “another Europe is possible.” Corbyn, after all, has former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis on his side. Varoufakis is now the leader of a new movement in Europe, which is attempting to define a more democratic European project.
Too little, too late: the head of Labour never seemed to have conviction in his own lines. Forty years ago, a young Jeremy Corbyn had voted along with the left of his own party against the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU.
A precursor to an extreme right?
Among Labour ranks, many are already calling for a reversal on immigration in order to counter the UK Independence Party, the self-proclaimed representative of the white working class. Others want Corbyn’s head: much of his shadow cabinet resigned over the weekend.
All this shows a poor understanding of the principles that lead to Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. When one opposes free trade, it is all the more difficult to defend the EU. How to forget the treatment dished out to the Greeks last year, or France’s vote against the European constitution in the 2005 referendum? You can’t put lipstick on a pig, despite David Cameron’s best attempts.
No matter what, British progressives find themselves deprived. After having put all their eggs in the same basket, how can they participate in negotiations concerning the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU while also negotiating free trade agreements that the country is going to sign?
Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, is the one who will have the chance to make his mark out of these results. And for that, we will all be worse off. Celebrating in the early hours of his victory, Farage declared that “Independence Day” was won without any bullets, forgetting the death of MP Jo Cox at the hands of a far-right militant only a few days before. It was ominous.
Brexit, some optimists would say, can open the doors for the United Kingdom to become more democratic and practise greater social solidarity than it ever could under the aegis of the EU. The lack of support for the left indicates that the contrary is actually more probable: a domino effect in the rest of Europe, as other eurosceptic parties make gains, much to the joy of the Marine Le Pens of this world.
In the face of a rapidly disintegrating EU, can the European left make a case for viable reforms? Will it be able to capture the mood of those left behind by Europe? Or are we condemned to relive what happened in Central and Eastern Europe, as suggested by Czech political scientist Jaroslav Fiala?
After Brexit, is another Europe possible? Time is running out for progressives.
But for now, do as I do: exchange a few dollars for pound sterling and make yourself a good cup of tea. We are not out of the woods yet.
Translated by Jahanzeb Hussain.