There is a wonderful episode of South Park from 2008, based around the first election of Barack Obama. As the results are announced the democrats and republicans break out into hysteria and collapse into depression respectively. The Democrats eventually turn the event into an all-night, no-holds-barred street party, certain the world will be fixed by morning and nothing will ever be the same. The republicans crouch in fear all night, deep in their basements or holed-up in bomb-shelters and out-buildings, positive that society will start to crumble and they’ll be living in a Mad Max style free-for-all before the sun rises.
Both parties awaken to a world unchanged.
We know now – 9 years, 2 terms, a few wars, thousands of bombs and one market crash later – that this biting satire was entirely correct and, indeed, prescient. The “radical” President Obama enacted little-to-no lasting changes to the country he inherited, and made only cosmetic efforts to do so. The slow slide downhill toward crypto-fascism, started with Reagan, had no arrests put on its momentum. The Obama administration continued, exaggerated and perfected all the worst policies of his Bush and Clinton predecessors. America is, as Dead Ringers once described Tony Blair’s Britain, “exactly like it was…but ever so slightly different”.
Today, Theresa May triggered Article 50, meaning – as of now – Britain is going to leave the EU. “Brexiteers” are warming up for the street party, whilst “Remainers” are buying tinned food and bottled water. It is all over the press, with funereal editorials written by neo-liberals who’ve been wearing mourning dress for nine months. It even crossed over to the American media. Twitter was likewise awash with overreaction from celebrities, journalists and political figures. None more brilliantly overstated than this:
One of the saddest days in the last 200 years of British political history; one of the greatest acts of self-harm. Heartbreaking. pic.twitter.com/GxUk1qnvUm
— Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) 28 March 2017
Are any of these reactions justified?
I doubt anyone was more surprised than I was when the result of the referendum was announced last June. It felt, at the time, that the impossible had happened. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that, if all the shaming and abusive tactics failed, the vote would be fixed. The over-turning of that expectation resulted in a brief euphoria, but have those early smiles been rewarded? Will Brexit live up to the promises?
There’s no denying that, broadly speaking, it was a win for the idea of self-determination. The EU, for all the talk of “democratic values”, is a profoundly undemocratic focus of bureaucracy and corruption. A neo-liberal extension of Western-European colonialism, bilking the poorer countries of Europe for the benefit of France and (mostly) Germany. From now the road to European federalization will be tougher, and talk of a European Army will probably die-down.
The Scottish have already requested a second referendum on independence, one that could well flip the narrow (and possibly fixed) result of the previous vote. Should that happen, Britain’s nuclear weapons will be forced to move closer to the home counties, something that may make the Outraged From Tunbridge Wells types reconsider their use, and their expense.
Likewise, Britain’s departure removes a distinctly American voice from the EU table, improving the odds that rest of the (slightly) less American-driven EU members might seek a new understanding with Russia. Such a move would make a global conflagration less likely, and we can all agree that’s basically a good thing.
The Brexit vote itself was, and still is, a stall in the ever-churning machinery that pushes us all toward total globalisation, and any halt in that process can only be positive.
What will actually change with regard to everyday people and their basic standard of living? Probably very little. The vote itself was an expression of a certain amount of societal rage, it was a blow for democracy, and one the establishment did not expect…but that was nine months ago now. And whilst we voted to change the rules, the referee stayed the same…and he takes sides. There’s been plenty of time to work out a deal.
Ironically, though the Brexit vote was based on the idea of self-determination, it has landed us a PM that nobody ever voted for – not even her own party. That she should stand up and make speeches about our “democratic values” is delightfully absurd. Nevertheless, as we’ve already seen in the last few months, the very idea of referenda will come under attack – this past vote will cited as an example of a “tyranny of the majority”, and some time in the near future an MP will bring up the notion of banning referenda altogether. People like Polly Toynbee will write articles about how we must “spare future generations their own Brexit”.
The promised increase in jobs, and concomitant decrease in European workers undercutting the minimum wage, will probably be held up in the international courts for years, as each EU country takes Britain to court to prevent their nationals getting deported. The result could very well be that all (or most) of the EU nationals already in Britain will be “grandfathered”, meaning virtually no change there. People who object will be pilloried as racists.
The NHS, steadily underfunded and deliberately undermined by privatisation around the fringes of its services, will still very much be under threat. The decline in service will now be blamed on EU passported workers having to leave (even though, as stated above, it likely won’t happen).
Cuts to social securities, like unemployment and disability benefits, will continue to happen – maybe even be increased. The minimum pension age may also continue to rise. The blame will be placed on the economic downturn (notionally) caused by Brexit, turning the poor against each other. Rich people will continue to be rich, getting richer off the back of the derivatives market that “predicted” the (entirely controlled and deliberately punitive) economic crash.
The military budget, already a bloated parasite on the public purse, will “need” to be increased because our “alliances in Europe are less stable”. Whether this money is ever turned into an actual increase in combat ability is unimportant, the money will make its way to the pocket of defense contractors, private security firms and their ilk.
In the general, then, Brexit is at least a symbolic victory for the concept of sovereignty and anti-globalist sentiment – A movement given energy by the internet based media and alternative news. A sign that newly interconnected humanity is capable of seeing beyond propaganda and acting in their own interests…in the ways that our limited power allows.
In the specific, in the short-term, Brexit will be manipulated to push the agenda of the oligarchs that run the country, and used as an excuse to undermine, defund and break-up our public services. The public money will be used to make rich people even richer. The resulting UK-EU trade agreements will probably end up almost entirely preserving the free-market status quo a under new, unspoken name. A neo-liberal order made stronger by a forced clandestine nature.
The mainstream media, long-disconnected from any kind of reality, will not report anything that matters. Instead choosing to stoke fear whilst discussing faux-problems and non-issues at length, cluttering the air-waves with white-noise to distract people from all the very problems of food banks, debt slavery and dwindling quality of life. Any resemblance to reality in their coverage will be entirely coincidental. Just like every other issue or event for the past decade at least.
In short, there is no sense in a having street party, and perhaps no call for stocking the bomb-shelters. The sun will rise on an over-powered, heavily surveilled semi-police state, governed by lobbyists for de-regulated mega corporations. Creeping government powers of detention and invasion of privacy will be legalised in the name of canonised terror-victims. Wars of conquest will be marketed to us as patriotic, necessary and humane, whether we’re in Europe or not.
We will wake up in a world largely unchanged.