by Dan Mallon
“Brexit means Brexit” is one of the many cryptic slogans that constantly emanated from Theresa May’s shambolic – soon to be defunct – Tory Government. What it means is anybody’s guess. Many have speculated it is Theresa May opting for a hard Brexit over a soft Brexit, however these are not tangible constructs, they are mental constructs. The idea of a hard/soft Brexit are nothing more than negotiating positions and seeing as no one has sat around a table yet, nobody can say for sure what the consistency of Brexit will be once it’s finally baked. Considering the European Union (EU) wants to make an example of Britain so as to dissuade other countries from following suit means heading into a negotiation taking a soft approach, will only end in tears. The idea that EU super-state ideologues like Guy Verhofstadt, will simply roll over and allow Britain have an amicable divorce from their pet project, is naivety to the extreme. One thing is for certain though: May’s Tories sure as hell don’t understand what the Brexit vote meant.
Ever since Britain voted to leave the EU on the 23rd of June 2016, there has been a steady stream of diagnoses and theories as to why the referendum result fell the way it did. Some theories have been far more insightful than others; while many have resorted to the equivalent of ideological trench warfare. There is no doubt that the referendum was deeply divisive and as a result it ended up being close to a 50/50 split. To truly understand the result of the referendum, in all its mutifaceted complexity; requires to my mind, a stepping back from the equation and taking the focus off of any one, or few factors that have undoubtedly contributed to the situation and instead focus on what ties them all together. To do this Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning electoral victory needs to be cross examined with the initial Brexit vote, as there are some fascinating observations to be made.
Jan-Werner Muller writing in the London Review of Books, back on June the 2nd, 2016 asked the question “Would the Brexit debate have played out differently in a calmer, less crisis ridden Europe?”. A fascinating and important question to ask, one he goes on to look at in great detail, with some interesting insights. However, I feel he has somewhat failed to answer his own question, or perhaps more to the point, failed to ask the right question.
Surely a far more revealing question would have been “Would the Brexit debate have played out differently had the referendum taken place before the financial crash of 2008?”.
While Muller’s well thought out and reasoned analysis gets to the heart of the European question, it is largely from a vantage point out of reach to the average voter. His forensic examination of the European Union’s bureaucratic machinations and political convolutions, strangely neglects this very point. Perhaps he does so as he sees it as a moot point, considering – rightly – that the global recession was not caused by the EU; rather by a far more complex set of economic factors, that I won’t even begin to profess I fully understand. That being said, more than a finger can be pointed at the EU’s austerity driven policies that many European countries were forced under the spell of in the wake of the crash. However in this instance, Britain cannot – even though it did – blame the EU for wholeheartedly adopting austerity policies; that finger can be squarely pointed at the Tory led government that took power in 2010.
The European Commission, the European Central Bank and the British government worked hand in glove together to impose harsh austerity measures across the EU, just as the Obama administration had done in America. By 2015, austerity had been widely discredited as being grossly ineffective, highly damaging to economies and was the cause of much suffering in the countries it was imposed on. Everyone appeared to get the message, except for Britain. After David Cameron won a surprising outright majority in the May 2015 election, the Tory government doubled down on its austerity measures, under the insidiously incompetent hands of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.
This climate of austerity driven cuts – which the Tories effectively laid the blame for at the EU’s door – allowed for an environment of public resentment to build up around inward migration and the relatively small EU contributions of £8bn per annum; just 1.2% of public expenditure, which doesn’t account for the economic gains that membership affords. This is however, by no means an apology for the EU’s deeply regressive and repressive economic measures it imposed elsewhere. Nigel Farage’s UKIP party, whose sole mission was to exit the EU; effectively capitalised on this burgeoning state of malaise that had gripped the UK, by directing people’s anger and anguish away from the Tory led austerity programme and towards the EU’s policies. Chief among them being one of the central tenets of EU membership, free movement of people; as well as the annual contributions.
The question of immigration was one of the defining talking points in the debates around Brexit; however considering London – whose population, according to the 2011 UK Census has a 37% non British born demographic – voted overwhelmingly in favour of remain, clearly there is a far more fundamental issue at play. Immigration is integral for any country to grow and prosper, as people with different skills and different cultural backgrounds provide new and innovative approaches to a whole host of social and economic situations. That being said, uncontrolled immigration can also have adverse effects on societies, by driving down the cost of labour at the bottom; whilst simultaneously driving up rewards for the top.
Clearly cheap labour is attractive to companies in order to maximise their profit, however a hollowing out of the labour market like this can cause deep inequality, as well as deep resentments towards the foreign migrants. Not only is the cost of labour affected, workers rights can also end up being trampled, as new and enthusiastic migrants take up jobs caring little for the pay and conditions. This has manifested in things like zero-hour contracts and stagnant, unrealistic wages that people can’t afford to live on. When you add the insidious cuts to public pay and services. which have a greater and greater demand thrust upon them, is it any wonder people lash out when given a chance. Clearly this is not sustainable economically, socially or culturally and not just for Britain; but for the countries where talented and skilled people are often forced to leave their homes in search of a better life.
Considering high levels of immigration was not a major bone of contention in London, why then was it such a motivating factor in other parts of the UK? To assess this phenomenon we need to take a trip around Britain and have a brief history lesson. Britain’s political system has historically been built around two main political parties, who have been fundamentally orientated around class. The Tories aka the Conservative Party have historically been a right wing party who look after the interests of the wealthy, corporate sector and landowners. Labour on the other hand are traditionally a left wing party, who look after the interests of the working classes, espouse a more social outlook and who grew out of the trade union movement of the late 19th century. Travelling around Britain today and it is evident class is no longer the defining topic it used to be, instead it is geography. Starting in the late 70’s, deindustrialisation has had dramatic effects on whole regions of the UK; particularly the Midlands and Northern England, where once bastions of heavy industry such as shipbuilding, steelmaking and mining: now are dependent upon the service sector, where work is often unsatisfactory, insecure and low paid.
These regions were once Labour strongholds and people who grew up there came from cultural backgrounds that equipped them for reasonably well paid manual labour, that provided a sense of identity, community and self worth. After Thatcher began the process of deindustrialisation, it was a slippery slope to where these regions are today. Tony Blair’s New Labour government, elected in 1997 saw the traditional ties with the these areas all but severed as he pursued Thatcher’s neo-liberal policies, continuing to slash manufacturing and focusing on a knowledge based economy. What was once sold as economic modernisation – now known as globalisation – has become industrial decay, with nothing of any substance to fill the void.
The North-South divide is important because whereas places such as London have massively diverse economies that can swallow up the effects of low cost labour without it being readily apparent; places like Sunderland are entirely different, with the economy comparatively stagnant; issues like immigration can become easy targets.
Following the betrayal by Labour to their traditional base – enter UKIP stage right. Picking up on the palpable discontent among huge swathes of the British electorate and massaging it to their own ends; immigration became the burning topic with both sides using it inversely to bolster their positions. Leave campaigners used immigration as an easy target to direct their anger at, while remain campaigners refused to acknowledge any issues surrounding uncontrolled immigration and branded anyone who dare mention it a racists and xenophobic.
The vote for Brexit has widely been claimed to be a protest vote, although the protest seems to have largely been misdirected towards the EU, whilst ignoring the glaringly obvious. That being said, I would personally guess that behind all the smoke and mirrors – and of course obvious cases of racism and xenophobia – people deep down and quite unconsciously knew exactly what they were protesting about. Which brings me back to the question “Would the Brexit debate have played out differently had the referendum taken place before the financial crash of 2008?”. I personally don’t think there would have been a debate; certainly not one that would have led to a referendum result like the one on the 23rd of June. None of this is to say the EU as an entity is not deeply dysfunctional and probably needs to be broken up before it can be put back together again; however it would be more than a little disingenuous in this instance to say that all roads to lead to Rome – en route to Brussels.
This neatly brings me round to the more recent developments – the spectacular results of the UK general election. Defying all odds and predictions and surviving a sustained and deeply cynical, full frontal assault by the various wings of the UK media, not to mention a hideously hostile, Blarite filled parliamentary party – Jeremy Corbyn came up trumps. Unlike Donald Trump however, Corbyn is no populist; rather he is simply popular and for good reason. There has already been fierce debate as to how and why Labour managed to make this record smashing turn around. Some people are convinced it can be boiled down to a Remainer revolt; while others point to May’s insipid campaign and lack of clarity. Clearly there is more than a grain of truth to be found in these positions; May really was awful and the remain vote had to find a home somewhere: however these are not what lit the fire in the Momentum train.
One only has to look at the bizarre campaign the Liberal Democrats had to put the anti-Brexit backlash argument to bed. They threw everything they could muster at the despondent Remainer demographic, running a passionate, youth centered campaign and came up with paltry returns. They lost 5 seats, then picked up 8 to give them a grand total of 12, 3 more than what they started with. Nick Clegg, perhaps one of the most passionate Remainers even lost his seat, a seat he had held for 12 years. After the Brexit referendum there was an attempt to polarise the nation along the lines of age. Older voters said to have voted Leave, while younger voters Remain. Considering they hardly showed up to vote, it is hardly a fair appraisal. Contrast that to a historic show of support from the 18-24 year olds, who practically all came out to vote for Corbyn on a Brexit platform and this theory is utterly demolished.
The result in Scotland is possibly even more bizarre, particularly in light of the string of elections they have been through in recent years. They lost a third of their seats, the bulk going to the Tories and surprisingly not to Labour. Clearly the issue of independence has been postponed for at least a generation, if not two. Voted against independence, voted against Brexit; outraged at being dragged out of the EU against their will and widely touted as getting and voting for a 2nd independence referendum. Nope, not the case apparently, not after losing two of their heavy hitters.
Then there is Northern Ireland, perhaps the most ironic of all. Theresa May’s ashen faced failure to secure a majority has led to her having to go begging to the only major party who actually voted in unison for Brexit. The DUP of course hold a double dose of irony for the Tories who clamoured to accuse Corbyn of having ties to Sinn Fein and being an IRA sympathiser. The DUP just so happen to be the flip side of that IRA coin.
Last but not least is the demise of UKIP, whose voters seemed to have developed bi-polar and split down the middle between Labour and the Tories. With strong gains in the North, clearly those left leaning UKIP voters – the crucial swing vote in the Brexit referendum – came back home to where they belong. Why is that?
Perhaps it is because Labour under Jeremy Corbyn went back to its roots, it stood for something. It stood for everyone. What began as an election focused on Brexit, very quickly became an election centred on domestic policy. After years of brutal austerity and a starved public sector, Corbyn’s manifesto is exactly what the doctor ordered. Corbyn’s electoral victory is truly awe inspiring. Imagine if his party had of spent their time wiser, banding around him and giving their full support; rather than fighting with each other over who would stab him in the back next. Imagine if the media hadn’t have spent over a year ridiculing him and had given him a fair platform. I reckon he would be sitting comfortably in No. 10 right now.
I have always felt Brexit was the right decision, but for the wrong reasons. It felt at the time like a missed opportunity to challenge the EU and drag it back from its all consuming trajectory. Just as individuals need strong boundaries to thrive and just as enmeshed codependent relationships are detrimental to people’s well being, it is clearly the same for countries, as the EU’s crisis ridden reality is a testament too. We need less Europe Mr. Verhofstadt, not more. We need healthy separation, not forced codependence. Cooperation will surely follow.
Considering Corbyn’s long held position vis-a-vis the EU and considering how he managed to lead a Brexit campaign that picked up so much support, particularly from the young; all without having to resort to gutter politics or project fear. Perhaps the most interesting question to ask would be:
“Would the Brexit debate have played out differently had Jeremy Corbyn campaigned for Brexit, as he surely would have liked to do; with the vision and inspiration of his general election campaign?”
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