I join over 15m voters in their varied disappointment on waking this morning to discover that Britain has voted to leave the EU. That’s about as sober a statement as I can manage right now. Because I am bealing, furious, outraged, incandescent with indignation that the vote went that way for reasons of myopia and xenophobia that should have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century.
From Boris to Farage, this was Henry V, Armada-era, thin-red-line, fight-them-on-the-beaches stuff that attempted—and succeeded—in turning back the clock towards a time when Britannia ruled the stock markets, as well as the waves. Had the benefits of an arms-length (rather than close) relationship with Britain’s nearest neighbours been laid out in a cogent and/or pounds-and-pence case and that had won, I would be disappointed, upset even, but resigned that democracy had debated and spoken. But the Brexit case made McCarthyism seem a rational and calm search for the truth by comparison.
Any attempt I make to present a rational analysis of this must be prefaced by the confession that I was constantly amazed that Brexit leaders consisted of an almost complete who’s who of irritating British politicians . They all fall into that type who, at school, would have been taken behind the bike shed in utter irritation at their endless smug infallibility in oleaginous pronouncements. Farage and Boris lead this rogue’s gallery by a country mile, but honourable mention must go to John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and similar insufferables, plus our own embrassment-in-an-ill-fitting-suit, David Cockburn.
But. leaving personalities aside, consider what appears to have happened in this most momentous decision in Britain so far in the 21st century—and, yes, I include 2014’s indyref in that and do not do so lightly.
- It was always clear that right-wing England—largely represented by the Tory party but more recently also partly by UKIP—was hostile to Europe. In this group are Little-Englanders, Backwoodsmen of the Tory back benches, the Home Counties, those who still remember the War and those who feel their culture threatened by any form of outside influence.
- A goodly section of the Tory party who are more outward-looking, trade oriented stood for Remain. They accepted the fact that ironclads and gunboats are no longer modern tools with which to negotiate and build friendships. Ruth Davidson’s very creditable contributions are en example of this element.
- By three to one, nationalists and environmentalists gave the lie to Better Together’s accusation of inward-looking small-mindedness to endorse Remain as the best was for a small nation like Scotland to make global contributions as part of an umbrella of friendly nations who, together, could carry political and economic clout on the scale of a superpower. Perhaps because of their two recent sweeps of former Labour heartland in Scotland, the bulk of former Labour voters appear to have broken with England and followed this lead.
- Largely-white, largely-Labour-voting areas were the surprise that swung it. From Canvey Island to Chester-le-Street, voters who had already swung to UKIP came out in force. But the real surprise was the scale of two fingers given by those still voting Labour to their leadership’s attempts to persuade them to Remain. By 2am, the swing to Brexit in England’s North-East was already clear and massive. It was such solid Leave votes in cities across England (outside of London) that scuppered any hopes for Remain.
But it is the reason why this last occurred that is so depressing and not hard to seek. While all is fair in love, war and politics, it is not just the arguments Brexiteers deployed that strike distasteful notes but the fact that voters in those areas were so disenchanted with the current political situation that their elected representatives had brought them to, they seized on a number of ignoble reasons proferred to give the establishment a good kicking, such as:
- “Turkey will soon join the EU and up to 70m Turks could arrive“. Palpable nonsense as Turkey has been applying for some time and faces serious hurdles before membership. Also, Germany has had thousands of Turkish ‘gastarbeiter’ for decades with mostly positive effect. But this added fuel to the recent cry:
- “Immigration is out of control” Immigration into the UK is certainly large at some 300,000 a year. But not even half of those are the unrestricted EU citizens and Britain is taking trivial amounts of Middle East refugees, compared to other developed countries. It also presume immigration is bad. America was built on immigration; Scots-Italians and Scots-Asians are very productive contributors to the Scottish economy and, with only 5.3m people, Scotland is far from full up.
- “We must take back control of our country” About the only country able to ignore the rest of the world is North Korea. Every other makes compormises to live and trade with its neighbours. Even outside the EU, Norway and Switzerland both comply with EU directives in order to trade. Isolation got America nowhere in the 1930s and a similar raising of drawbridges by the UK would make the current 10% drop in the value of the pount seem trivial.
- “We are too much government by arbitrary laws from Brussels” Nobody argues the EU does not need reform. But the bulk of laws created from workers rights to free movement of labour have benfitted Britain more than they have cost. Britain had a part in making those laws and a veto if they were somehow unacceptable. The EU will continue to make laws but we will no longer have any influence on them.
All across England, working class areas that have seen little or no migration and who have lost few jobs to them because there were few jobs to lose, seem to have bought the UKIP line that foreigners were the problem and that Europe was the reason they were coming. That seems wholly illogical until you realise that it was just such areas where Labour is increasingly losing control.
Throughout the EU campaign, Labour has been slow to galvanise its members. Messages of internationalism or of responsibility for refugees fell on increasingly deaf ears. People were hurting economically from Osborne’s endless austerity and believed UKIP’s xenophobic blaming of foreign incomers and EU meddling, rather than any noble aspirations floating out of HQ.
The 15 Labour MPs who supported Brexit were at least in touch with their rank and file. What happens to Labour now in the political ruins of their former northern power base from Newcastle on Tyne to Newcastle Under Lyme remains to be seen but a parliamentary party Vote of No Confidence in Corbyn has already been loaded in Margaret Hodge’s formidable blunderbuss. Who knows what will be left when the smoke from its blast clears?
Meantime, all of Britain faces a major dilemma. There is no precedent, let alone a coherent plan, for Brexit. We all face ructions and losses, such as today’s drop in the pound and Footsie. England will have to come to terms with being a pariah in Europe for throwing its constitutional toys out of the pram. But it may take more than a two-year Article 50 obstacle course to discover just how far it has stuck its bum out the windae by its choice.
Scotland, meanwhile, can rightly argue it voted decisively otherwise—much more so than the 51.9% to 48.1% that everyone is rushing to declare ‘decisive’. That fact alone justifies another referendum because the Union is no longer the one extant on 15.9.16. Otherwise, we risk similar pariah isolation and running our economy into the sand along with England’s.