Farewell cosmopolitan Britain – hail mean, delusional (and rather elderly) little England. Vanessa Baird responds to the referendum result.
As pundits pick over the smoking ruins of the campaign to remain in the European Union, and British sterling goes into freefall, the breast-beating and recriminations have already begun.
It’s all Prime Minister David Cameron’s fault for calling the plebiscite in the first place. It’s all Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s fault for not being passionately pro-Europe enough. And it’s all the fault of political elite in the ‘Westminster bubble’ unconnected with the real feelings of what victorious UKIP leader Nigel Farage called ‘the decent people.’ People like him, perhaps.
While the Brexit camp are crowing and celebrating ‘independence day’, it’s easy for the Remain side to sink into despair. Never has Britain felt more deeply divided.
What to do?
Well, first, we need detailed analyses of what happened, just why people voted the way they did. Already a fairly complex picture is emerging. The Labour heartland of Sunderland – not known for a high level of immigration but hit by austerity and neglected in the post-industrial era – snubbed the wishes of the Labour leadership and voted massively for Brexit.
London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with large-scale immigration over the years, voted to remain. People in smaller towns and rural areas voted ‘leave’, while those in larger cities such as Manchester, Newcastle, and Liverpool ticked the ‘remain’ box. But not Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, which went for Brexit. Wales and the South West of England, which have benefited disproportionately from EU development funding, voted to leave and pin their hopes of support for British agriculture on to….Westminster.
Baffling inconsistencies abound; exceptions are as plentiful as generalizations.
One generalization that does seem to hold is that pertaining to age – polls have consistently shown that younger people were far more likely to vote ‘remain’ while those citizens most likely to vote Brexit were aged over 60. The great irony is that it is the young who are going to suffer the consequences of Brexit for much longer than the elderly, who as a generation, are comparatively better off than most people in Britain today.
But, apart from analysing what happened, what can we do?
Listening to Nigel Farage today, it is abundantly clear who the winner is. It’s certainly not left-wingers who came up with arcane reasons for Brexit; nor the people who just wanted to give PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne bloody noses; and it is very unlikely to be all those people who didn’t really know what to think but were unhappy and felt it was ‘time for a change’. Whatever…
It’s the racist Far Right, dressed up in the livery of UKIP. It’s the millionaire owners of the Daily Mail, The Express, The Sun – hardly the ‘ordinary people’ that Farage likes to invoke.
Which is why we are going to have to re-double our efforts to identify and tackle the roots of this nascent fascism that is growing very nicely, thank you, in our green and pleasant land.
That means tackling the economics of inequality, deprivation, and the north-south divide.
But it also means developing better ways to challenge, at every point, the unfair and irrational tactic of scapegoating – blaming all ills on groups of people like migrants or even entire institutions like the EU itself. Our ‘scapegoat monitor’ needs to go into overdrive now.
Because this is how fascism gets hold. Just because the emblems of this very British iteration is a ‘fag-and-a-pint-in-the-pub’ rather than the jackboot-and-swastika does not mean we don’t have to take it seriously. The comfy ‘acceptability’ of casual racism makes it even more pernicious.
The ground has shifted overnight. What seemed like an intolerant, xenophobic, UKIP position is now national policy. That brings far-Right organizations like the British National Party, Liberty GB, Britain First, closer to the mainstream.
Many of us in England and Wales, who woke up this morning to find their countries had voted for Brexit, may now look with envy across the border to Scotland, which voted overwhelming to remain within Europe.
But it is now probable that Scotland will hold another independence referendum, based on the fact that it wants to be in the EU. In Northern Ireland the (pro-EU) referendum result has reignited calls for Irish reunification.
Picture the scene. Little England, lonely little England, with Wales in tow, burdened by outdated delusions of grandeur, spending the next few years trying to negotiate free trade deals around the world.
Anyone who believes for a second that this will mean a break from the neo-liberal agenda that has done so much harm to working people and which deepened inequality over the past three decades, is living in la-la-land.