Brexit from another angle
The country is sick to death of Brexit and many see it as a sticking plaster that‘s serving no purpose so lets not prolong the agony and just rip it off. Of course there’s a gaping wound underneath so, let’s be honest, there is no short sharp shock scenario. Also, March 29th was always the leaving date so that’s the earliest anything was ever going to happen.
I’m not going into the forensics behind the Leave and Remain campaigns or propose a solution as I’m ill equipped to do either. I need to declare that I did vote Remain and have no regrets. I still believe that Leave was the worst option and should we leave the European Union I will be among the mourners. However I no longer support the campaign for a People’s Vote. Just as I believe that, even in a dysfunctional family, the preferred option is for the child to remain and for the family to get help, there are many cases where this is not an option; likewise, staying in the EU would be my first choice (and my vote, should there be a second referendum), but I believe a people’s vote could be extremely destructive and potentially hurt the country far more than Brexit.
So we need to understand why there was (and still is) so much support for Brexit even among those who will suffer most from it. Of course, most people who voted leave would find this patronising, which I accept. I am also aware of well reasoned arguments for Brexit which I‘m not seeking to question here. There are some who knew precisely why they voted Leave and for whom this doesn’t apply but, as I’ve already indicated, this is not a critique of the arguments. Rather its an attempt to understand the mood of the country and how that contributed to the Leave vote.
Had this referendum taken place 20 years ago I’m fairly certain we would have voted Remain. If I’m right, I propose we limit our history to the 21st century (with the odd dip into the previous one) which I think gives us more than enough to go on. However we mustn’t limit it to the British perspective (the election of Trump is no coincidence).
Let’s start at 1997 when Labour won a landslide victory over the Conservatives. The country was tired of the poll tax government of Thatcher and Major and saw hope in the leadership of charismatic Tony Blair, backed by a superb marketing machine led by Alistair Campbell. We saw the creation of the minimum wage and new hospitals and schools being built. We were presented with a fiscally responsible regime promising to deliver the prosperity we felt we enjoyed in the 80’s in a bright and shiny new way.
The advent of New Labour saw terms such as ‘spin doctor’ become common in the vernacular of political pundits. The media was managed and the new century appeared to get off to a decent start though the feel good factor was short lived. The media loves a war and going to war generally works in favour of the current government. But to justify the Iraq war and our presence in Afghanistan there needed to be a fear project so together with the US and other Western governments, we cooked up ‘The War on Terror’. That’s all well and good but ‘project fear’ always backfires in the end.
Ultimately, the regimes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (though softened by socialist leaning policies) were neoliberal in nature, more or less continuing the Tory policies of privatisation and outsourcing. Though Gordon Brown can’t be blamed for the 2008 financial crash (initiated by corrupt banking practices in the USA) he openly admits he should have seen it coming. And though there is a good case to make that he handled the crisis well, it happened on his watch. But more than the crash itself, the Brexit mind focuses on the bankers who should have been jailed for their part but actually profited from it.
If this were not bad enough the MP’s expenses scandal broke in 2008 shattering any illusions that politicians could be trusted. This saw BNP candidates winning UK and EU elections, not because they could be trusted more but because they filled a vacuum. So it was inevitable that there would be no party with a majority after the 2010 elections. And with Labour looking tired and frayed its not surprising that the Lib-Dems got into bed with the Tories to form a coalition government. While Labour’s 13 year stint had its blemishes it left the economy in reasonable shape but failed to address stagnant wages, a steady decline of UK industry and dying communities. Its continuation and expansion of the Tories’ PFI (Private Finance Initiative) would evenytually lead to a crisis in the the NHS and education.
The Tories, not a party to look a gift horse in the mouth, leapt upon the 2008 collapse, blamed Labour for anything and everything and foisted austerity measures on the country. As much as their lies make good press they have not been able to gloss over the fact that the country is on its knees and sinking, for which they have no answer. When Labour regrouped it coalesced around half hearted attempts to mitigate against the crushing legislation of the coalition government. Utterly forgetable utterances by beige defenders of Labour policy, petrified that they might have to defend socialism, added to the justifiable perception that all politicians were alike. The perennial Tory policy of divide and rule was manifest in racism and fear and, faced with an electorate still occupied with the war on terror, easily persuaded that foreigners were taking their jobs and benefits, the Labour Manfesto of 2015 apologised for its previous immigration policy.
In 2015 a new political figure made waves, almost by accident. Ed Milliband had resigned following Labour’s defeat in the general election and believing there needed to be a robust leadership contest with someone on the left — not just safe centrists — Jeremy Corbyn’s name was put forward with neither him nor his sponsors believing he had any real chance of winning. However he was backed by a group called Momentum who had tapped into a rich seam largely consisting of, but not exclusively, younger people who were not only tired of old politics but were hungry for something new.
Skip back 8 years and over in the USA where the financial crash began, the country welcomed a new president in the form of Barak Obama. Desperately tired of Bush, the electorate took to Obama in a big way. He was charismatic and spoke of a new order where things would be done differently. Reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jnr, he gave change hungry Americans a new hope. He was going to close Guantanimo Bay, introduce a new health care system that was affordable for working class Americans and bring the troops back from Iraq.
Alas, he did nothing to fundamentally fix the underlying problems. Though he considerably reduced the debt that Bush had created he did virtually nothing to rein in the criminal bankers or curb the excesses of Wall street. And though GDP steadily rose throughout his 8 years the average American saw little benefit, only a continuing decline in secure jobs and stagnant wages. Being funded by Big Pharma and Wall Street, Obama had little incentive to affect real progress.
In 2016, at the same time that Corbyn’s star was rising, Bernie Sanders was preaching socialism and reaching a similar demographic in the USA. But while Corbyn was rallying party members and Labour supporters to elect him as party leader, Sanders was running for President on the Democratic ticket. Unfortunately the Democratic Party leadership (including Obama himself) had decided and was determined to put one of its own forward in the form of Hillary Clinton. So they deliberately ham strung Sanders’ campaign and ran the most unpopular presidential candidate in history.
Many of those who voted for Trump did so reluctantly. They were desperate for change and in Hillary Clinton they saw more of the same. It was likely that Sanders would have have won the election if the Democratic Party had given him the chance but all they saw in Clinton was a continuation of the Obama talk show that saw their jobs go overseas while their houses were disposessed. Maybe the economy was doing well but they were seeing none of it. Many thought that Trump’s scandals would bury him like candidates in previous presidential races but the people in the rust belt (America’s industrial heartland) were so desperate for change he weathered these self inflicted arrows like a superhero.
In 2015 David Cameron had promised a referendum on the EU in order to win back the members who had defected to UKIP. He was also desperate to put an end to the divisions over the EU that had plagued the Tory Party for decades. He knew that Parliament was decidedly EU friendly and presumably counted on the naturally conservative British to opt for no change. He hadn’t counted on the Johnson/Gove bus of lies and xenophobia. He had also miscalculated the mood of working people particularly in Wales and the North East.
The Tory war against the coal miners was still fresh and since then there had been a steady decline in industry regardless of which party was in government. Wages had fallen behind inflation and communities were hemorrhaging. The concern about free movement of workers obviously contributed to their unease but had they not felt abandoned that might have been a point to be argued. Not only had politicians been tainted by the expenses scandal, the spin that characterised the Blair regime had taught folk that they were being played.
To add insult to injury, the players who had consistently betrayed them were now trying to persuade them to vote Leave or Remain. In both the American presidential campaign and the Referendum they represented ‘The Establishment’, the ruling elite who controlled all the wealth of which they had no part. Trump referred to the establishment and it resonated with the people of the rust belt. The left-behind in the UK may or may not have seen the EU as the enemy but they saw the referendum as a vehicle to express their frustration with the establishment. Some have come to regret their vote but the truth remains, they were frustrated and saw no one speaking up for them.
In two years very little has changed. Those wanting to stay in the EU have been labelled the Remoaners by those who feel they now have a voice that was democratically affirmed. Reversing Brexit wouldn’t take us back to 2016 it would rehearse the neoliberal legacy of the past 40 years. Many of those pushing for a people’s vote represent the very establishment that fired up the Leave vote in the first place. Even if they can be pursuaded that leaving the EU would negatively impact them, we know that many would still vote for it. At the heart of each of us is a need to feel that we can determine our own future and even if our decision is wrong its our decision.
Social media is screaming at me, that Brexit is the wrong decision for so many reasons, and my heart and intellect are pulled in that direction so that I wonder if this piece makes sense or I’m being persuaded by the wrong voices to turn the hearts of those who already have it right. But I’m not arguing for the pros and cons of Brexit which, to a large extent, is a missed opportunity that has arguably gone.
And I would suggest we need to look beyond that debate to the cards we actually have in our hands because the country is still pretty much split 50:50 and there is no will in Parliament for a people’s vote. Should there be another referendum it could well be more destructive than the first and if we arrive back here in another year’s time we’ve wasted a year of uncertainty and repairs. History is littered with poor decisions but also by hard decisions deferred and convictions in want of an opportunity.