The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU has shocked the world, but it ought not to have come as much of a surprise. The economic case to remain in the EU was made all too obvious, but the referendum was more than just a case of economics. It was a complex debate, multi-dimensional in its scope, with each individual issue demanding an equal share of the voter’s attention. The electorate was overwhelmed by the sheer number of facts promulgated by both sides of the argument and effort had to be invested to verify which facts were valid and which were fictional. The arguments for Brexit pulled on nationalist heartstrings and those of remaining in the EU resonated strongly with a young generation that has acquired a European identity.
I voted to remain, but this wasn’t a decision that forced itself overwhelmingly onto my conscious, nor with any great passion. I am not a strong proponent of the EU by any means, least of all in its current form, and this was reflected in the time it took me to mark an “X” on my postal vote. However, the idea that we can solve the problems presented by our membership of the EU by simply running away from them is, in my view, a mistake. I voted for the UK to uphold a position where it could shape the future of Europe and maintain a hand it its continual evolution.
Amongst the hysteria following the outcome of the referendum, it wasn’t so much the result of Brexit in its own right that was of most interest to me, it was more so the events that culminated in its development and the immediate aftermath. There are a number of them, but I will take just a few that I think are worth mentioning.
Project fear versus project hope
The EU referendum was the greatest political battle between optimism and pessimism, both vying for the attention of the electorate stranded in no man’s land. Although the campaign to remain in the EU did not embrace the term “Project Fear”, their primary tactic, aptly named, was clear from the outset and it was maintained throughout the entirety of the campaign with unremitting force. Instead of representing a positive case for remaining in the EU, a greater emphasis was placed on the negative consequences of leaving it. Economic organisations such as the ONS, the IFS and the IMF, the Treasury, the Bank of England and leading figures in the world of business and economics, all too aware of the financial and political implications of abandoning the single market, indulged in what was typically branded as scaremongering. “If we leave the EU, XYZ will happen as a result.”
XYZ meant fewer jobs, higher taxes, more spending cuts, plummeting stock markets, losses to GDP and an impending economic recession. The starkest warning of this nature came at the tail end of the campaign by Chancellor George Osborne, who announced that in the event of a vote to leave the EU, he would be forced to implement a “Brexit budget” that would involve revoking his key Tory election pledge not to raise taxes. An extra 2p on the basic rate of income tax, an extra 3p on the higher rate of income tax, a 5% rise in inheritance tax and widespread public spending cuts were just some of the punishments at his disposal. President Obama also weighed in on the referendum by reiterating these gloomy economic forecasts, suggesting that the UK would go to the “back of the queue” in terms of securing a trade deal with the USA.
But there is a fundamental flaw to this tactic that the remain campaign evidently did not appreciate nor anticipate. Fear is only effective when you have something to lose. For an investor who has money tied up in stock, the fearful rhetoric that the stock markets will crash if the UK votes to leave the EU would justifiably motivate them to vote remain. But for many people who feel that their interests have gone largely undetected by Westminster, things can’t get much worse. A shortage of affordable homes, a precarious job market, an overcrowding of schools, a strained National Health Service and a government that is incapable of addressing these concerns are just a few examples that have pushed those affected not to a vote to remain, but to a vote of no confidence. It is no wonder then, that a vote to leave the EU was irresistible not just to those seeking an alternative future, but to those who wanted to protest against the current one.
Project Hope also tapped into public fear, but this type of fear was one that couldn’t be expressed on a GDP chart or contained within a red box held aloft in front of 11 Downing Street. This was a fear of the loss of employment, the fear of being cut further adrift by the tide of unequal wealth distribution and, perhaps the most relevant of all, the fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of daily life. This, together with a common feeling that the political system only serves the interest of those at the top, culminated in a sense of helplessness to which only a hopeful message could provide the antidote. Phrases such as “taking back control” and “regaining our independence” were regurgitated frequently on televised debates and during campaign rallies and whilst there was no plausible explanation as to how these pledges would be enacted through policy and legislation, it was evident that these sweeping statements were tremendously effective at galvanising support for the campaign to leave the EU. After the tragic death of MP Jo Cox, the referendum rhetoric was toned down significantly, especially on the issue of immigration. A vote to leave turned into a vote not so much to leave Europe, but to join the rest of the world, with a strong focus on both recognising the important contribution that EU migrants make to the economy and encouraging migrants outside the EU to bring their skills to the UK.
Let’s blame the immigrants
There can be no doubt that of all the arguments offered during the campaigning and debating, the issue of immigration took centre stage. The unwavering anti-immigration sentiments emanating from many of those who wanted to leave the EU were seemingly impervious to even the most credible economic and moral arguments in its defence. It was also the issue of immigration that plunged the referendum into the lowest depths of inhumanity, fuelling the sort of hate behind the killing of MP Jo Cox and the subsequent xenophobic and racist incidents that occurred in the aftermath of the referendum result, not to mention Nigel Farage’s poster.
In recent years immigrants have seemingly become a target for national resentment and fear by the native population, exploited and exacerbated further by extremists, politicians and the mainstream media. This anti-immigration sentiment has been successfully exploited by right-wing xenophobic political parties across Europe such as the Front National in France and the British National Party in Britain, their pledges to stop immigration outright and to repatriate “foreigners” have been used as a “one size fits all” solution to all of our political, economic and social woes.
However, this common perception of a national attitude towards immigrants is perhaps not as reflective and nuanced as we would like to think. It would be useful for the sake of clarity to make a clear distinction between immigrants as human beings and immigration as a phenomenon. Whilst I suspect that most reasonable people in the UK do not harbour any personal hostility with immigrants as individuals, the same certainly cannot be said for immigration as a system. The accusation is that the UK’s current immigration policy has provided the optimum socio-economic conditions which allow those who intend to come to the UK to easily claim child benefit, jobseekers allowance and other benefits at the expense of the economy and the taxpayer. This is also in conjunction with a growing association between immigration and a lack of affordable homes, overcrowded schools, high crime rate and a National Health Service at breaking point.
It is in the act of considering immigrants over immigration that we discover compassion and empathy for individuals. It is often regarded as a cliché to ask someone to put themselves in the shoes of another to understand how they feel in a given situation. To put yourself in the shoes of an immigrant, you might well be required to imagine fleeing from a war-torn country, escaping political subjugation and religious persecution, and resisting labour exploitation. The journey away from these dangers is not much better. Crammed onto already overcrowded and unseaworthy boats, immigrants risk their lives crossing the seas in search of a better one for themselves and their families, often to European countries which seem more preoccupied with keeping them out than saving them.
The UK is a diverse mixture of cultures, ethnicity and languages, a testament to how far our nation has evolved over the past 60 years. Of course I don’t suggest that we should seek to abandon all forms of control on immigration, but perhaps Brexit can mark the beginning of a more grown-up debate on the subject which aims to implement sensible restrictions on the numbers coming in whilst encouraging and developing the important contributions that migrants make to the economy every day.
Won’t somebody please think of the children?
A statistical analysis of the referendum results has uncovered some interesting political, social, educational and geographical divisions across the UK, but none are as defined as that between the generations.
England is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts . . . A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.George Orwell in The Lion And The Unicorn (1941)
That was written by George Orwell, caught in the deep throes of war at a time when, as he describes it, “highly civilised human beings were flying overhead trying to kill him.” In the midst of all the devastation and chaos of war, he highlighted a trend which 75 years later has proven accurate in the wake of Brexit.
Speaking of 75, that was the percentage of 18-24 year-olds who voted to remain in the EU according to polling data from YouGov, the bottom graph shown above confirms an overwhelming vote by young people to remain in the EU. Angry and resentful that their future has been jeopardised by the supposedly selfish and narrow-minded conduct of older voters, Brexit now poses a threat to a European way of life which has afforded them the opportunity to live, work and study in different countries across the continent. This level of anger and resentment has spilt out onto Facebook feeds, awash with lengthy posts articulating dismay at a result which has in their view marked the surrender of diversity, tolerance and compassion to chauvinism and bigotry. It is clear that more young people than ever before, awoken from their pre-Brexit political slumber, are now passionately engaged in politics which, despite the unfavourable prospect of life outside the EU, is encouraging.
The statistic that 75% of 18-24 year-olds voted to remain in the EU is insightful, but when it is placed alongside the statistic that only 36% of 18-24 year-olds voted in the referendum, its profoundness is diluted by a sense of complacency on the part of young voters who one feels should have exercised their democratic muscle more forcefully in an important political decision of this magnitude. The graph above shows a visual representation of this trend, where areas with younger populations had lower turnouts at the polls, Glasgow being a standout example.
To condemn young people for not coming out to vote in large enough numbers would be futile. A better use of our time and resources would be to discover the reasons why young people are so disillusioned with the current political setup and to work harder on making it more inclusive and connected to the people whom it represents.
Democratic Russian roulette
Democracy was intended to check abuses of power, but . . . perpetually [defeats] itself by falling a victim to the temporary popularity of some demagogue.Bertrand Russell in Power: A New Social Analysis (1938)
The referendum is a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators.Margaret Thatcher citing Clement Attlee (1975)
The referendum has become part of the furniture of UK politics as a fundamental tool for constitutional decision-making, but when it comes to the most important decisions such as remaining in or leaving the EU, was it wrong to put to a national vote an issue of such obvious complexity and consequence?
In a comprehensive report by the House of Lords Select Committee in 2010 titled “Referendums in the United Kingdom”, a conclusion was reached that there are “significant drawbacks to the use of referendums.” However, it went on further, “we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues.” The suggestion here was that decisions of greatest importance should be reserved for referenda, where Parliament is deemed ill-equipped to undertake them. Whilst they did not believe it was “possible to provide a precise definition of what constitutes a fundamental constitutional issue”, a list of proposals were included which they considered to fall under this definition. Those proposals were the following:
- To abolish the Monarchy.
- To leave the European Union.
- For any of the nations of the UK to secede from the Union.
- To abolish either House of Parliament.
- To change the electoral system for the House of Commons.
- To adopt a written constitution.
- To change the UK’s system of currency.
They conceded that this is not, nor is it intended to be, a definite list of fundamental constitutional issues, but those that are detailed in the report entail a Parliament that is content with relinquishing a significant amount of its governmental jurisdiction to the electorate. Margaret Thatcher was sceptical of the use of referenda on two counts. First, that it would be impossible for any one political party to put an appropriate limit on its usage, and second, that referenda are easily susceptible to demagoguery. She also emphasised the consequences of referenda for every important piece of legislation, suggesting that if this was the case, “we would have no Race Relations Act, immigration would have been stopped, abortions would still be illegal and hanging still in force.” Bertrand Russell’s quote echoes these concerns though on the wider issue of democracy, alluding to a system of government that is designed to protect us from abuses of power but is simultaneously at the mercy of popular opinion.
Brexit has above all else focused attention on the risks of direct democracy. Many argue that the decision to withdraw from the EU should never have been placed in the hands of an electorate largely ignorant of facts and evidence relevant to the debate, which should have laid the foundations of an informed and reasoned vote. This notion has gained further momentum in light of a plethora of articles about people regretting their vote to leave and frantically Googling “What is the EU?” after the referendum rather than before it. There have also been reports of opportunists who used their referendum vote as a means of protesting against globalisation and the political establishment, irrespective of the consequences of Brexit. Prominent figures within government and business, such as David Lammy, Jeremy Hunt and Richard Branson, have advised that a second referendum should be held as the campaign to leave the EU intentionally misinformed the public and that the consequences of Brexit are too disastrous to even contemplate. The assumption underlined by talk of this kind is that the position to remain in the EU is rational and the position to leave the EU is primitive and emotional.
The very notion of a second referendum required, it would seem, to correct the results of the first, is a much more frightening prospect than any prospective fallout following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. First and foremost, it is a passive-aggressive return to the mindset of two centuries ago when—prior to the Reform Act of 1832—the voting franchise was severely limited because the elites did not trust extending the voting rights to the general public for fear of being overruled by the verdict of popular opinion. Secondly, it threatens to undermine the legitimate and necessary reasons upon which millions of people based their decision to vote leave and the democratic principle which affords them the right to do so. We may disagree with their reasoning, but this overt unwillingness on the part of many remain supporters to conceive of an alternative worldview—one which exists outside the EU—is a clear lack of trying. It is also worth acknowledging an element of double standards here. Imagine if the result in the referendum was reversed and remain won by a slim majority of 51.9%, do you think we would have heard the same complaints about the risks of direct democracy, the ignorance of voters and a marginal majority required for an outright win? Probably not, which begs the question, is this really a criticism of democracy or more so a criticism of other peoples opinions that you don’t agree with?
A return to the nation state
If “Europe” stands for the winners, who shall speak for the losers . . . the poor, the linguistically, educationally, or culturally disadvantaged, underprivileged, or despised Europeans . . ? The risk is that what remains to these Europeans is “the nation,” or, more precisely, nationalism . . . the preservation of the nineteenth-century state as a bulwark against change.Tony Judt in Europe: The Grand Illusion (1996)
Tony Judt’s remark in his 1996 essay “Europe: The Grand Illusion,” explains in no uncertain terms the predominant force at the epicentre of the UK’s decision to leave the EU and why I stated at the beginning that this result should come as no great surprise. The nationalistic undertones of Brexit were largely underemphasised by the media and by those participating in the debates due in part, I suspect, to nationalism’s historical association with fascism and demagoguery. For all of the talk about the economic benefits of EU membership at the forefront of the referendum, in the background there was a collective yearning for a return of democracy, autonomy and citizenship which only the nation state can provide, not the bureaucrats in Brussels.
The EU is held with reverence as a rational idea born out of the enlightenment, a modern cosmopolitan development which aims to fulfil its promise of an ever closer union of its members whilst serving as a means of escape from the primitive and backwards-looking ideals and practices of nationalism. Even for the most vehement eurosceptic, the innumerable advantages of being a member of the EU cannot be denied:
- The economic benefits from access to the single market unrestrained by national frontiers.
- The creation of new jobs by the EU and the reliance of millions of jobs on our membership of it.
- The freedom to travel, work, study, live and retire unrestricted in any of the EU member states.
- A greater influence on the world stage especially on critical global issues like climate change.
- A vital source of income for our research institutions and universities.
- The transference of resources from wealthy regions to poorer ones throughout the continent.
These are just some of the advantages which the UK has discarded with a vote to leave. The mere existence of a European Union constructed from the ashes of 1945 as a collection of nation states previously in conflict with one another is a remarkable achievement, and the EU member states are so economically interdependent and sociologically intertwined that war between these nations, whilst by no means impossible, has become unimaginable.