And so a star has been removed from the blue European flag, with 51.9 per cent of Britons voting to rescind a 43-year membership of the EU.
The night before Brexit, storm clouds roamed the south coast of England in almost pathetic fallacy, a reflection of the impending economic and political chaos to come. Over $2tn was wiped from global stock markets, sterling plummeted more than 17 cents against the dollar and David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister in what Financial Times writer Janan Ganesh has described as “the most humiliating exit since Anthony Eden in 1956, who launched the botched intervention in the Suez Canal”.
a strong anti-elite sentiment found expression in this referendum.
Historical comparisons aside, it is too narrow-minded to believe that this plebiscite only ever centred on one question: “Are you willing to risk market equilibrium in order to have lower immigration?”. The reasons for the Brexit vote, in fact, do not fit into such neat issue categories – just as the majority voting were not in one homogenous group. Abstract notions of sovereignty were more important for the political class than the working-class for example.
Above all the commentating to the point of ad nauseam, there is growing currency in the idea that the shock result had everything to do with EU and nothing to do with it at all.
In the case of the latter, a strong anti-elite sentiment found expression in this referendum. Former industrial towns and cities across the north of England and Wales have felt all the burdens of globalisation and none of the benefits. The EU, to the working-class Brexiteers, is but one establishment actor of many who has ignored them for too long, epitomised by the arrogance of the argument that Britain would lose its coveted ‘island of stability for investors’ status – despite the fact that their long collective memory has been one of deep instability.
They have gradually suffused with a sense of anger and betrayal. On the streets of Hartlepool (69.6 per cent leave), one adult out of ten is unemployed . In forgotten ex-mining towns in the Rhondda Valley (53.7 per cent leave), poverty had reached normalcy long ago.
The issue of immigration was only ever going to become more salient as a result, and in an unusual twist in hereditary fate, Jack Straw – father of executive director of Britain Stronger In Europe, Will Straw – admits blame for cultivating conditions for a Brexit vote. In 2004, the former Home Secretary predicted that annual net migration to the UK from the A8 nations that joined the EU (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia) was to be only 13,000.
Later expressing deep regrets in interviews, deviating from “other existing EU members, notably France and Germany, [who] decided to stick to the general rule which prevented migrants from these new states from working until 2011”, was a mistake.
Immigration therefore rightly became a centrepiece of the debate which compelled voters to desire the nation’s exit. Voters in working-class areas in England and Wales expressed distaste for – what they perceive as – unfettered immigration. Various vox pops in Barnsley painted a picture of voters angrily stomping into polling booths, chanting in unison: “It’s all about immigration. It’s not about trade or Europe or anything like that”.
But voters are not stupid. They saw through to some extent the exaggerations of both campaigns, because the instinct is to not indulge gimmickry in the same way that political commentators do. Political campaigns cannot hypnotise people into believing in something that they have never, nor wish to ever, believe in – vote leave just had to gesticulate to potential supporters how alien the EU was.
Their path was made smoother by virtue of the Brexit coalition having many constituent parts – notably, traditional Labour voters from the north of England and Wales, over 55s, the original Eurosceptic voters of the South East and elsewhere. Crucially, non-voters seemed to have carried the result, with Nick Robinson reporting that some have never voted since 1983 in the Thatcher era. All are conflicting with one another, so it is exceedingly difficult to see if this collection of voters will back the newly-formed Brexit government – largely because of future splits if that government chooses to stay in the single market, or leave so immigration can be curbed once and for all.
If the referendum has shown us anything, it is the crippling weakness of the Labour brand – in key areas such as Swansea, Sheffield and Southampton. Jeremy Corbyn has undeniably been a weak actor, rating the EU a mere 7.5 out of 10 which did nothing to budge labour voters who were teetering Eurosceptics. Such was the confusion over his positioning that Gordon Brown – or the referendum automaton – was hurriedly wheeled out. But to no avail, as the disparity between metropolitan liberal and working-class labour supporters doomed their campaign from its inception.
we face the serious possibility that Scotland could quit the union.
It is no surprise to the reader that these engendered cultural divisions speak to a wider national phenomenon. Perhaps Brexit has delivered us to a point of no return; as jokes are told (then stolen) on social media how ‘The Northern Line should be extended to Scotland’, shades of reality present us with the possibility of a UK break-up. Calls for unity now have become but a banal exhortation from politicians who attempting to weather the political storm.
Responses from continental leaders have been less obvious. An impression of jittery panic comes from fear of a referendum domino effect, that would fuel populist clamour and confirm bias that the project will collapse under the weight of its rigid ideology. Or in the case of Donald Tusk: a sense of Polish-type resilience, “it is true that the past years have been the most difficult ones in the history of our union, but I always remember what my father used to tell me – ‘What does not kill you makes you stronger’”, and caustic wit following England’s humiliating exit from Euro 2016, “UK-Iceland 1-2. Winter is coming”.