Brexit was a vote against London, globalisation and multiculturalism as much as a vote against Europe.
London is the world’s single most important centre of global finance — though that may be at risk now. With the surrounding southeast region, it dominates in United Kingdom economic growth. It has some of the world’s most expensive real estate and richest residents — and absentee property owners. It is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. It is home to nearly a million continental Europeans. And it voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. The rest of England did not.
Arguably, Brexit was also a vote for some version of the past. Fully 75 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 voted for a future in Europe. Sixty-one per cent of those over 65, along with a majority of all those over 45, voted against.
The vote was grounded in nostalgia. The Brexit campaign was almost entirely negative and devoid of plans for an alternative future. It played on an old idea of sovereignty, old English ideas about the difference between the island nation and the mainland of Europe, alarm over immigrants and claims that the United Kingdom was somehow subsidising Europe. This was cynical for some careerist politicians but sincere for others and, I think, for almost all their followers. But those who will have to live longest with the consequences wanted a different choice.
Not surprisingly, British citizens of immigrant backgrounds voted mostly to remain in the European Union (EU). Brexit was manifestly a vote against multiculturalism and for English nationalism. The nastiest part of the campaign was persistent fanning of anti-immigrant sentiment extending into racism and open religious bias. But it has to be said that this is a bit more complicated than it appears. EU membership mandated free movement of Europe’s mostly white citizens. Combined with Conservative government quota, this actually led the UK to restrict access for the people of colourcolour from its former colonies and the rest of the world.
Frustration over Europe expressed anger over a situation much bigger than Europe. England couldn’t vote to withdraw from London or neoliberalism or globalisation. But the problems many wanted to fix were rooted in these at least as much as the EU. Those who have benefited from globalisation — the well-educated and well-off, especially those linked to growing service industries in the southeast rather than old money in the Tory constituencies of middle England and the southwest — voted disproportionately to stay in Europe. But it is telling that there weren’t enough of them. Those with jobs mostly voted to remain in Europe. Those without jobs, or retired, voted heavily to leave.
There will always be an England
In a sense, Brexit is misnamed. England voted to leave the EU. Technically, of course, the state that held the referendum and will now negotiate withdrawal was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in Europe. Wales, lacking a significant independent economy, did stick with England against Europe, but that is not quite enough to make a great Britain.
Scotland has shuttered factories of its own, of course, but frustration at that fuelled Scottish nationalism. English nationalism was reinforced by resentment of Scottish nationalism. But it grew and took on a populist character in reaction to real problems that seemed to have been brushed aside by many leaders in all major political parties.
Arguably, the EU was a scapegoat for English anger at London, the version of globalisation it has helped lead and symbolise, and the politicians who have championed cosmopolitanism at the expense of solidarity with significant parts of their own country.
The England of Brexit has had vastly more trouble than London in absorbing immigrants — largely because the economy offers fewer opportunities for immigrants and citizens alike. In thriving London, immigrants are some 40 per cent of the population and mainstays of the service and construction industries.
Relatively wealthy residents rely on them for service in restaurants and don’t think of them as competitors. And immigrants are less compartmentalised into quasi-ghetto residential areas than in the great cities of the rest of the country.
British nationalism, to the extent it existed, was anchored in the British Empire. There are more than a few today who imagine that somehow Brexit will restore Britain to its lost global prominence (even if not dominance). This couples a claim to cultural cohesion and continuity with an old-fashioned notion of sovereignty. Alas, in an intensively and increasingly interdependent world, that older notion of sovereignty has little to recommend it and relying on it is unlikely to make England or the UK great again.
Of course, there were many complaints about the EU as such. With its expensive bureaucracy, wilful inefficiencies and dysfunctional politics, it has given more than a little justification to the frustration. Still, on the basis of almost all research and evidence, the UK was a net beneficiary of EU membership.
The Brexit campaign was one in which accuracy of evidence didn’t much matter. Politicians uttered outlandish claims, the media gleefully repeated them more often than it checked facts and even after many were debunked, voters happily embraced those that fit their preconceptions.
The campaign wasn’t driven by arguments about costs and benefits. It was driven by resentment, frustration and anger. It was emotional and expressive. And the grievances expressed had real foundations, even if the EU was a partially misplaced target and no practical solutions were offered. In this, the Brexit campaign was a close cousin to Donald Trump’s quest for the US presidency. Both are part of a still wider populist surge that expresses frustration with radically intensified inequality, stagnant incomes and declining economic security for middle and working class people in ostensibly prosperous countries.
The damage done
The referendum did considerable damage independent of Brexit itself and whatever actual institutional and market arrangements are put in place. Much of this is down to the campaigns, which were not just poorly run but travesties on both sides. That the Brexit campaign was marked by the UK’s first political murder in decades highlights the nastiness of the rhetoric used.
The Remain campaign relied heavily on trying to scare people into voting for the status quo. Indeed, it was foolish of the Cameron government to allow the seemingly passive term remain to define the potential future of the UK in Europe rather than asserting an active goal for building a better future. Hardly anyone in the Remain camp presented an idealistic argument for a European future (Gordon Brown made an attempt). The Leave campaign had its own trouble bringing disparate protagonists together. Mainstream Tory politicians were determined to marginalise UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and the Ukip. The Labour leadership seemed halfhearted.
One result is that people are unsure what they voted for. To a quite remarkable degree, the entire campaign failed to engage the question of exactly what would happen in the implementation of Brexit.
Markets are already roiled, in Europe even more than in the UK. The pound and euro have both plummeted. Divorce will be costly. But the economic sky won’t fall. Markets down dramatically at midday made up some ground later.
Brexit and disarray in Europe will likely speed the shift of global economic activity toward Asia; Eurozone growth was already nearly stagnant. But in the short run, emerging markets were hurt as investors sought shelter from risk. And growth is spotty in the Global South, already suffering from both weak demand and weak institutions (think Venezuela and Brazil). Brexit isn’t the primary cause of global economic uncertainty. It is an especially important demonstration that we live in an era of increased volatility and instability. If much of it is politically induced, it is at least exacerbated by rapid movements in global finance and weak governance structures for the global economy. Brexit is another demonstration, if we needed more, that the big global institutions built in the wake of the Second World War are no longer able to maintain global order.
In Britain, Brexit will almost certainly lead to the hegemony of a more emphatically right-wing Conservative Party. David Cameron, the prime minister who called the referendum — foolishly and it appears without deep thought — wanted to be a moderniser and a globalist, and in some ways, he was. He ran a poor campaign against Brexit and has now resigned. The career prospects of other Tory moderates look dim. Those in ascendancy are from the harder right. They campaigned as populists (even those with inherited wealth and Eton/Oxford educations) and to their shame, did not steer clear of racism and xenophobia.
But they are likely to rule as a more conventional hard right. Their nationalism will blend with strong cultural conservatism. Already, tight visa regulations may get tighter. They may try to balance the economic dominance of London by promoting home building and industry elsewhere, which would not be a bad thing. Their potential standard-bearer, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who campaigned for Brexit, will be erratic and prone to grandstanding but not revolutionary. Representatives of the party mainstream like Theresa May value consistency more, but are at least as right-wing.
End of the UK?
The new rulers will be emphatically and almost exclusively English, as were those who voted for Brexit. This may portend constitutional changes, even the end of the United Kingdom. As wags have started saying, they went to sleep in Great Britain and woke up in Little England. Scotland will press for another referendum on independence and likely secede. It will try to remain part of the EU. Northern Ireland may follow suit. Catholics were unsurprisingly more pro-EU than Protestants, partly because they recognized leaving Europe would mean more domination by England. But Protestant loyalists were split, not solidly pro-Brexit. Few have fond memories of border checkpoints separating them from the south.
Divisions between racial and minorities and the white majority are also worrying. These extend into religion — with Muslim and Christian mattering as ethnic markers even for non-religious people. It will be important for leaders implementing Brexit to reach out to the young who didn’t want it — and indeed worry that it will damage their future prospects. It will be important to build trust among those who feel they don’t fit the image of England embraced by the Leave campaign. It is telling that Sadiq Khan, London’s new Muslim mayor, used the 2016 Pride parade as an occasion to emphasise tolerance and inclusion not only for gay residents but also for EU citizens.
And the future of Europe?
Disintegrative pressure could be just as great on the European continent. Of course, this depends on the political response in 27 different countries. But there are strong signs that several — including “core” countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands — may hold referenda of their own. It is entirely possible Brexit will be remembered as an early step in the unravelling of the EU.The EU has helped to create its own problems. For a generation, its leaders have behaved almost as though their goal was to encourage populist revolt. In 2005, they brought a bloated basic law to referenda and were out of touch enough to be altogether startled at its defeat.
All but impervious to reform efforts, the EU has built a cumbersome, insular and easy-to-criticise bureaucracy. It has done better at opening capital markets than protecting labour (though in the era of neo-liberalism and austerity, the EU has demanded more protection for workers than the UK government wanted to give). Still, the EU has succeeded not just in the mission of postwar reconstruction and preventing wars among European powers (inherited from the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community). It has played an important role in providing Europeans with an impressively high standard of living and thriving cultural institutions.
The EU has also been important globally. It is among the strongest leaders in the struggle to address climate change. It is in the forefront of defending human rights. But suffice it to say, these aren’t the top issues for populist voters. And the EU has faltered in confronting two of the biggest crises of recent years. In the face of global financial crisis, it abandoned the idea of solidarity as its richer members sought to protect their national interests. Member states found it harder to agree on common policies. The signal failure in this regard came with Europe’s inability to develop a common immigration policy. This started with an unwillingness to provide adequate support to Greece and Italy as they bore the brunt of new arrivals. It continued with a botched attempt to distribute refugees by national quotas (the UK was signally ungenerous). The failure continued to such a degree that some countries began to fortify internal European borders.
Brexit is partly a symptom of the declining purchase of the great institutional structures put in place after the Second World War. Global institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also creatures of the postwar era and in need of renewal — if not reimagining. They have been slow to adapt to finance-led globalisation and the rise of non-western countries. New ones are being created, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, often without full western participation.
Brexit is part of a populist-nationalist current that will make it harder to achieve effective policies and management of practical affairs in an interdependent world. The UK has remained a major contributor to effective global integration even while it declined as a global power. Europe has been key to building and leading existing global institutions. If internal problems and insularity mean either plays a smaller role, the world will suffer.
— WorldPost 2016/Global Viewpoint Network
Craig Calhoun is the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science.