Friday, 24 June 2016

Brexit: Living in Interesting Times

by James Burkinshaw

It is fair to say that, for most of us, yesterday’s vote to leave the EU is the most significant political event of our lifetime. As Mrs Worley has already noted in her response to the Brexit decision, “Confucius wished his enemies to live in interesting times . . . I think we certainly will be doing so in the next few decades.” 

In PGS' own referendum yesterday, 75% of pupils and staff voted to remain, in line with the national Remain vote among those under the age of 25. Many pupils today expressed frustration that voters over 50, in particular, voted for Brexit by such large margins, consigning the young to a deeply uncertain future from the consequences of which many of these older voters will be insulated. Furthermore, the closeness of the national vote (52% to 48%) seems a very slim mandate for a political and economic revolution. The last referendum result, in 1975, was 66% to remain: a convincing 2:1 margin. Not surprisingly, there is already a petition for a second referendum. 

There have been plaudits in the press today for the dignity shown by David Cameron in his resignation speech and his profession that “I love this country, and I feel honoured to have served it”. I believe such praise to be misplaced. A man who truly loved his country would not have gambled its future for the sake of saving his own political skin – offering a referendum simply to mollify his backbenchers, prevent Tory voters from deserting to UKIP and discomfit Ed Miliband ahead of the 2015 General Election. In doing so, he unleashed atavistic forces that he could not control, all for short-term, petty political advantage. We live with the results. Cameron will have to live with the fact his political career will forever be defined by this one feckless decision alone. 

It seems very likely that our new Prime Minister will be Boris Johnson and that his chancellor will be Michael Gove. These are men who have demonstrated a cavalier attitude to facts (to put it kindly) during the course of the campaign (Gove himself at one stage noting "that we have had enough of experts" when presented with overwhelming evidence of the speciousness of some of his own claims). First thing this morning, the backtracking was already underway, as the Leave campaign distanced itself from its central campaign claim that, by leaving the EU, Britain would be saving £350 million a week. The savings were apparently going to be spent on the NHS (until it turned out they didn't really exist). It has to be said, however, that neither Johnson nor Gove were ever particularly convincing in the role of guardians of public services and the rights of working people. Indeed, Johnson himself is not even convincing as a Brexiteer; his decision to join the Leave campaign was predicated on his calculation that this was the most promising path to No. 10 (Gove, to be fair, is a true believer with regard to Brexit). Like Mr Cameron, Johnson has put personal political advantage over the interests of the country (just a thought, but should we not be expecting more from Etonians?) This post-modern attitude to the truth (again, to put it kindly) has been a constant feature of his career; as one of his former journalistic colleagues pointed out last week, it was Johnson, working for the Daily Telegraph as their Brussels correspondent in the 1990s, who popularised the completely fictional stories, so beloved by the right-wing press, of the EU banning certain shapes of bananas or certain types of British ale, myths which have profoundly shaped people’s perception of the EU as an absurd and overbearing Orwellian state.    

In his article welcoming the Brexit decision, Will Dry notes that the vote was “not a victory for ordinary, decent people, just as it was not a victory for racists. This is not Star Wars.” This is a very important point. Bremainers and Brexiters have been too ready to caricature those voting the opposite way. Certainly, many people voted for Brexit for very persuasive reasons: the lack of clear democratic accountability within the EU, the ongoing problems with the Euro and the constitutional issue of sovereignty. However, at the heart of the Leave campaign’s strategy was an exploitation of people's fear of immigration and resentment of being controlled by foreigners. Johnson and Gove presented themselves as “pro-immigrant”, as long as it was the “right sort of immigrant” – as if the current migrants to the UK are not already coming here because there are jobs (many of them in essential services such as the NHS) which are not being filled by British citizens. Moreover, while there was an attempt by the official Leave campaign to pretend he was not really part of their movement, Nigel Farage’s toxic anti-immigrant scaremongering was central to the Brexit effort. Indeed, he showed his usual class early this morning with his triumphal claim that the Brexiters had achieved victory “without a single bullet being fired” – just one week after the killing of Labour MP and campaigner for refugees, Jo Cox, by a man fuelled by hatred of immigrants. Another example of just how much politicians using fears about immigration to serve their own political purposes are playing with fire – trying to manipulate forces that they cannot ultimately control with potentially terrifying consequences. 

Many of those voters most concerned about immigration were traditional Labour voters, who have been steadily abandoning the party since 1997, some of them voting for UKIP in general elections, which has quietly transformed UKIP from its blazer-wearing stereotype (embodied by Farage) to what is increasingly a party of the working class. Many other former Labour voters have simply stayed home over the past few general elections, seeing no party that reflects their sense of identity or community. One of the most interesting, and depressing, aspects of this morning is looking at the map of regions voting Remain versus regions voting Leave - the gap between London/South-East England and the North is writ large. The Brexit vote was directed as much against London as it was Brussels: the fruition of nearly fifty years of industrial decline and of neglect by Conservative, Coalition, New Labour and Old Labour governments that has led to a steady stream of internal English migration from north to south. The result has been a sense of Northern alienation that the prosperous, Europe-friendly South East has been barely aware of - until today. This spells serious trouble for the Labour Party, which, only a few months ago, had assumed that it could crack open the popcorn and watch the Tory Party self-immolate over the referendum. Panicking Labour MPs are now attempting to defenestrate their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but he is not really the problem: replacing him with a media-friendly Blairite mannequin is going to do nothing to win back the Northerners who voted Leave today. 

There is no doubt that the Remain campaign was a flawed one. It focused on an essentially defensive, negative argument (characterised,not unfairly, by the Brexiteers, as "Project Fear") almost exclusively based on economic issues such as house prices, income and pensions; this approach betrayed the Remain campaign's fear and distrust of its own voters, its assumption that such voters could not be persuaded by any sort of appeal to principle or respond to a positive case for membership of the European Union. It is notable that the quality of debate at PGS (on both sides of the argument) has been significantly more substantive and serious than anything I have heard within either national campaign. In Monday's debate, Charlotte Phillips argued that "One of the less-discussed issues is that of science and universities. Eighteen leading UK universities face half of their funding being axed if we Brexit . . . it is not just about funding but about the quality of research which is enhanced by a continent-wide pool of knowledge leading to a permeability of ideas and people, an openness to exchange and collaboration and an environment that pools intelligence and barriers." Explaining his own vote to Remain, Mr Fairman noted that neither climate change nor the resultant migrant crisis can be solved at a purely national level: "The migrant crisis is a problem that will not go away because the world's wealth is so unequally distributed . . . given the historical context of what the wealth of the West has been built upon, there is a moral obligation for there to be a co-ordinate response." This acknowledgement of the true scale of the global challenges that face us and the recognition of a moral imperative of being part of something bigger than ourselves was markedly absent from the national debate (from either side). Furthermore, one of the most troubling aspects of the referendum campaign was the ease with which false statistics (such as the infamous "350 million per week") could continue to be peddled shamelessly long after being definitively debunked as fraudulent. Conversely, verified data provided by the LSE, Oxford University and the UK Statistics Authority was dismissed as "lies" by many on the Brexit side who refused to believe anyone they considered representative of a traitorous establishment, whether the Governor of the Bank of England or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Democracy is predicated on differences of opinion and interpretation, but a situation in which one side in particular refuses to accept objectively verifiable facts as valid makes consensual democratic government virtually impossible. 

This morning, Nigel Farage argued that Britain's exit would prompt the collapse of the European Union. He may be right. And maybe the consequences will be conflict-free. We have been at peace in Europe for so long now (seven decades) that perhaps we take it for granted that European countries will get along just fine together outside of a union. However, there is no guarantee that, in a climate of mutual suspicion, economic uncertainty, fragmentation and nationalism, not to mention climate change and mass migration, such conflicts cannot take place again. Right now, Russia continues to destabilise the Ukraine on Europe's Eastern border, there are tensions within Europe itself, for example between Greece and Germany, and the Syrian refugee crisis continues to put pressure on southern and central Europe in particular. It, therefore, seems an extraordinary time for Britain to be pulling up the drawbridge - particularly a nation that defines itself in large part (quite rightly) through its noble and self-sacrificing role fighting Fascism and helping to liberate Europe 70 years ago. 

And that fragmentation may be happening close to home too. Scotland voted to remain by a convincing margin and there are calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence; it will be very difficult for a government of Brexiters, of all people, to deny the Scots the chance to achieve their own "independence day" if that is the mood north of the border. Maybe a greater surprise last night was the strength of the Remain vote in Northern Ireland. Talk of reinstituting border controls between north and south in Ireland is causing fears of renewed sectarian tensions which have been so carefully and painstakingly reduced over the past twenty years - tensions that go back hundreds of years, an entanglement of religion, ethnicity, culture, class and politics that politicians play with at their peril - and the peril of the Irish people. Will Ireland, north and south, decide that they want the right to vote for unification - one hundred years after the Easter Rising? Pace Farage, it seems quite possible that the UK will disintegrate before the EU has a chance to - leaving England and Wales in splendid isolation.

Of course, none of these things may happen. We might, after a few stock market wobbles, renegotiate a few trade deals, redesign the Government and Politics A level curriculum to remove the European Union module and muddle along nicely. However, it seems that we are taking a huge risk - for not very much potential gain - and trusting in politicians who have not, hitherto, given us much reason to rely on their judgement. We shall see. 

On an optimistic note: the readers of First News (which arrived through our letterbox yesterday), who are aged 7-14, voted (online) overwhelmingly to remain. This not only gives hope for the future, but seems another argument in favour of lowering the voting age: maybe even below 16.


  1. What a brilliant article. you make excellent points with great clarity and objectivity. It should be in national press.

  2. Good to get an inside view.American media has it all about a different story.
    well done, should be national press indeed.


    I agree absolutely with your comments on Cameron and commentators have already begun to voice these. The Tory party may yet pay the price at the ballot box.

    I am neither delighted nor sad. I hold the long term view that it is for the best. The EU is already disintegrating, partly for reasons of scale but mainly because the entire west is in decline in a post-industrial society. Greece will never recover under the EU yoke, Spain has dire problems and the Italian banking system is on the point of collapse (wait and see the shock waves that will create). Hysterical comments from EU bureaucrats and the media are unhelpful. Hollande and Merkel have been more measured, partly because their own countries have a large sector of the population calling for a referendum. They might decide that EU reform is necessary and cannot wait.

    The result can also be seen as part of a voter backlash against the status quo in politics, not only in this country. It also reminds us of the poor quality of so many of our leading politicians in the way the whole debate was handled on both sides. A good shake up in British politics is necessary and overdue.

    Either Jeremy Corbyn is toast or the Labour party is on the point of disintegrating. This would not be a bad thing. I know from experience that Labour party grass root workers do not represent traditional Labour voters. We need a post-industrial Labour party, so a good clear out and realignment is necessary. Old Labour died with the mines and steel mills. New Labour leaves a bad taste. Something new is needed.

  4. I very much agree about Labour, Mr Robinson. It probably needs to disintegrate. As I have noted elsewhere, I could see the Labour Left going to the Greens, their Centre going to the Lib Dems and the Chuka Umunna and Liz Kendall wing heading to their natural home in the Conservative party. And Labour's social conservatives ( as many have done already) will join UKIP. I thought it might take a few decades - but, looking at the current stand off between Corbyn and his MPs, it may be more like a couple of weeks.


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