So Brexit, a notion most laughed at until a few days ago, has actually become a reality. On June 23, Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU). Predictably, this unexpected earthquake has left all major political parties in a state of disarray. Having never seriously contemplated this eventuality, leaders of both parties are left without a script. As one made an unceremonious exit, another faces a storm within his party that is looking increasingly likely to sink him. Even the winners of the referendum are unsure on how to proceed as half the country looks at them as villains, responsible for ruining their futures.
This is without doubt the most significant event in Britain’s history after the Second World War. This wasn’t to be — the benefits of EU were self-evident, or so the Remain camp thought. As polls showed worrying results close to the referendum, David Cameron and company implored people to listen to ‘experts’ — the governor of the Bank of England, the chancellor of the exchequer, the head of the IMF, you name it, they all beseeched people to stay firmly within the EU, because leaving would be economic folly.
All this did was reveal the insularity of the ruling classes. The ‘experts’ have lost all credibility with the British voting public. The way in which they ushered in the financial crisis, their justifications of austerity and public spending cuts and long paeans of praise for globalisation of markets are now unequivocally seen by many as a sign of their ideological mooring rather than any actual knowledge of how the world works.
These experts, with their heads buried deep in economics textbooks, refused to step out of their cosy, book-lined offices and simply listen to voters. Had they done that, they would have realised the great chasm that had opened up between Whitehall and those not living in London, Cambridge or Oxford. It was not a case of the educated versus the uneducated but of different worldviews and entirely different experiences of austerity (which, in Britain, as Yannis Varoufakis put it a while back, was a euphemism for class war) and globalisation. The economic agenda of successive governments seemed to march on unencumbered by the reality of people losing their jobs, being underemployed, underpaid and piling on debt.
Intent on restoring economic growth and oblivious of this divide, they either missed the obvious signs of the discontent that was brewing, or simply portrayed it as xenophobia, a cultural condition born of ignorance. The rise of the far right across Europe and more recently in America, and its success in attracting the working class was a clear indication that the erstwhile Labour, Democrat or socialist parties did not have much to offer workers anymore. Swayed by the same globalisation rhetoric, they refused to accept that globalisation had led to major casualties in the working class across the West and that they really did not have an alternative.
The discontent, unable to manifest itself in general elections — UKIP was prevented by the first past the post electoral system from showing its true strength — found a perfect outlet in this referendum. Immigration emerged as a central issue. The experts in the Remain camp defended immigration by pointing to the net value that immigrants added to the economy. They were right of course, but crucially what they left unsaid was who captured this value. Little of this value being added was being passed on to the have-nots. Immigrants were pressed into service by the same machinery that kept delivering to the one per cent. The growth in surplus profits showed no sign of abating, despite the financial crisis.
Inequality was the unacknowledged issue in the debates leading up to the referendum. Both camps fought over immigration, a democratic deficit in Brussels and so on. Hardly any discussion featured the growing inequality and what the pro-Europe establishment had actually done for those bearing the brunt of it. As far as the British public was concerned, being part of Europe had done little to slow down the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
Abandoned by the globalisation project and by the Labour Party (which was now more representative of a liberal middle class and offered no alternative), the first reaction of the marginalised communities was to blame the flow of immigrants for their plight. Fearful of what global integration had brought them, they decided to revolt.
Optimists will note that this revolt has opened up the possibility of major political change, rooted in a belated realisation of grassroots level realities, not just in the UK but throughout the world. Workers may be able to win some concessions after all. Pessimists will probably see little that will lift their gloom — continuing to see this as a major inconvenience caused by the old and the uneducated.
So far, this is not a failure of democracy, but if this opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of the 99 per cent is allowed to slip by, then it most definitely will be. It is imperative that the established parties of the UK rise to the first real challenge they have faced since the Second World War ended, and offer a real alternative to the people. Failure to do so will allow the anti-immigrant sentiment to swell, joining the mainstream. This will tear the social fabric of British society in a manner that even the referendum has failed to do.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2016.
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