… and more about Brexit
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) on 23rd June this year has caused as many shock-waves as the election of Donald Trump as American President. Of course, the democratic choice of the British electorate and must be respected. On the other hand, the Referendum wasn’t like a general election, where if the party you don’t want is elected you can moan and complain for the next five years and then try to vote them out again. This was a once-and-for-all decision so, say the more angst-ridden ‘Remain’ voters, it should be treated differently; maybe the Referendum should be re-run, with better information to the voters in advance?
The economic uncertainty resulting from the decision is bad for everyone, but it’s a short to medium term problem, albeit a serious one. However, there’s also political uncertainty. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has repeatedly stated “Brexit means Brexit”. I find this irritating, since ‘Brexit’ is a made-up word and can therefore mean whatever you choose it to mean. (If I invented the word ‘flubbyflub’ and when asked what it meant explained that ‘flubbyflub means flubbyflub’, I wouldn’t expect to win friends or admirers.) But to be fair to Mrs May, I think she’s saying that there’s no possibility of re-running the Referendum; the result will stand.
What we all want to know is not what ‘Brexit’ means, but what it denotes. What exactly will be agreed with the EU, and how, and when, and with what consequences for everyone?
The government intended to set the divorce proceedings in motion and negotiate the settlement without consulting parliament. Since parliament comprises the people’s elected representatives and is sovereign – it’s the law-maker and law-repealer – and since separation from the EU must involve many complex and interlocking aspects of law and social concern, it’s obvious that parliament must be consulted before any moves are made. This argument was taken to the High Court, and it won – obviously. But the right-wing media that had promoted and continue to promote ‘Brexit’ expressed fury, one ‘newspaper’ carrying the banner headline “Enemies of the People” above a photo of the three judges who made the ruling. Since Leave voters were in large part motivated by the desire to restore sovereignty to the UK, and parliament embodies sovereignty, and the same voters wanted our judiciary to make decisions that couldn’t be overturned in European courts… Can no one see the inconsistency in this outburst of venom?
It’s worth summarising the characteristics of the ‘average’ or ‘typical’ voter who opted for Brexit because they suggest lessons of possibly wider significance. The overwhelming majority of ‘Leave’ voters read the right-wing newspapers (Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun), which have exhibited very strong anti-EU bias ever since the Referendum was announced. Typical ‘Remain’ voters have been more reliant on social media. Sixty percent of people over 60 years old voted ‘Leave’, as opposed to about 25% of those in the 18-24 year range. ‘Leave’ voters are disproportionately more likely than ‘Remain’ voters to favour the death penalty, disfavour gay rights, and oppose feminism, multiculturalism, social liberalism, green politics, etc. A few ‘Leave’ voters are outright racists and are strongly opposed to what they call ‘uncontrolled immigration’. The majority in social classes A and B voted ‘Remain’, the majority in social classes D and E voted ‘Leave’. (There was no significant gender difference in any age or social class group.)
Here, I think, is the main lesson from the Referendum result. Quite a lot of ‘Leave’ campaigning adopted an ‘anti-Establishment’ mask. There’s evidence that a significant number of people voted ‘Leave’ because they were opposed to the government and its then head, former Prime Minister David Cameron, and this could be pertinent to the voting tendencies of social classes D and E. Half a century ago, opponents of ‘The Establishment’ were typically left-wing, often claiming to espouse a Marxist ideology. Now, opponents of ‘The Establishment’ are predominantly right-wing, in some cases extremely so. Doesn’t this seem to echo the outcome of the Presidential Election in America? Indeed, just as Mr Trump’s election has inspired the far right throughout Europe, so ‘Brexit’ has done likewise.
But there’s a risk of over-simplification here. If we look at the voting patterns in England and Wales, we see (by and large) ‘Remain’ majorities in the cities and large towns and ‘Leave’ majorities in the small towns and rural areas. Scotland and Northern Ireland returned significant ‘Remain’ majorities, and Scotland in particular now wants to remain an EU member state – which can’t happen while the UK remains intact. So the old fault lines between the component nations of the UK, and between town and country, are opening again in the wake of the EU Referendum. English ‘Leave’ voters are much more likely than ‘Remain’ voters to describe themselves as ‘English’ rather than ‘British’. The implications for Britain’s future, notably the continuing integrity of the UK, aren’t making the headlines yet; but I suspect they will.
Also, of course, Britain was never politically or ideologically committed to the EU. We rejected the euro, the Schengen agreement, the idea of economic and monetary union, and even the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Other member states rejected one or two of these, but not all of them. And the allegedly widespread European ambition to work towards a unified ‘superstate’ was always anathema to a majority of British voters. Perhaps, in view of these established attitudes, we shouldn’t have been surprised by the Referendum result.
Now we must await the surprises that will spring upon us in the wake of that result.