When I woke on Friday morning in Hertfordshire (in southern England), Britain had determined with 52 percent of the vote to leave the European Union and Prime Minister David Cameron had resigned.
The culture shock of landing back in the UK from Cairo on Thursday — the day of the referendum — and listening to radio personality Jeremy Vine’s commentary on the BBC made me sympathize with journalist Jack Shenker’s feelings about this vote. It is a bit like “being marched, unarmed, into some sort of climactic Game of Thrones battle scene framed by moody skies and an epic soundtrack, but without really knowing who is on what side, how I’m supposed to fight, or why the hell this orgy of gratuitous mutual destruction is taking place at all.”
But this wasn’t a referendum by the people against the neoliberal order, it was instigated by politicians and preyed on the fears and anger of many in Britain amid rising xenophobia and racism.
My initial reaction to the referendum from Cairo (where I’ve been for much of the last six years) was that politicians and some of my leftist friends were overdoing it a bit. Why was a vote to leave the EU basically being posited as the equivalent of racism, xenophobia and fascism, and a vote to stay the only inclusive, progressive alternative? And why were people being so vitriolic about it all?
The historical reality of the European Union from my perspective is quite different to the propaganda posited by many in the Bremain (vote to remain in the EU) camp. After all, hasn’t the European project always been one of largely joint anti-migration policies, securing military alliances south and east of the Mediterranean through support of repressive regimes and developing a strong pan-European market for trade, not a mythological union of peace and togetherness?
This can be clearly seen in the way the EU responded to the election of the leftist Syriza party in Greece, by refusing to acknowledge their desire to renegotiate debt relief and end austerity, and ensuring that a Brussels elite continue to bully the nation into a neoliberal order privileging business interests.
But this wasn’t a referendum by the people against the neoliberal order, it was instigated by politicians and preyed on the fears and anger of many in Britain amid rising xenophobia and racism. In this context, I am aware a revolutionary impulse that says “fuck the EU” is somewhat delusional and is effectively aligning oneself with the far right.
Brexit is the legacy of an economic deal in the early 1980s, which benefitted certain economic centers in Britain and sent many others into decline. The results of this inequality can be seen in the vote: Largely remain in London and the south-east, with areas like Peterborough and Lincolnshire voting leave in the majority. Areas like Manchester and Birmingham were split, with many long-term British-Asian/African voters talking about leaving with as much vigor as the white working class. Thousands of politically educated voters and diverse university cities such as Nottingham and Coventry also voted leave in large numbers.
The polls show the vote wasn’t carried purely by white, working-class xenophobes, despite the BBC interviewing as many bigoted individuals as they could find from council estates up and down the country on the 10 o’clock news the day after the vote.
I haven’t been around to witness the anger that has engulfed the country under Cameron, and even if I had, I’m aware that my diverse London bubble is often very much divorced from the realities of many. It is becoming increasingly clear this referendum wasn’t just about the EU, but about race, inequality and class, a rising anger at a governing elite that is out of touch with most of the population and a media many people despise.
People are angry for a number of reasons and that anger is palpable. Lack of affordable housing, unemployment, the demeaning of the working class and the inability of those in Westminster to speak to the majority, including those on the left and right, have exacerbated these feelings.
Already numerous reports of racial aggression and hate crime have been cited up and down the country, a reality experienced by many for years, but now these attitudes are somewhat state sanctioned and gaining a scary momentum.
On Friday morning, people were already pointing fingers. Who to blame for the outcome of the vote — An ageing population with a nostalgic memory of a past that never really was, the working classes, the far right, middle England, lexit voters (lefties for leave), those who didn’t vote?
The reactions of my friends on the left of all backgrounds and classes range from wanting to leave, to distancing themselves from macro-politics and becoming more involved locally, to blaming the uneducated, to wanting to “educate people” — sentiments I’ve frequently heard among circles of activists, journalists and leftists in Cairo.
It was only on Friday morning that I realized why someone was changing 80,000 pounds at the currency exchange in front of me at Heathrow Airport the day before, an irony I’m only too aware of as I bemoan the lack of preparedness of the left to rise to this moment and plan for the future.
Already, billions of pounds have been lost from people’s pensions, property dealers will be able to buy on the cheap, things will become increasingly expensive, Britain will likely make deals with rich European nations for certain workers to remain, discriminating against others, and as everything gets more and more tense, migrants and refugees will be scapegoated even more.
Shortly after the result of the vote was announced, Scotland called for a second referendum on independence from the UK, as 62 percent of Scots voted to remain in the EU. A majority of Northern Irish voters also opted to remain, and Irish political party Sinn Féin called for a border poll on a united Ireland.
Global banks have offered liquidity to steady the market, and EU member states plan to meet on Saturday to begin to discuss the implications of the vote. Some, including the official Leave campaign have said negotiations could last years, as 27 other EU member states have to negotiate tariffs and border agreements. There are also ongoing operations that will need to be determined — Britain is part of an EU deployment to intercept smugglers in Libya, for instance.
There is a possibility that other countries struggling under EU austerity measures may follow suit and hold referendums on membership, or that wealthy member states may decide to go it alone as well, but the complete breakup of the union at this stage seems unlikely.
As the dust settles on a vote that has left many questioning the future of the UK and Europe, there is a need to understand why the Brexit slogan “take back control” had such widespread appeal. As is evident from the angry voices blasting out from my television tonight, many people feel let down by politicians and saw this vote as a way to have a voice to counter the broken promises and harsh austerity of recent years.
“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” Nigel Farage, leader of the far right UK Independence Party (UKIP), said Friday morning. The right is ready to capitalize on this and mobilize its supporters from across a broad base. Already numerous reports of racial aggression and hate crime have been cited up and down the country, a reality experienced by many for years, but now these attitudes are somewhat state sanctioned and gaining a scary momentum.
Although there is increasing support for an alternative narrative, evidenced by Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory to head the Labor Party last year, Corbyn now faces the possibility of a no confidence vote from his own party and the left is severely fragmented and demoralized.