A week on from Britain’s historic decision to leave the European Union, Scottish resident Sophie Wall tries to make sense of the post-referendum confusion.
On finding out the British people had decided to leave the European Union this time last week, my initial reaction, as would be expected of a pro-remainer, was a stomach-dropping sensation of shock and disappointment.
It is was an emotion I had felt before, on awaking to find David Cameron as the country’s new Prime Minister in May 2015, when opinion polls similarly mislead us to believe that – although a close race – Britain would not opt for a conservative government.
But unlike last year’s election, the sense of anxiety surrounding the referendum result has not dampened. Media coverage of the UK’s post-EU political landscape is becoming steadily more surreal by the day, to the extent that (adhering to the adage that if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry) it is almost laughable.
The latest in a frenzied turn of events seems to be that the Tories are engaging in Game of Thrones style battle for leadership after Cameron’s resignation, while 172 Labour MPs are undemocratically attempting to oust leader Jeremy Corbyn, blaming him for remain campaign’s defeat (and in another Brexit related incident, Lindsey Lohan will be turning on Kettering’s christmas lights, apparently).
Many of my peers are sincerely worried, and the intensity of their concern has surprised me. A friend working in Germany told me that she has “never felt less British and more European” as a result of the tiny-island “Brexshit” mentality, and is aiming to get her German citizenship at the first possible opportunity. Whilst another, a fashion student in London, admitted that she no longer envisions a future for herself in the city she calls home, as the UK fashion industry will suffer great setbacks in years to come.
Underlying these personal woes about future economic uncertainty is a more generalised fear about the increase of insularism and intolerance in the UK; British police have logged a fivefold increase in race-related hate crimes since the referendum results, with a spate of threats towards BME people occurring around Manchester, York and the West Midlands.
Despite the uncertainty, I must admit that I have not been able to relate to my friends’ level of mourning. Yes, thinking about what a so-called ‘independent’ UK will look like in our increasingly fractious global climate is scary for me, let alone for those having to endure the daily fear of racism. But – echoing Guardian columnist and political commentator Owen Jones – elongating the spell of post-referendum depression will not help mend our broken and backwards country. The result has encouraged me to try and understand where the UK is at after this historic change.
To begin with, there are lots of reasons why one would vote to leave the European Union. In an attempt to put a positive spin on the EU and avoid a leave result, many on the remain side have been evasive in criticising the institution, myself included.
The EU is highly flawed. It is a neoliberal vehicle that has enforced harsh measures on member states such as Greece, brutally punishing its people in the name of austerity. And while it allows free movement of people within its borders, ‘Fortress Europe’ is not a kind institution to the Global South, both in terms of blocking imports to this part of the world and limiting access to refugees.
But this was not the dominant argument behind the leave campaign. Right-wing and populist figureheads instead heavily relied on scaremongering by playing on the racial stereotype of the ‘job-stealing immigrant’. I spoke with a Scottish mother and daughter who voted to leave, primarily because the latter could not find employment. Regurgitating UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s favourite line, they saw her predicament as a result of migrants working for lower wages in Britain. This is despite the fact that all workers, foreign or native to the UK, are entitled to an established minimum wage by law; if migrants are working for lower wages, our contempt should be directed towards the shady businesses exploiting its workers, not the workers themselves.
Due to these sorts of attitudes, pro-leavers have been branded, by many middle-class university educated people I know, as ‘selfish’ and ‘embarrassing’. It is tempting language to adopt, given the Brexit campaign was built upon chauvinist and xenophobic rhetoric. But I also find this condemnation of pro-leavers uncomfortably snobbish.
The United Kingdom is clearly divided along class lines, a division that inspired the disenfranchised working-classes to turn towards populist parties that break with the political status quo. Whilst some of these voters are prejudiced, many were merely using the vote as an occasion to voice their deep dissatisfaction. It was an arguably short-sighted decision, but after the shock result, we are now unable to carry on ignoring this demographic.
Unfortunately these voters will not be benefited, as Peter Hallward points out, by certain decision-making being devolved to the UK government: Parliament will continue to be influenced by the neoliberal policies of Thatcher and Blair that devastated working Britons in the first place – to a much greater extent than higher levels of migration ever have done.
It is hard to believe that the pro-leavers now welcome the economic stress, spike in hate crimes, and vicious in-fighting among Labour, the political party working-class Britons have traditionally identified with. This is especially since the leave campaign has already back-peddled on several of their promises, such as reduced immigration levels and increased National Health Service spending, as EU officials highlighted the impossibility of these scenarios during talks this week.
It is an unfortunate and uncertain situation or the UK. For the moment, however, the government needs to be held to account as we move into unknown territory. British people can only effectively demand such transparency by beginning to heal the deep divisions amongst our communities, and by pouring our energy into collectively challenging the powers that be. It is, after all, politicians that have historically compromised British people’s livelihoods, and not migrants, as many would have you believe.