In Britain, the anti-immigrant supporters of UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage are popping open the champagne bottles today. In a 52 to 48 percent result, voters decided in favor of “Brexit”, or a “British exit,” from the European Union. In the hours after the tally became clear, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation. The British pound took a nosedive. Stock markets around the world entered turmoil. And the government of Scotland, where an overwhelming majority of voters opted to stay in the EU, announced its intention to hold a new referendum on independence from Britain.
It was an earthshaking event that few outside of the UK seemed to anticipate until it actually happened. In his victory speech, Farage told cheering supporters that “the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom.” Known for his racist attacks on Britain’s immigrant population, Farage triumphantly announced, “We won without a single bullet being fired.” He said June 23 will go down in history as the UK’s Independence Day.
In Scotland to open a new golf course, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump offered his congratulations to the Leave side, saying, “Basically, they took back their country. That’s a great thing.” In an official statement issued on Facebook later, Trump echoed Farage’s talking points and said that Britons had “declared their independence from the European Union, and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders, and economy.” In November, he predicted that the American people would follow a similar path and vote to “re-declare their independence.”
The Brexit referendum was a campaign which saw an intermingling of racism and legitimate complaints about the EU’s lack of democracy on one side, and a mix of arguments that ranged from unmitigated praise for the European Union to grudging acceptance of the need to “Remain, but reform” on the other. The immediate winners of the Brexit vote, however, appear to be the right wing in Britain and across Europe, with Trump tagging along in the hope of boosting his own campaign.
The context for Brexit
The referendum was held in an atmosphere of continued economic stagnation and growing anti-immigrant sentiment. With the decline of the old neo-Nazi British National Party, Farage’s UKIP has capitalized on the opening on Britain’s far right to present a sleek, modernized version of right-wing nationalism and created a movement that has put the squeeze on the center-right Conservative Party.
In the elections for the European Parliament held in 2014, UKIP captured first place in Britain, beating out both Labour and the Conservatives – the first time one of the two major parties failed to emerge as victor in a national election in more than a century.
In a bid to outflank the growing strength of the Eurosceptic forces and in a concession to anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment in his own party, Conservative leader David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership if his party was re-elected in 2015. After securing a majority in that contest, Cameron followed through on his promise, secure in the belief that Britons would never actually vote to leave Europe.
It appears that a large number of people were taken in by UKIP’s misleading campaign, however, such as its claim that Britain sends £350 million a week to the EU, money which it implied could be used to fund the National Health Service. With such cynical populism, it was no surprise that polls in the lead-up to the referendum were tightening. Almost none, though, predicted a victory for the Leave forces.
Tensions were raised further in the days just before the vote when Labour Party MP Jo Cox was assassinated. Her killer reportedly shouted “Britain first!” when he shot and stabbed her in broad daylight on the street in the city of Birstall on June 16. When he appeared in court, the assassin, Thomas Mair, told the judge that his name was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
In the end, Cameron’s gamble failed. His attempt to co-opt the anti-immigrant forces to his right only succeeded in emboldening them further.
The EU itself is part of the problem
Though the far right garners the most benefit immediately from Brexit, this does not mean that much of the criticism that has been made of the European Union in this campaign is untrue.
For the most part, it is undemocratic to the core. The whole constitutional and legal apparatus of the European Union is designed with the interests of financial and corporate capital in mind. Its social welfare compacts are weak and toothless; the center-left dream of a “Social Europe” faded long ago.
Over the last several years, people across the continent have watched as the EU Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF – the “Troika” – have enforced austerity and economic hardship on one country after another. Greece has been brought to the point of ruin. Italy saw its democracy subverted. Portugal and Spain continue to face intense hardship even after following the diktats of Brussels and Berlin.
With manufacturing decimated, social services in decline, and wages falling, it was indeed hard for many working class Britons to see what good comes from membership in the European Union. The cosmopolitan glitz and glamor of London’s financial district remain out of reach for millions of people throughout the UK.
These legitimate critiques of the EU provoked a number of responses from British labor and the left regarding the referendum. Many socialist and left organizations pushed for a “Lexit,” or Left exit, vote. The Morning Star, the newspaper close to the Communist Party of Britain, for instance, told its readers that a vote to leave “will not bring about socialism,” but said “it would be a step towards restoring democratic control of our economy, and would remove an obstacle to progress.”
The leadership of Britain’s biggest trade unions, however, encouraged a Remain vote, saying that the Conservative government would “negotiate away our rights” in the EU extraction process. In an open letter, the heads of ten major unions said that, “After much debate and deliberation we believe that the social and cultural benefits of remaining in the EU far outweigh any advantages of leaving.” The gains secured while working in coalition with European trade union partners in the 1980s and 1990s, they said, “continue to underpin and protect working rights for British people.”
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn put forward a more nuanced position of “Remain, but reform,” which acknowledged the EU’s many shortcomings but argued that quitting the Union would not solve the problems of Britain’s workers. Just before the vote, he predicted “a bonfire” of labor rights, saying that voters had to remember it will be the Conservatives who will negotiate the terms of the separation. “They’d dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave…and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it,” he said in a speech in April.
Under current conditions, it is not clear how either a “Lexit” or “Remain, but reform” option would have been given practical reality. But with a win for the Leave forces, it now seems a moot point. There will be no “Left exit” from the EU, nor will there be a progressive reform of its institutions at this time.
For now, the right has emerged as the victor. Xenophobia and racist rhetoric dominate discussions of why the Leave campaign succeeded, and, at least in the short term, it will be hard for the left to paint this as anything but a loss.
The full consequences of the Brexit vote are hard to predict at this time. The referendum will now trigger a two-year period of negotiations over the terms of Britain’s departure. The immediate economic fallout is obvious, with world markets engulfed in a sea of red. The pound has fallen to a thirty-year low, and investors around the globe are reconsidering their positions in Britain.
The survival of the United Kingdom itself, in its current form, is now in question. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has signaled that a new referendum on Scottish independence from the UK will likely be held. 62 percent of voters in Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and Sturgeon said it was “democratically unacceptable” that Scotland should be forced to leave Europe against its will. Leaders of Sinn Fein, meanwhile, have already issued calls for a “united Ireland” referendum to bring Northern Ireland out of the UK and into a union with the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member state.
There are also signs of demographic divisions in the country, as millennials voted Remain by a wide margin – 64 percent of those aged 25-29 and 61 percent for those aged 30-34. The Leave vote accelerated as age went up, with nearly two-thirds of those over 65 wanting out. Similarly, a rural-urban split was clearly visible. Education level was also closely correlated, with graduates opting to stay with the EU in larger numbers. Stand-in indicators for class, such as being in skilled or unskilled employment, suggest that many constituency areas considered working class voted to leave.
The European project is now also threatened, as the right wing in countries like the Netherlands, Poland, France, and others will be emboldened to push their own campaigns for closing their borders to immigrants and leaving the EU. What will happen to the thousands of European nationals currently working in Britain is unknown; will there be an order to leave or can some kind of labor mobility agreement be worked out?
The UK being one of the world’s major economies, the economic instability created by the referendum could be long-lasting, and it threatens to spill into other regions – including the United States.
Leadership of the Conservative Party in Britain will now likely fall into the hands of someone even further to the right than David Cameron; the name of former London mayor Boris Johnson is already being suggested. For Jeremy Corbyn, he may face a non-confidence motion from New Labour MPs who feel he was not strong enough in campaigning for Remain.
Today, the “take Britain back” forces of Nigel Farage have carried the day. Here across the pond in America, Trump will try to capitalize on the victory to boost his own anti-immigrant and nationalist campaign for the presidency. A new situation has unfolded and the terrain ahead on both sides of the Atlantic is anything but clear.
Photo: British politician and leader of the UKIP party Nigel Farage holds up a placard as he launches his party’s campaign for Britain to leave the EU on May 20, 2016. | Alastair Grant/AP