In an historic vote, the UK has voted to leave the European Union following a vicious campaign from both sides and a referendum that has claimed the political career of David Cameron.
Given the magnitude of the decision, its political, social and legal repercussions, there is no doubt that the time has come for a New Britain.
This is not a soul-searching initiative. However, the rhetoric and ferocity with which both sides campaigned, exposed divisions up and down the country; between the North and South, Scotland and England, young and old, divisions that may well remain for years to come.
For many, including myself, the rhetoric in the Leave campaign carried racist and xenophobic undertones rooted in fallacies propagated by Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Meanwhile, the rhetoric from the Remain campaign carried condescending and scaremongering undertones, employing rich and high profile celebrities and businessmen – many of whom do not even live in the country – and inevitably missed the point that the grievances of the working class were at the core of the Leave vote.
With the working class put under the thumb by the brutal effects of austerity which has taken its toll on wages, jobs, housing and benefits, the government failed to provide a genuine alternative.
Instead, George Osborne mocked the public by declaring that the £130 million recovered from Google was a success, even though it only equated to 3% tax. Moreover, he oversaw a period in which banks paid little or no corporation tax whilst cutting pensions, welfare, and seeking to cut tax credits. House prices soared and the NHS is still in trouble and public transport has become expensive. The dissatisfaction has been compounded by the Panama papers which only emphasised that the slack for the hard times was, and is, being picked up by those who have little whilst those who have abundance find friends in government willing to turn a blind eye to billions owed in taxes.
Osborne demonstrated quite clearly that the interests of the few trumped that of everyone else. And this ill-distribution of wealth, and rampant social and economic injustice, is the driving force behind this referendum as opposed to any real interest in the EU and claims that it is a bureaucratic organisation looking to establish a super-state. Therefore, the Remain campaign was always going to suffer from the support of the establishment.
If the Leave campaign was supposed to suffer from the toxic presence of Nigel Farage, it did not happen. Farage offered the people that which the government could not; a target they could punish, an alternative. By creating a target at which people could vent their frustrations, and describing an alternative, however fanciful, Farage created a tangible concept, one that could be understood. The message was clear:
‘You are suffering. Here is why. This is what they look like. There are so many of them. You are in danger and you need to wake up’.
The mainstream media drove the momentum with a series of headlines that transformed the ‘target’ into a behemoth.
And this momentum brought to the fore the darker side to the referendum – the undertones of racism and xenophobia – the idea that the ‘Pole’ is taking my ‘English’ job and that ‘Somali pirate’ is putting a strain on ‘our benefits’. The government is letting ‘too many foreigners in’ and abandoning the ‘English’ to whom ‘England’ belongs.
The Leave message resonated with these views:
‘Immigrants are taking people’s jobs and overrunning the country.’
‘We are at breaking point.’
‘Britain is Full.’
Such voters were, and still are, at pains to stress that their support for Leave is not racist or xenophobic, that they have every right to demand that they have priority in jobs, housing and benefits. However, the accusation of xenophobia in this case is all the more legitimate if only because these voters are blaming the wrong social group for their problems on the basis that they are not ‘British’. Austerity made you poorer, imposed to create an economy where the rich stay rich and the poor pick up the slack, brought about by a global economic downturn, caused by sheer greed and reckless investing from the finance industry. Somehow it is easier to blame the one who has no recourse. And that, is vicious.
Some Leave voters have insisted that they have voted for reasons not related at all to these claims. However, given that the Leave campaign centred on immigration, as opposed to any economic plan, such voters can only claim to be a minority at best.
The referendum has also opened a Pandora’s box that now has not only resulted in leaving the EU, but threatens the United Kingdom as a whole with talk rife of a new independence referendum not only in Scotland, but now in Northern Ireland as well.
For Scotland and Ireland, their country was taken out of the EU ‘by the English’ against their will and the uncertainty surrounding their futures only compounds the uncertainty following the UK’s departure from the EU.
But the biggest tragedy, is that this referendum was based on an incredible propaganda campaign of such epic proportions that within hours of the result, Nigel Farage quickly reneged on a key promise within the Leave campaign that promised £350 million into the NHS. The campaigns were riddled with false information, meaning it is impossible to call the referendum an ‘informed’ decision. Economic arguments were trounced by Michael Gove claiming that he had ‘had enough of experts’. The battle became one of who could shout the loudest and say the most buzzwords as opposed to any genuine analysis of the economics behind the decision.
Nevertheless, whatever the mistakes, the reality is that the time has come to find a New Britain, one that is first and foremost outside the EU, but also one that no longer ignores the plight of the working class, and also has a place for immigrants, migrants and refugees. Questions must also be asked whether a New Britain includes Scotland and Ireland.
Whatever the case, the UK looks set for a rollercoaster.