I’m a Remainer; naturally, I’m unhappy about the Brexit vote. How did we, collectively, get to vote for Brexit? Let’s look at some of the issues.
People voted because of ideology, thinking that the EU was just a ‘bad thing’, and that Britain would be better ‘Leaving and Taking Control’. Others voted because they believed the deliberate untruths they had been told; that the borders would be closed to foreigners, though the Brits would be free to move anywhere in the EU; and that there was a financial bonus from leaving – £350 million a week for the NHS. (Almost immediately after the result, these promises were shown, by the Leave campaign themselves, to be false.) Others registered a protest, saying in effect that the EU needed reform. Some voted because of the effects of austerity, and continuing unemployment and poor job prospects. It’s clear enough that, in England, the economically disadvantaged areas voted to leave.
And things just got worse; the Prime Minister resigned, the Tory party began a process of selection only for some potential candidates to withdraw before their application had been lodged; there was blood on the floor, and many knives in many backs. And the Opposition front bench resigned, though the leader didn’t, leaving the Labour party in an existential crisis.
What we never had was any real clarity about what Leave meant; posters on billboards and on buses, and a leaflet implying that Turkey was poised to join the EU – along with Iraq and Syria. By contrast, during the 2014 referendum on independence for Scotland, that government produced a 650 page White Paper on the implications of independence. And once the Leave vote was announced, the leaders then appeared looking crestfallen at the result – as well they might, for they didn’t really want it. And now, nobody seems to have any clear or comprehensive idea what leave actually means, how this inchoate idea can be achieved, or even how we are going to get somewhere that we don’t know where it is.
And then, not unexpectedly, the Scottish National Party talked of another independence referendum. In the first, voters in Scotland were assured that the only way to remain the the EU was to vote to remain in the UK. Meanwhile, in N Ireland the First Minister talked of the vote across the UK as a whole, while the Deputy First Minister talked of another border poll. Unable to formulate a common, agreed policy on what’s best for NI, the leaders have left it to senior civil servants and gone off of 9 weeks holiday.
What is the United Kingdom? Originally, there were several kingdoms in what we now recognise as England. Gradually, this country was unified, and then conquered Wales to form Britain. After a disastrous foray in colonialism, Scotland – up till then an entirely separate and independent country – joined a union with Britain to form a country called Great Britain. Ireland had long been a quasi-independent place, with its own parliament, but because of Poyning’s Law, Britain, later Great Britain, always had the final say. At the beginning of the 19th century, Ireland too joined a union with Great Britain, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Finally, in the early 1920s, 26 counties of Ireland acquired ‘Home Rule’ and later full independence as a republic. The UK was renamed as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Throughout these changes, it’s clear that England was always the strongest part, the place where real power and control lay; and the idea that in a union of countries England remains the most important player – the only player – still persists in the collective unconsciousness of the English. The Secretary of State for N Ireland is quite clear; the UK as a whole (translation: England) must collectively leave the EU, the wishes of NI or even Scotland are of no account, there will be no special pleading for the regions. Even getting the regions to the negotiating table might be difficult.
So when we talk of ‘British’ values, or of ‘Britain’ leaving the EU, those in England think it’s England which is leaving. The Scots are more nationalistic, unwilling to blindly accept the imposition of a Brexit which they neither sought or desired. And in N Ireland, the political parties, as usual, are split; unionists stress the totality of the vote across the UK, others stress that N Ireland as a whole voted to remain.
So, if there is confusion about who exactly wants to leave the EU, what of the reasons? Already, some protest voters are expressing ‘Bregret’; ideologues aren’t likely to listen to reason or counter-arguments. Look at the geographical spread in England, by far the most populous part of the UK. London and some other metropolitan areas voted to stay; but the disadvantaged north-east, east Anglia and so on voted to leave, along with the leafier parts of the ‘green and pleasant land’. What did these leavers think the EU had or hadn’t done for them?
They probably saw a ’swarm’ of immigrants, people prepared to work even if categorised as work-shy scroungers who only came to the UK to claim benefits. Never mind the facts – these people aren’t scroungers – it’s the perception that counts. Likewise, places such as the north-east of England and much of the industrial heartlands have seen their manufacturing industries decline and fail. Partly, this came through the Thatcher government taking on the unions and winning; but Thatcher’s mistake, if it was a mistake and not deliberate policy, was simply to ignore such regions, for after all they didn’t vote Tory so they didn’t matter. More recently, we have had ‘austerity’, a gradual reduction in benefits and welfare generally, and in the last 30 years average earnings have barely increased. What happened to the ’thirty glorious years’ after the end of the second world war? Why has the pay of managers greatly increased so that some of them earn in a day what the average worker gets in a week?
These effects are the neo-liberal economic model in action. This model was born around 1947 from the work and ideas of Hayek and the Austrian school, and encouraged by Friedman and the Chicago school. They believed that the market was always right and that business should operate almost unfettered by regulation; that government should be small, and not really be a service provider. Their ideas were put into action in the Thatcher and Reagan years, and indeed, provided early economic growth and wealth creation. Such wealth, we were told, would ‘trickle down’ to enrich all. It hasn’t worked out like that. Rather, the managers of banks and business saw opportunities to enrich themselves, and did so enrich themselves while seeking cost-cutting measures from their staff; zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships are just two examples of neo-liberalism in practice. Outsourcing is another; workers in China and Asia, having had little in the past, could have slightly more by working for global corporations, even the conditions of their work were such that no western government would accept them – but of course, business must operate unfettered. No matter that so many workers try to take their own lives, no matter that 1,000 women in a garment sweatshop can be crushed to death; business must be free to operate.
And austerity is just another child of neo-liberalism; some of the effects are remarkable. The idea that imposing austerity, for which read poverty, on a country permits that country to pay off its debts is, well, strange thinking. (In the past, debtors were sent to prison in the UK; this didn’t allow them to work to pay off their debts.) And if countries had debts, well the lenders had to be protected from their bad decisions; the bailouts that such countries receive may well go to the country, only to immediately find their way into the lender banks; banks, unlike you or me, are ‘too big to fail’. Even the IMF has form in this; in the past they decided that health care fell into the category of ‘luxury goods’ and could therefore be reduced. The didn’t reckon on increased outbreaks of disease. At least, there is now evidence that the IMF has recognised that their ideas on austerity were wrong.
The neo-liberal economic theory has a firm hold throughout most of the western world; there is no sign of any successor or better or fairer policy. Economic policy in the EU will continue, as it will in the UK; there is no evidence that lessons have been learned. Neo-liberalism reigns supreme, even to the extent that universities don’t teach or suggest alternatives. Economists who don’t agree don’t get positions in departments of Economics, rather the few gravitate to others where then can disguise their ideas under the heading of, say, ‘social geography’.
So, Brexit is the symptom but neo-liberalism is the disease. Why don’t we cure the disease?