The Brexit vote’s been cast. We’re out.
It’s been an angry, ugly aftermath filled with mutual suspicion, insults and growing hatred. Perhaps the divisions have always been there, but recent events have certainly magnified them to the extreme.
Who knows what happens next? Certainly not the Brexiteers themselves, it seems. Most of the main players have already resigned because … well, no-one can tell. Our best guess is that they can’t be bothered to help clean up the mess they created.
As the power vacuum expands, an eager band of replacements are lining up to occupy it. Knives are out in the Westminster bubble as high drama and dirty backstabbing dominate the headlines. It’s a good thing that we don’t have any other important matters like — say — our political and economic future to talk about right now.
Amidst all this noise came a fairly dry statement from a Jeremy Bowen report on the BBC World Service:
The British didn’t foresee the consequences of their actions or make a proper plan for the future. The repercussions are still shaking the wider world.
It would be easy to mistake this for a reaction to the Brexit vote, but it’s actually a quote about the Iraq invasion which is a hot topic right now given the imminent release of the Chilcot inquiry’s findings.
OK, so the quote above is a bit selective. The full text reads:
When the Americans and British and others invaded they didn’t foresee the consequences of their actions, or make a proper plan for the future. The repercussions of this invasion are still shaking the Middle East and the wider world.
The similarities between what’s happening now and what played out in 2003 are interesting nonetheless: a self-serving leader embarks on a quest to secure his own legacy as the country gets embroiled in a debate dogged by confusing propaganda and spin, the outcome of which leads us down a path we’re ill prepared for. In the immediate aftermath, some proponents of the winning “solution” ignore the first signs of trouble as they gloat and point fingers at their detractors, frothing: “see, see … nothing bad has happened! We told you nothing bad would happen!”
Beyond this ironic equivalence in basic narrative, there is a direct historical connection between our Iraq intervention in 2003 and the vote we just had. A large part of some voters’ current disaffection with the EU has to do with deliberate, immigration-themed fear-mongering in response to the refugee crisis, pitched by the right-wing press and far-right politicians as a dire threat to a vulnerable United Kingdom set to be driven to “breaking point” by “swarms” of migrants. It’s been an easy narrative to construct, because Europe indeed faces a humanitarian crisis — a crisis directly connected to our miscalculated Iraq invasion that has sparked 13 years’ of regional violence and instability in the Middle East. This, in turn, has led to ever increasing numbers of people seeking refuge in Europe.
Of course it doesn’t make sense to suggest we should somehow subsume and “pay the price” for everything that’s wrong globally just because we’ve made some mistakes in the past. Guilt-ridden paralysis has never been a helpful trait. But we can respond by learning from our errors: how evidence got distorted; the dishonest way in which ideas were sold; the self righteousness; the bellicose pomposity; the dire lack of proper consideration for the relevant political subtleties and interconnections.
A bit of honest reflection might help us when posing and responding to future questions.
Sadly, it seems that we failed to learn these lessons before partaking in this referendum. We are once more locked in a political crisis that started with an arrogant, fractious, misleading debate leading up to the vote, and it continues now in the form of vicious party squabbles and dramas shaped by personality politics. Politicians have played as fast and loose with evidence as they have with people’s fears, concerns and anger. They have been loud, abrasive and superior in their infallible beliefs and they have shown very little regard for the likely fallout in terms of regional destabilisation and damage to relationships, both domestically and abroad.
Who had time to pause and reflect before or during the referendum to make sure that we don’t repeat those past mistakes? Who has time to do it now? Certainly not, it seems, our current band of power-hungry wannabe leaders. The same short-sightedness that informed the referendum campaign slogans now seems to colour a growing belief that we’ll settle the matter on our terms and get a great deal to boot — a collective having of our cake and eating it, with a subservient European Union happily obliging for the sake of keeping our privileged company. The very arrogance that led to so much deception (on both sides of the debate) now threatens to blind us to the complexity and intricacy of what needs to be unravelled and sensibly sewn back together.
Uncertainty and increased instability is to be expected in the wake of a change as monumental as Brexit, and no-one can pretend to have all of the answers upfront. Which is why it would be much more encouraging if our would-be leaders were more modest and honest about it, saying perhaps something along these lines: “look, this is going to be a pretty nasty mess for quite some time. We will need to work carefully with our neighbours, and we don’t quite know what their views will be. No guarantees. This may well cost us. But we have a voting majority that says it’s a price worth paying — come what may.”
52% of voters have shown a willingness to pay a high price. They have partly voted in protest as they seek some kind of democratic and economic revolution and our new leadership will have no choice but to think way beyond our relationship with the EU for solutions (which is something they really should have done properly before imposing this question on a frustrated electorate).
There is no shortage of people paying lip service to this protest vote. As if by magic, there isn’t a neoliberal in sight. Everyone is suddenly a progressive economist concerned with “inequality”. This includes bankers and leadership candidates who pitch themselves as social justice advocates whilst simultaneously refusing to expose their tax returns to public scrutiny.
The shameless opportunism is nauseating at times, especially when it emanates from die-hard austerity politicians — the very architects of our current economic inertia — who suddenly proclaim that we have our “freedom” back, so we can do something about the unfair system we live in.
Are we really expecting a government now dominated by the most socially and economically conservative of players to betray the very values they stood for when elected as they abandon their precious, simplistic ideology to face up to the complexity of our problems? Are we honestly hoping that they will be introducing much-needed initiatives like a more progressive tax regime, a fundamentally reformed financial-services sector and intelligent investments to kickstart new sustainable industries – these people who peddle backroom deals with fossil fuel companies and warmongers? Will they reform corporate governance to end the myopic, jobs-destroying, wage-depressing madness of “maximising shareholder value” – these opportunists who maintain lucrative revolving-door arrangements with big City firms? Are they likely to ask people like vocal Brexiteer James Dyson whether he’d consider bringing back all those jobs he outsourced to China – these proponents of corporate globalisation?
So far, so typical. There’s been a promise to pursue new trade deals with the rest of the world. The problem is, though, that we import much more than we export. Without a credible strategy to revive British industry so that we can export more, presumably we’re simply proposing to buy more stuff from other countries instead of buying stuff from Europe. How this is meant to change the fate of British people who lack opportunity in the modern global economy isn’t exactly clear. This economic plan points to little more than the prospect of perhaps getting us cheap deals on new TVs so that we can once more immerse ourselves in the distraction offered by reality shows and Sky box sets as we wait for our newly found “independent” wealth to “trickle down” upon us.
Perhaps this is all too cynical. Maybe our freshly appointed leaders will have better tricks up their collective sleeve?
Or perhaps our political class sees recent events as just another day at the office. A hurdle to skip over rather than a revolution to execute. Very little fundamental to do beyond crafting nifty sound bites and making empty promises. No serious need for a new kind of establishment.
Let’s survey the circumstantial evidence: the only people who have benefited from Brexit so far are some of the sinister career politicians who did this for personal gain, along with stock market and currency speculators, climate change deniers and now — through a juicy reduction in corporation tax — the very people who have gained most from the vast inequality that lies at the heart of the Leave movement’s protest vote. It’s not been a great start for the working class.
Are politicians making the noises we want to hear right now whilst secretly banking on the fact that deep down we just don’t expect that anything significant will actually change? Are they hoping that we will soon relegate this referendum debate to history, seeing it as an entertaining distraction that has to come to an end as we sink back into our daily lives, replete on the sound bites they fed us?
Who knows. The only certainty at the moment is in the machinations of the preposterous political play itself: unfolding like a bad pantomime rip-off of a Shakespearean tragedy that was hastily scripted on the back of a wine-stained napkin in a dusty City wine bar. We are left to look on, ever the hapless paying audience, some of whom are too proud to admit that the show’s a cheap farce whilst a growing chorus of disillusioned punters bemoan the fact that the tickets are non-refundable.
But what if — instead — we decide not to repeat our past mistakes? Can we turn this generation-defining event into something positive?
If we want to stand a chance of achieving that, we can’t simply fall back on tired tropes and historical habits. We must not watch in despair as one dysfunctional political regime replaces another without being held to account for their promises. If we’re serious about not letting this crisis go to waste, then genuine progressives must now come together to establish a new political movement designed to shake up our broken politics.
It is promising to see that there are people already starting to have such a discussion aimed at forming a new “progressive alliance”. This will hopefully be the start of good things.
Whatever happens, as we come to terms with the outcome of this particular democratic vote, it is our responsibility now to work for a new kind of democracy.
“Brexit may mean Brexit”, but it doesn’t have to be the last word.