So Britain voted on June 23, 2016 to leave the European Union. It did so by a narrow margin, which means that the polity has been broken up, probably for a while, into highly antagonized factions. Most observers focus on the Scottish demand to hold an independence referendum, and on Sinn Fein’s call to reunite Ireland. But with an almost 50-50 vote, one can assume that divisions now run through any town, factory, pub and street in Britain – including in the heartland of the “Leave” campaign, England, where London (to name just one) voted overwhelmingly in favor or remaining in the EU. The United Kingdom appears quite disunited today, and the stiff upper lip appears to have been replaced by a trembling lower lip.
Here are some reflections.
- The British referendum is just the last in a very long sequence of referenda, held in different member states since the Maastricht Treaty, in which whatever “pro-EU” camp was defeated. The EU seems to always lose as soon as the opinion of the masses is sought. The EU has a systematic, chronic and increasingly painful problem of legitimacy with its inhabitants.
- This problem is not caused by the resistance of national chauvinisms and xenophobic totemism alone, even if the media invariably reach consensus over that factor, sometimes even before people have voted. There are now several branches of anti-EU politics. One is the Farage-Wilders in principle opposition to any form of control which is not dominated by national chauvinism. Another, increasingly widespread now, is Euro-criticism on social and ideological grounds. The latter remains badly underexposed in media commentary and prima facie analysis. But it is resistance against the concrete neoliberal-and-austerity orthodoxy imposed by the EU on member states (with varying degrees of brutality) that animates the demonstrations and strikes in France, Spain, Greece, Belgium and other member states, and that has pushed anti-austerity parties such as Podemos and Syriza into electoral prominence. Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership must also be seen in that light.
- While the framing in media reports and analyses of such modes of protests is overwhelmingly national – Podemos is a Spanish problem, the general strikes a French one – the nature of these protests is transnational. It is protest against the EU, by many millions of its citizens. People in Madrid, Paris, Athens, London and Brussels protest against precisely the same measures, taken, each time in similar ways, by their national governments (who often defend themselves by pointing upwards to the EU as the bully).
- So when Farage wins an election, this is presented as a European issue, while a Podemos victory is presented as a Spanish one. This framing is called “erasure”.
- Undoubtedly, the rejection of the EU by more than half of the British electorate will partly be motivated by national chauvinism and xenophobia; but in all likelihood more and more complex reasons must have prompted people to reject the EU. Voters who rejected the EU also include those who resented the EU-enforced neoliberal austerity – an issue that already dominated the last general election in the UK.
- Typical in this respect was Farage’s pledge that leaving the EU would release many millions of Pounds to be invested in the NHS. Farage played into an apprently widely shared feeling in the electorate (and not just in Britain) that the current economic crisis demands a strengthening of welfare-state systems, rather than its continued restriction. The fact that the first thing Farage did after his “victory” was to qualify this pledge as somewhat of a joke will be a hangover for many Leave-voters.
- I put scare quotes around “victory”, because the question as to who actually won is hard to answer. David Cameron obviously lost, and will probably go down in British history as a PM of exceptional incompetence, arrogance and poor judgment (in a highly competitive field, I add). Nigel Farage’s political future is precarious for the simple reason that he has achieved the one political goal he had set for himself and his party. That achievement, alas, involves now relinquishing the exceedingly generously remunerated European mandates he currently holds. And Boris Johnson? After months of exuberant expressions of his most extreme disgust of the EU and what it stood for, he had to tone down as soon as the results became known, and now mumbles that Britain is not in a hurry to implement his glorious Brexit.
- Johnson probably has come to understand now that the Brexit victory has placed him – the next PM, no doubt – in a very weak and vulnerable position negotiating the modalities of the UK’s exit with the EU. One important chip – EU membership itself – is off the table now. It would have been much easier for him if his camp had been narrowly defeated. Cameron could then make journey upon journey to Brussels demanding even more privileges and opt-outs for the UK while the country remained a member state. And while Boris could quietly prepare his campaign to succeed Cameron in Downing Street number 10.
- In addition, his party has been split, his country is deeply divided by an issue which has proven to be acutely emotional, and Scotland might demand (or declare) independence when the coming referendum demands it (followed by EU membership for Scotland). And the entire political and media field has found a big new issue that may make or break careers and win or lose elections: the way the UK manages its relationship with the EU. Johnson likes Churchill (in fact, he probably believes he is Churchill). The Brexit referendum might be Johnson’s own little Second World War, concluded with a resounding victory and later converted into several eloquent chapters in his autobiography. And followed by the end of his political career, and of the Britain he stood for. If politics is waged at such elevated levels of destructive populism, politicians can’t possibly be winners.
Yet there are winners, for in the meantime, it’s business as usual. The Pound has dropped quite badly against the Dollar, and the financial markets are in turmoil worldwide. That means that smart speculators somewhere are making mega-bucks. Apart from wars or 9/11-type attacks, nothing is better for financial high-risk players than a major political upset in an important country. In that sense, at least some people may be very happy and grateful to Johnson and Farage.