People think this is the end for Britain. More than a week on from the surprise result of Britain’s referendum on its continued membership of the EU, those around me have barely calmed down. In all fairness, the black hole that now exists in Westminster, in place of leadership or a plan, certainly isn’t soothing any nerves. But more on this later.
We’ve had one week of sweary Facebook and Twitter tirades against the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ who have destroyed ‘our future and our children’s future’. Early polling analysis has only fueled this bitterness, with surveys showing a strong bias towards Brexit among those without degrees. Moreover, the results breakdown by district show provincial England and Wales dragging left-leaning (supposedly) Scotland and the younger, better educated cities out of the EU. Cue some absolutely breathtaking snobbery about ‘small minded people from small towns’.
The referendum reveals a divided Britain. The toxic rhetoric surrounding the result is dividing it further.
At some point, a large part of the country lost the sense it was valued and listened to. It would take a whole book to consider the nature and causes of this feeling properly. However, a few trends can be quickly seen, First, thirty years ago the solid jobs and industries that underpinned a strong working class were dismantled. But while devastating to the North and Wales, at least a strong welfare system and growing, meritocratic economy could ease the pain. A change of government in the nineties brought a few more sticking plasters: a minimum wage, ‘regeneration’ in poor areas, a shiny new school or hospital here and there. A personal credit frenzy even maintained the illusion that we all were getting more prosperous.
But the rot was setting in. EU expansion and a generous immigration policy brought a surge in immigration. I’m glad that as a nation we welcomed these hard workers and great people, but the ruling classes made a grave error in handling it. It seems reasonable now to acknowledge that rapid changes in the population of a local area can strain public services and unsettle established residents. But what the response to legitimate, if sometimes misdirected concerns about mass migration amounted to was the rich and powerful telling the poor and marginalised to stop being racist.
And that’s easy to say if isn’t your kid in a mobile classroom, or without a school place, because there aren’t enough to go round. It’s easy to say if higher housing demand just means a bigger rise in the value of your house, rather than paying exorbitant rents for an overcrowded flat because the social housing waiting list is six years long. It’s easy to say if it isn’t you who is unemployed because you can’t compete with the eastern European workers employers are willing to exploit.
Little wonder, then, that resentment at a wealthy elite was beginning to simmer. But once the economy crashed, services and infrastructure were undermined and the drastic undermining of social mobility became clear, this resentment became really widespread. A few genuine racists emerged in the form of the BNP, though fortunately the country gave them little support. Options to force change through the electoral system were limited, so despite the erosion of the two party system in favour of Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and populist UKIP, a growing number of people just don’t bother voting any more.
Should we really have been surprised that the country grew tired of being bullied by this distant elite? This elite which tried to blackmail the country with threats of job losses and further housing shortages unless the country opted to remain in Europe. Incidentally, this is the same Europe our politicians had blamed for nearly every problem they couldn’t fix! Whatever the Remain campaign might have been trying to do, it ended up looking like a bunch of privileged figures trying to secure a status quo that enriched them and impoverished the disadvantaged.
The vote for Brexit was an expression of anger and a rejection of the status quo. Those demanding Parliament unpicks Brexit by stealth, or simply ignore the referendum result, are playing with fire. If the people cannot be heard on this simple, fundamental issue, how can they ever trust their politicians to govern on their behalf?
Many of those upset at Brexit worry about Britain’s impending isolation. They also fear our being outside the European Union and the protections it offers its citizens. I urge these people to adopt a more sophisticated and realistic response than seeking to override the country’s democratic decision. Let’s fight for a Brexit on our terms.
Free movement of people across Europe was a key issue in the referendum and it is clear Britain does not want it. We must accept that, despite threats from EU leaders that this will cost us access to the Single Market. But note that Britain is not negotiating with Europe from a position of weakness and inflexibility. I think our large economy and market is essential to the EU. If we were to agree to a common regulatory regime with the EU (thus protecting us from a right wing deregulation-crazed government) with a fast-track visa system for EU-resident professionals, we would be in a prime position to protect our financial and industrial sectors in a far-reaching trade deal.
Right now, there are a large number of EU citizens resident here who worried about their rights. It would not take much political pressure to see through the passage of legislation guaranteeing right of residents for those living here.
And let’s be mindful of the benefits of the situation we now find ourselves in. Outside the EU, and free from the scary TTIP trade deal, restrictive directives enforcing privatisation and marketisation of public services need no longer be followed. In time and under the right government, Britain will be able to correct market failures such as in the railways with much fewer constrictions.
Depending on our exact post-Brexit relationship with the EU, we may also be able to play our part in correcting a flawed international trade system in which rich countries use pacts and deals to freeze poor countries out of domestic markets. Britain may well have a freer hand to aid the development of poorer countries through fairer trade deals.
It might not be exactly what we wanted, but now Brexit is the future, let’s make it fairer.