During the six weeks I spent travelling in the United States I was struck by the nativist, anti-intellectual, post-factual sentiment that had a stranglehold on its electorate and its electors. The staunch belief that only looser gun control can bring about an end to the state of normality that characterises mass murder in that part of the world and the popularity of the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s solution to the flow of Mexican migrants across the United States southern border. These beliefs were deeply entrenched for many, despite all evidence to the contrary; the Mexican border for example, now experiences net migration out of the United States.
I felt relieved that I could identify as a Brit, with all the stoic, pragmatic, rational and empirical attributes normally attached to such an identity. Yet on arriving home, I was forced to accept the fact that the very same trends were happening here. As such, my confidence in the British people to vote Remain on June 23rd began to dissipate quickly and, in the early hours of June 24th it became evident that the impossible, was possible.
What we will see in the coming weeks, months and years, then, will be a series of hollow, pyrrhic victories. For the poor, economically neglected working class who voted in such large numbers for Leave there is likely to be a decline in wages and living standards as investment slows and manufacturing takes a hit from the likelihood of tariffs and border controls with our greatest export market. For the elderly they may find that the hole in government finances necessitates an already long-overdue end to the triple-lock state pension, whereby pensions increase by inflation, wages or 2.5%, whichever is highest. For those who voted on a belief that Britain could trade better outside of Europe, the desire revealed by EU leaders on the day after the referendum to speed up Brexit and thus reduce the likelihood of a favourable deal for Britain, as well as the significantly reduced clout we now will face when negotiating trade deals with non-EU countries will mean that British trade could be severely impacted for decades. For those who voted partly as a rebuttal to David Cameron’s premiership, they will now be faced with the likelihood of a prime minister not as competent, pragmatic or internationally respected as the outgoing prime minister. For the SNP, they may well get a second, and successful referendum on independence yet a budget deficit of over 10% and Spain’s almost guaranteed veto over EU membership means that an independent Scotland would be forced into devastating austerity and equally devastating tax increases.
The Remain camp will be proven right – although this will hardly bring solace. Already the economic turmoil promised by the Remain campaign has quickly come to fruition, the pound seeing its steepest drop for three decades. For the Remain camp (and indeed Britain) by far the best option, is the re-entry of Britain into the single market via the EEA. For those who voted on abstract ideals of sovereignty and on immigration levels this will be an especially empty victory; the joining of the EEA requires budgetary contributions to the EU, the imposition of 93 of the 100 costliest EU regulations, and also acquiescence on the issue of the free movement of labour. All this, but without any influence in the decision-making process. Yet this is by far the preferable option and indeed the free movement of labour is necessary to maintain our public services – EU migrants (mostly young and educated) put in far more than they take out.
This is a disaster, then, for Britain and its two major governing parties. For Mr Cameron it marks a legacy-shaping failure, one that will permanently stain him; for the Conservatives as a whole it seems difficult to envisage a swift reunification. For Mr Corbyn it provides the clearest evidence yet of the sheer incompetence and incoherency that has marked his stint thus far as leader of the Labour Party. That he should follow Mr Cameron in announcing his resignation should be self-evident. For the Labour Party as a whole the vote of the working-class reveals a disturbing truth: firstly, that many Labour voters were not clear on their party’s position, but secondly that they do not really care about it anymore.
The referendum has left a bitterly divided country, one that even major success in the ongoing Euros may not heal. It has torn open divides between the old and the young who, with some justification, feel a bitter resentment towards a generation that has not only left records amount of debt and a rapidly deteriorating climate, but who may have inflicted grave damage to their freedoms and prosperity in the years to come. The divide between London and the rest of England has also been widened – Londoners feeling that the rest of England has taken revenge on their prosperity.
The referendum result is more than just an economic disaster then. It represents a victory of xenophobia and bigotry over liberalism and tolerance; of isolationism and nativism over cosmopolitanism and cooperation; of little England over Great Britain; of ignorance and naiveté over intellectualism and reason. The white working class of Sunderland and Hartlepool are not better placed to understand the economic costs of Brexit than the head of the IMF and World Bank. They are not better judges on its impact on national security than the Secretary-General of NATO and former heads of MI5 and MI6. This referendum, frankly, should never have happened but it has and it will be the young and the poor who will have to deal with the fallout.
June 23rd 2016 marks a day in British and European history in which liberal values suffered a devastating defeat. It is not the first, all we can do is hope that it will be the last.