Brexit is a revolt against globalisation: Interpreting the UK vote

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European political scene is in quite a disarray. “Right now, we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it,” quipped historian Apple Applebaum back in March (Applebaum 2016). Applebaum, wife of the Polish neoconservative politician Radosław Sikorski, thus perfectly anticipated the panic felt nowadays by our elites. Inadvertently, she also revealed how Western elites see European integration: as a project tightly intertwined with the neoliberal worldview and globalisation. In their vote for Brexit, British working classes revolted against what the EU seems to increasingly stand for: self-proclaimed global elites and their policies that benefit only the increasingly few.

Let us be perfectly clear: for Europe and for the West, Brexit is a moment of fundamental historical importance. British “red Tory” thinker Phillip Blond is not exaggerating when he states that “Western ballot boxes never before seen a greater rejection of globalisation” (Devecchio 2016). The EU came to be squarely identified with globalisation and all social and economic insecurities that it entails. For British voters, these materialised mostly as fears of immigration, which have both cultural and employment-related aspects.

Explaining voting patterns

A look at the voting patterns across Britain gives evidence to deeper divides that separate the winners and losers of globalisation, and which are also visible in other European countries.  (Note that for political reasons, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain exceptional cases.) Charts are telling in showing deep class divisions. In a country where one year of undergraduate university education costs £9000 (more than €10,600), one of the best predictors of how people voted was their education level. “Remainers” tended to have university degrees, while those without higher education were much more likely to be in the Leave camp. Similar results are seen when we look at the median income – the richer the voter is, the more likely they were to vote Remain. In the UK, income and education are closely linked to geography, which explains why “bobo London” is the only part of England where people voted for staying in the EU.

Another significant factor is the trans-partisan character of the vote against the EU. As several observers already noted, Brexit would not be possible if a large proportion of Labour supporters did not vote against the Remain campaign of the party leadership. The party leader Jeremy Corbyn is himself a eurosceptic, who likely very much dislikes the authoritarianism of the EU’s neoliberal policies, lately openly revealed in last year’s economic diktat imposed on Greece, against the wishes of its people expressed also in a referendum. Why officially being in charge of Labour’s Remain campaign, his support was lukewarm, which is also the reason why his Members of Parliament (MPs) are at the moment working hard to get rid of him. What it ultimately shows, however, is that Corbyn is much more connected to the wishes and fears of the party rank and file than the MPs, who are mostly “champagne socialists” still day dreaming about the heydays of New Labour under Tony Blair.

As John Cassidy put it in The New Yorker, the implication is that “the British working classes and lower middle classes, particularly those living in the provinces, have delivered a stinging rebuke to the London-based political establishment, which was largely in [favour] of staying in the [EU]” (Cassidy 2016). The explanation is that for the working classes, salaries are at rock bottom and zero-hour contracts along with other “market reforms” put in place by the Conservative government made sure their jobs are more precarious than ever before. Property prices are astronomical, class sizes at state schools are too high, waiting times in NHS are too long. Meanwhile, good education, better jobs, and fenced-off private properties are concentrated in the hands of the growingly smaller number that are profiting from these neoliberal policies.

These are real concerns that are often disparaged or completely ignored by those with good jobs, good education, those who freely travel across Europe and come from better off families. In other words, by the European elite. Labelling Brexit as a triumph of xenophobia, ignorance or even senility (pointing to the preference of elder electorate for Leave), does not allow one to get any better understanding why an increasing number of people are standing up against the EU. Arrogant and patronising comments, of the like of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, who spoke about treating British people as deserters in the run-up to the referendum (Macdonald 2016), only paint the EU’s portrait in even darker colours. They also prevent from helping us to understand that Brexit is a part of wider revolt against globalisation, which includes both left-wing and right-wing populist movements in Europe (Greek Syriza, Spanish Podemos, Irish Sinn Féin, French Front National, Austrian FPÖ, even Slovak SMER or Hungarian Fidesz), as well as the appearance of Trump and Sanders in the US.

Concerns about immigration do not equate racism

Most of concerns with globalisation and the EU in the UK crystallised as the immigration issue. On the one hand ignored by the left (“because it is racist”), on the other, embraced by the right under the argument of positive economic contribution. While there are genuine xenophobes with hate towards black people, Eastern Europeans or Muslims, most voters cannot be simply dismissed as bigoted. The best example of this is a large proportion of second- or third-generation Commonwealth immigrants, who also supported Brexit on immigration grounds. If gross immigration to the UK was 630,000 in 2015 (or about 1 % of the UK’s population!), this represents a huge downward pressure on UK salaries and raises yet new identity concerns (Hawkins 2016). John Harris gives a plethora of practical examples of these real life concerns (Harris 2016):

  • town of Peterborough where people claim only non-UK nationals were hired because they worked for insane shifts for risible rates;
  • agricultural communities in Lincolnshire, divided between new arrivals with jobs and miserable locals who lost theirs;
  • largely pro-EU Manchester, where British-Asians talk about leaving the EU, likely because they feel their traditional jobs are at threat;
  • builders in South Shields, who had their hourly rate come down by £3 because of immigrants from eastern Europe; or
  • a mother in Stourbridge wanting a new school for “our kids”.

And so on. What is clear is that identity, immigration and economic concerns are closely interlinked. Identity is fundamentally nothing abstract – it is about shared and established patterns of living together in one space that generate understanding and prevent conflicts. It is about trust and predictability, which are built only over time, creating common history in the process. When contrasted to individual and gradual migration patterns, mass immigration poses a huge challenge for identity precisely for these reasons. This is of course in addition to the race to the bottom created by downward pressures on salaries and social security. Losing a job can in turn generate a loss of identity among those who previously took pride for providing income to their family – or simple buying a builder or fisherman in their community. With its recent push for “refugees”, a majority of whom seem to behave more like economic migrants, the EU only added the final piece into its image of the most visible European promoter of unrestricted flows of people.

Divisions in the liberal camp – a fake people’s revolt?

However, the referendum did not only divide working classes with those with a higher income – it also fragmented the British liberal elites. Leaders of Brexit campaign were all liberals who opposed the EU in the name of deregulation. This number includes the outgoing leader of UKIP Nigel Farage, who may be a social conservative, but remains an ultra-liberal on economic issues. It also makes for a big difference, between the liberals in the UK and in many other European countries, perhaps apart from central Europe. Speaking of France, Alain de Benoist noted that “while in our country, the majority of liberals are convinced that the fundamental goal of European treaties is imposing liberal tenets, starting with free circulation of goods and services, people and capital, in England many think that the market needs neither institutions nor treaties” (de Benoist 2016).

The support of a proportion of British liberals for Brexit obviously does not mean that they suddenly took up the flag of the people, realised their ideology is misguided, and decided to address fears of globalisation. Phillip Blond again correctly points out that this represents the greatest paradox – and tragedy – of the vote for Brexit: “the working classes seeking protection against globalisation followed libertarians who believe that the UK should unilaterally abolish its tariffs” (Devecchio 2016). For his part, Paul Mason from The Guardian does not shy away from calling the referendum “hijacked” and “a fake revolt” with people “falling for a scam” (Mason 2016). Mason is quite correct not only because British liberal elites have no interest to rescue people from globalisation and perverse effects of capitalism. Other reason is that nation-states are no longer capable of protecting its citizens against the power of transnational corporations, “globbish” cultural forces, or hyper-fluctuations of financial markets. British “independence day” is an illusion because the UK regained sovereignty in name only.

Tragedy of the EU and its great unfulfilled promise

The greatest tragedy of the European Union is that it did not fulfil its potential and failed on its biggest promise. That promise was to make citizens and peoples stronger rather than weaker in the face of globalisation and neoliberal capitalism. But that would have required starting European integration from bottom-up, from culture and politics, and not from economic integration. Inevitably, that would have also meant a slower expansion of the EU – building qualitative, democratic, strong structures at the expansive of quantity and extension. The UK, traditionally a maritime and transatlanticist power, always felt oddly in the continental club and attached itself closer to the US than to its European counterparts. As Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe notes, the EU has neoliberal policies at its core: its single market and trade agreements opened up the gates to globalisation, while its fiscal rules and ‘structural reforms’ put countries into an austerity straightjacket. So instead “of helping those who suffer from [globalisation], [the EU] has set up policies that hurt these people even more. It is no surprise that the losers revolt” (Grauwe 2016). Ultimately, all of us are those losers, because instead of living in communities that allow us to strive for excellence and make us stronger personalities, we are living in market societies that encourage selfishness, individualism, consumerism and wasteful lifestyles.

Martin Heidegger, a German thinker who also lived in turbulent times, used to quote poet Friedrich Hölderlin in saying that “where danger is, grows the saving power also.” For the EU, history did not end yet. However much its elites may seem incapable of reflection on what are the reasons for people’s despair over European integration, at its roots there is still the promise that the EU can be a katechon, a regulator of globalisation, rather than its chief harbinger. It is time for people and those who are on their side to grasp this thought and realise that all freedom movements against globalisation and neoliberalism need to be by necessity pan-European.

 

Publication bibliography

Applebaum, Anne (2016): Is this the end of the West as we know it? Anneapplebaum.com. Available online at http://www.anneapplebaum.com/2016/03/04/is-this-the-end-of-the-west-as-we-know-it/, updated on 3/4/2016, checked on 6/27/2016.

Benoist, Alain de (2016): Brexit : vers un effet domino en Europe ? Boulevard Voltaire. Available online at http://www.bvoltaire.fr/alaindebenoist/brexit-vers-un-effet-domino-en-europe,265172, updated on 6/29/2016, checked on 6/30/2016.

Cassidy, John (2016): Why the Remain Campaign Lost the Brexit Vote – The New Yorker. In The New Yorker, 6/24/2016. Available online at http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/why-the-remain-campaign-lost-the-brexit-vote, checked on 7/5/2016.

Devecchio, Alexandre (2016): Phillip Blond : «Jamais la mondialisation n’avait connu un tel rejet dans les urnes». In Le Figaro, 7/1/2016. Available online at http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/monde/2016/07/01/31002-20160701ARTFIG00368-phillip-blond-jamais-la-mondialisation-n-avait-connu-un-tel-rejet-dans-les-urnes.php, checked on 04-07-16.

Grauwe, Paul de (2016): The EU Should Take The Side Of The Losers Of Globalization. Social Europe. Available online at https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/07/eu-take-side-losers-globalization/, updated on 7/4/2016, checked on 7/5/2016.

Harris, John (2016): ‘If you’ve got money, you vote in … if you haven’t got money, you vote out’. In The Guardian, 6/24/2016. Available online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/divided-britain-brexit-money-class-inequality-westminster, checked on 6/27/2016.

Hawkins, Oliver (2016): Migration Statistics. House of Commons (Briefing Paper, SN06077).

Macdonald, Alastair (2016): Juncker says on Brexit: British ‘deserters’ to get no EU favor. In Reuters, 5/20/2016. Available online at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-juncker-idUSKCN0YB1O3, checked on 29-06-16.

Mason, Paul (2016): Brexit is a fake revolt – working-class culture is being hijacked to help the elite | Paul Mason, 6/20/2016. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/20/brexit-fake-revolt-eu-working-class-culture-hijacked-help-elite, checked on 7/5/2016.

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