With austerity now the unchallenged logic of the European system, a vote to 'Leave' should not have come as such a shock
As the first results came into the BBC on Friday morning, there was a caution about proclaiming that vote 'Leave' would win which seemingly united broadcasters, media pundits, pollsters and even, initially at least, Nigel Farage himself.
Yet the first results from Newcastle and Sunderland set the tone. The people were asked about the future of the UK in Europe, and like it or not they voted against the European project. For many this seems to have come as a shock, but it should not have done.
The reality is, as many social commentators have noted, the divisions in society have become starker. The people who can afford to reside in London might see the benefits of European membership, but in much of the rest of England, many others did not. It seems largely undisputed now that the 'Leave' vote has been driven by frustration and anger of what we once would have called the English working class.
The campaigns on both sides of the referendum debate have been abhorrent, and the horrible murder of Jo Cox MP in the twilight phase of campaigning is testimony to one aspect of this. The issue has brought to the surface a nasty racism and nationalism that remind us, as Walter Benjamin once noted, that every fascism is testimony of failed revolution.
While we may like to think that Brexit was simply the product of a national rise of intolerance to immigration, is this in fact only part of the picture? For one, the UK's move to leave has highlighted that the EU has hardly proven a progressive force that people can unify behind. What message did it send to the Greek public that voted for Syriza when Jean Claude Junker said there can be no democracy in the face of European treaties? Is this not an anti-democratic or even totalitarian sentiment?
Of course, behind vote leave is the global financial crisis of 2008 and narrow neo-liberal policies. The reaction to the failure of abstract high market capitalism that drove that, as the Greek people have learned, was austerity, which is now in itself an unchallenged and unquestionable logic of the contemporary European system. The result of the financial crisis was to punish not bankers or traders in derivatives, but to enforce austerity on its people. It did not have to be that way, yet the fact that it was speaks volumes to ordinary people that the Europe of politicians and MEPs is essentially a kleptocracy of selfish, detached and uncaring bureaucrats.
The financial crisis might have brought in a rekindled spirit of social democratic welfare to European politics and the national governments therein, but it did not. Rather it reinvigorated a commitment to free-market forces and has lead to an even more unshakable commitment to the neo-liberal economics that underpinned the crash in the first place. This has also subsequently driven an austerity agenda against the poorest of society.
In the UK, as elsewhere, the mainstream left have failed to represent the working class. In the UK, ground once occupied by the left has been surrendered to a privately-educated merchant banker who shows that he speaks for the ordinary person simply by appearing with a fag and a pint, and empty promises of £350 million funding for the National Health Service.
Nigel Farage tries to get down with the public and enjoys a pint of lager and a cigarette. Smoking kills, Nigel pic.twitter.com/lz6BYq46XK— Abby (@abbyswheel) 20 September 2014
For all his anti-immigration rhetoric, Nigel Farage knew that such things really matter to working class people and hence he hides away his desire to see the NHS privatised. To regard the Brexit vote simply as the narrow, reactive racism of the lower social strata is an illustrative example of the political left's failure. In England, ‘Human Rights’ have become a recurrent lament of the likes of Farage, reinforced by a sensationalist and ill-informed tabloid rhetoric throughout the debate.
Again the misinformation machine is all too apparent. Membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, which 55 European countries currently subscribe to, underpins several personal freedoms, yet has nothing to do with the EU itself. Despite reports pointing to the contrary, Britain leaving the EU will not affect the human rights of people in the UK or Ireland.
The Irish in Britain voting to leave the EU may have perhaps considered the fact that the Anglo-Irish Common Travel Area dates back to 1923, and continues to be an exclusive matter for the governments of both Britain and Ireland; it does not involve the EU.
In matters relating to Northern Ireland, the funds made available for localized ‘Peace Process’ activities are in fact UK taxpayers' money, recycled via Brussels. A century on from 1916, the issue of national independence is at the forefront of Irish minds, recalling the ‘unfettered control of Irish destinies’ which the men and women of the Easter Rising 1916 aspired to.
The Irish have an impeccable record of standing for the national independence of whatever country they find themselves inhabiting. It is a matter of solidarity. Cities like Birmingham have been built, in large part, on an Irish diaspora, and unlike Manchester or London, the majority of the people of Birmingham voted to leave the EU.
The narrative constructed by certain strands of the media is that the 'Leave' vote was fueled by racism, which is hard to understand when a city such as Birmingham- widely regarded a ‘multi-cultural’ city - votes to leave. Some in the media suggest it is the ignorance of upper-class ‘toffee noses’ with aspirations to revisit the British 'glory' days – when this may simply not be the case. It would seem in fact, that many have voted for the Brexit in an educated fashion, opting to leave sooner as a way of protecting the working class (or at least hoping to) from quite literally paying the price of the inevitable demise of the neo-liberal European Union.
In Britain, people may not have been completely naïve to the fact that a vote to leave Europe would hurt them, and certainly not as naïve as many left-leaning commentators on social media have suggested. What is more concerning is that, knowing the hurt potentially in store, they took that step anyway. Maybe this is a lack of faith in experts as the Financial Times suggested, but might it also be what happens when the common market forgets the common man.
While the UK may be the first to see a public backlash, it is doubtful it will be the last. Many on the left were far from convinced by the case for Brexit, but now we have it. For the left it could be a chance once again to reconfigure a progressive politics, not just on the island of the UK, but through Europe.
As William Pitt said in his guildhall speech on Saturday 9th November, 1805 on hearing of the Victory at Trafalgar, "England has saved herself by her exertions and will, I trust, save Europe by her example."
Might the same be true again?
Emma Kelly is Programme Director for Criminology, Policing&Investigation and Security Studies at Birmingham City University.