So, on Friday morning we woke up to the news that Britain had voted narrowly (51.9%) in favour of leaving the European Union, with Scotland overwhelmingly against and Northern Ireland also mostly against, but with both England and Wales voting Out (53.4% and 52.5% respectively). The result was an immediate fall in the value of Sterling (which stands at 1.37 to the dollar right now), rumours that various banks were beginning the process of moving jobs out of London to elsewhere in Europe) and various reports of people claiming they had been lied to by the Leave campaign and regretted their vote. What is of more concern is an upsurge of racist incidents since Friday, with people of foreign appearance told it was time to go home now or physically attacked or threatened, and some demonstrations by far right fringe groups (so far small, and dwarfed by anti-fascist demonstrations). The Prime Minister has already announced his resignation in October and has delayed invoking Article 50, which is the procedure for a state’s withdrawal from the EU, until a new leader is in place; meanwhile, the Labour shadow cabinet is in meltdown, with widespread criticism of Corbyn’s leadership and open talk of a challenge to it; seven members of the Shadow Cabinet have resigned or been sacked already.
It’s worth noting where the votes to Leave came from and where they didn’t. The full results are on the BBC website (among other places) and the votes do not correlate with usual party preferences. In London, all but five local authority areas (Hillingdon, Sutton, Barking & Dagenham, Havering and Bexley) voted In; these included both wealthy Tory boroughs and places of both diversity and deprivation. Outside, however, there are a number of Tory districts in the south that voted In, including a belt that stretches from Stroud in Gloucestershire through to Windsor in Berkshire, down to inland areas of Hampshire and the Sussex coast; there are also many provincial urban areas where the majority voted out, including all of Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Swindon, Reading and Slough. While the major urban hubs of the North voted in, their outlying areas voted Out. These are all places with a substantial working-class and ethnic minority vote, and while the white working-class Leave vote is well-known, it also leads to the obvious conclusion that minority-ethnic voters voted Leave as well.
Why is this? I have long held the belief that Britain’s way of engaging with Europe has been to take what is good for business rather than what benefits ordinary people. Britain stayed out of the Schengen accord, for example, which would have spared British tourists in Europe the expense of applying for a passport (the cost of which rose sharply during Labour’s time in office as a result of biometric passports), which people on the mainland do not have to tolerate just to pass over land borders. More recently, Labour, miscalculating that a few thousand white Christian workers coming in would not cause any problems, allowed hundreds of thousands of eastern European migrant workers to enter the country without any restriction from 2004 onwards, which most other European countries declined to do (and which we did not do, for example, when Spain, Portugal and Greece joined). It may be irritating for people in secure public-sector jobs to hear, but in an unregulated labour market with weak unions, a large influx of workers from poorer countries than ours means fewer jobs and lower wages. And while this country employs hundreds of thousands of their economic migrants, some of these countries refuse to accept a single Syrian refugee!
Going back further, joining the EEC, as was, was a policy of the Tories, Liberals and the ‘moderate’ wing of the Labour party. It was Edward Heath that took us in and during the Thatcher era, the Labour party of the Foot and early Kinnock eras was staunchly anti-EEC. To northern working-class people, our time in the EEC and the EU has been connected with the destruction of British industry, mass unemployment and casualisation. Joining the EEC was not the cause, but neither was it a coincidence: the same people who favour open borders for money have contempt for ordinary people and their jobs and see no way of resolving industrial strife other than destroying the industries they work in. They also regard protectionism as a dirty word, regardless of the fact that improving workplace standards (safety etc) is no use if we allow imports from countries which have none of these standards, where pay is low and conditions punitive (such as they were in Britain during the Industrial Revolution), and where there are no free trade unions.
Accepting the EU was one of the Thatcherite policies Labour had to accept in order to appeal beyond their core vote in the 1990s, and now that the EU has failed to deliver, at least in ways people in former mining, steelworking and manufacturing industries and the surrounding communities can put their fingers on, this policy has come back to bite the Labour party. Yes, people point to the EU financing this road or that arts centre, but if these regions had prosperous industries that provided decent jobs with prospects then such amenities would pay for themselves through local taxation. People don’t want handouts, and they don’t want their towns to be dependent on them either; they want to be able to pay their own way. The fact is that we have a wealthy class in this country which has no real loyalty to this country; they are not willing to invest in or take a chance on British workers, for the most part. They’d rather buy things in from abroad.
It is not Europe that betrayed the working classes; it was British politicians of both parties. All these problems could be solved without withdrawing from the EU and without, for example, forcing existing eastern European workers out, but it will require a fundamental change in attitudes among the richer members of our society and an acceptance in political circles that supporting British industry means more than simply subsidising underperforming companies. It remains to be seen whether leaving the EU will deliver that or whether the panic caused by the prospect of leaving will deliver it; these things are not being discussed in the public domain right now, so I very much doubt either — but it’s what needs to happen if Britain’s membership of the EU is to be saved. David Lammy has suggested that “all the government needs to do is nothing” as the referendum result is not legally binding, but simply doing nothing will mean the issue will still be live at the next election, resulting in a bigger share of the vote and, potentially, seats in Parliament for UKIP.
As for ethnic minority voters, and I’m particularly talking about Muslim voters here, they may have voted to leave in large numbers because they, like other working-class people, resented the competition of eastern European workers, or the effect of the pro-EU ruling classes’ policies on the industries they had worked in, or perhaps because they saw Europe as a place that was hostile and getting worse. The media asked white voters why they had voted Out, but failed to ask (as far as I’m aware) any Black or Asian voters outside London. For them I think this was a misguided vote, as it has emboldened racists up and down the country, resulting in dozens of racist incidents against apparent ‘foreigners’ of all kinds, some of them violent. As we still have a Tory majority in Parliament, the Eurosceptic, Islamophobic Right will gain the ascendancy in that party, even if neither Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove becomes leader; we could also become the scapegoats for or distractions from any hardship caused by leaving the EU. Given the divisions in the Labour party and the collapse of the Lib Dems, a general election this year or next will not produce a more favourable outcome for us.
Britain leaving the EU is not inevitable. Not only is the result not legally binding, but it is now clear that key planks of the Leave campaign have fallen away (the spending of EU contributions on the NHS, the reduction in immigrant numbers) and it is clear that they had no real plan of action and are in no hurry to set the ball rolling on activating the legal mechanisms for leaving. The present situation could have been avoided if a 60% or 2/3 threshold had been set as the minimum, which is not without precedent (e.g. the Scottish devolution referendum in the 1970s, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (which requires a 2/3 majority to trigger a general election after less than five years), the requirement of numerous organisations and many other countries for a 2/3 majority to change the constitution or remove elected officials. A major constitutional change should require more than a narrow majority. But we cannot simply do nothing. As has been observed on Twitter, the result can be overridden but what it has revealed about this country cannot be un-revealed. Leaving the EU would be an immense folly and cause economic collapse and isolation, as even the threat of our leaving has already started to do, or at best a settlement which costs as much but gives us no say in drafting the EU’s laws and regulations. The way we engage with Europe has been wrong from the beginning, and has benefited the rich and the middle class at the expense of everyone else. We must change the way we do Europe, not leave Europe.
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