Discussing the meaning of the Brexit vote

June 27, 2016

The UK referendum vote to leave the European Union was a political earthquake that rocked not only Britain, but all of Europe and the world. Already, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation, though it won't take effect for months; a new plot against the Labour Party's left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn is taking shape; and there are reports of racist incidents "fueled by the result of the EU referendum, according to the Guardian.

On the left in Britain, there was a debate in the run-up to the referendum about whether to vote Remain or Leave or neither. Reaction to the referendum has also diverged, though in general with a common emphasis on the need for unity to confront the new situation. Here, we publish a sample of the commentary from the left from writers and publications SW has featured before, including Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb, Terry Conway writing in International Viewpoint, and Tom Bramble of Australia's Red Flag. SocialistWorker.org expects to publish more views on the UK referendum in the days to come.

Richard Seymour

THE RACISTS have successfully articulated a broad antiestablishment sentiment--originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc.--along bigoted, national chauvinist lines. The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism--but that is the primary way in which it has been organized and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced. That this was achieved so soon after the fascist murder of a center-left, pro-immigrant MP, is stunning in a way. It says something about the truculence of some of the chauvinism on display. It says something about the profound sense of loss which a reasserted "Britishness" is supposed to compensate for.

There is a lot of finger-wagging on Twitter and elsewhere about how the exit voters have just triggered economic self-destruction. House prices will fall, savings will be diminished, the pound will weaken, jobs will dry up. Well, that's all true. Except. Not everyone benefits from the insane property market. Not everyone has savings. Not everyone benefits, as the City does, from a strong pound. Manufacturing has suffered from that priority. Large parts of the country have been hemorrhaging jobs for years. "The economy" is not a neutral terrain experienced by everyone in exactly the same way. And some of the votes, coming in core Labour areas, not necessarily strongly racist areas at first glance, indicate that. So people have voted against an economy that wasn't working to their benefit. (That doesn't mean the practical alternative will not be worse. I suspect it will be a great deal worse.)

British and European Union flags

[Left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn did the best he could in this scenario, offering a conditional, critical defense of Remain. Had he joined in the ra-ra cheerleading for the EU, had he not prefaced his support with some serious criticisms, Labour would be looking at a bleak scenario in these mid-to-north England areas which have gone Brexit. By at least sounding critical, and above all keeping his distance from the Tories, he has probably avoided a Scottish outcome for the party in these areas.

But Corbyn was also not the dynamic factor in this referendum. The racists were. The chauvinists were. And the culture wars now afoot were signaled by Nigel Farage, who greeted the victory with what can only have been a calculated dog-whistle: "We've done it without a single bullet being fired."

First published at Lenin's Tomb.

Terry Conway

AFTER A bitter and deeply reactionary campaign, Britain voted to leave the EU by 52 percent to 48 percent on June 23. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage is celebrating his victory together with his chums on the hard-right Euro-skeptic wing of the Tory Party. His far-right friends across Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and similar people in Germany, Austria, Italy--and places beyond--are rubbing their hands in glee while working out how best to capitalize on this triumph. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, and it will be his successor--almost certainly prominent "Brexiter" Boris Johnson--who will lead divorce negotiations with the EU. Those who are now in the ascendancy in the Conservative Party are even further to the right that the defeated leadership of Cameron.

Turnout was high at 72.1 percent--despite torrential rain in parts of the islands--higher than at any general election since 1997 (when it was 77.7 percent). The result shows a deeply divided Britain. More than 70 percent of those under 30 voted remain. Scotland and the North of Ireland voted remain--though the turnout in Scotland, at 67.2 percent, was lower than average and way down on the massive show of 84.6 percent in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The constitutional implications of these differences are not yet completely clear, but Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that a second Scottish independence referendum is now highly likely.

Wales--where Labour has taken its supporters for granted for decades and even after the election of left leader Jeremy Corbyn last summer little has changed in terms of that approach--voted to leave. In England, the pattern varied, but for example, in the Northwest, the big cities of Liverpool and Manchester voted remain, but the smaller towns voted to leave. The working class and Labour's traditional supporters are left deeply divided. The center of British politics, which moved dramatically to the left when Jeremy Corbyn was elected last year, has now moved dangerously to the right.

This was not a referendum the left chose--but a concession made by David Cameron to the Euro-skeptic wing of his own party. It was always clear that the debate would be dominated by two reactionary camps baying at each other--as Fire Brigades Union General Secretary Matt Wrack pointed out, between people arguing about whether they could exploit working people more effectively by staying in the European Union or by leaving it.

The referendum was always going to be a carnival of reaction. The question that dominated the debate and was always going to do so was the issue of migration. Racist claims by mainstream politicians filled the airways and were rarely challenged by journalists. In terms of what is seen as "acceptable" in terms of racism, it feels like Britain in 1966--not 50 years later. Migrants--not right-wing governments in Britain--were painted as the cause of all ills; from unemployment, low wages to decaying public services. The old tactic of divide and rule was employed extremely effectively.

One week before the referendum, the toxic nature of this debate was made clear when Labour MP Jo Cox, a prominent supporter of "Remain" and a passionate campaigner for the rights of refugees, was gunned down in her Yorkshire constituency. Her murderer is a man with a long involvement in far right organizations who shouted "Put Britain first" as he brutally attacked her. Not only is this the name of a far-right organization, but it was one of the slogans of the Leave campaign.

And while the right focused on and used the question of migration to whip up prejudice, they had other angles to their populism, too. A lot was made of the amount that Britain pays into the European Union budget--with false figures and partial information flying around. One particularly cynical use of this was the claim that the £350 million a week that Britain supposedly spends on the EU could be spent instead on the National Health Service. This is from people who have pushed the privatization and starving of funds of that vital service. Donald Trump's style and approach is not a million miles from that of these people.

And of course, the right in the Labour Party are now using this as yet another opportunity to go for Jeremy Corbyn--this time tabling a vote of no confidence. It's not at all clear how far this will get as other prominent right wingers aren't convinced this is the right time to move, since Corbyn remains as popular as ever in the Labour Party as a whole.

Corbyn was not the reason that 38 percent of Labour voters plumped for leave. As Socialist Resistance argued in a statement: "Jeremy Corbyn played a principled role during the referendum campaign--calling for a vote to stay in, but with no illusions in the EU or its institutions. His interview on Sky TV News in the final week, for example, was filled with opposition to xenophobia, privatization and austerity in front of a predominantly young and engaging audience." Rather, it was the years of neglect under New Labour in particular, compounded by the attacks of the Tories subsequently.

Many of us who campaigned for a remain vote in this referendum did so not because we have any illusions in the EU or its institutions--we were always clear it's a bosses club. After all, having David Cameron and former right-wing Labour leader Tony Blair both arguing for remain was hardly a recommendation for taking that view either. But as the Socialist Resistance statement on the result says: "An exit from the EU at this time and in this way will push the political situation in Britain sharply to the right and weaken the struggle against austerity. It will also be a disaster for every migrant, refugee and minority in the country."

Many of us who worked for remain believed and continue to believe it was a tactical decision--a question of how best to support the struggles of working people in Britain and internationally--which includes, of course, migrants. We were and remain concerned about the impact of a leave vote on the thousands of citizens of other European countries living in Britain, who are undoubtedly worried about their fate now (most EU citizens in Britain did not have a vote unless they are citizens of Commonwealth countries--i.e., Cyprus, Malta and Ireland). And the fact that we already hear of posters appearing in Cambridgeshire telling Polish workers to go home is proof that we were tragically right.

The racism that has been pumped out during the months of campaigning will have a long-term effect as well on all migrants wherever they are from. Some in the mainstream leave campaign courted people from former British colonies in Asia by cynically--if correctly--talking about how Fortress Europe discriminates against them. The clear implication was that if Britain were to leave the EU, we could let in more migrants from elsewhere. But what is planned is higher border fences, literal and virtual--as well as more scapegoating of people whose families have lived in Britain for generations.

As the Left Unity statement on the outcome says:

We call on all those who reject this disastrous turn in British politics to unite to oppose racism, to defend the rights of migrants, and to fight to protect and extend workers' and other rights that are now under threat. We reject the "divide and rule" methods of our ruling class, setting one worker against another, wherever they come from, and turning one community against another. The problems we face result from the neoliberal, deregulatory, anti-working class policies imposed by successive British governments, not from immigrants and refugees--our fellow working people. We have been proud to share this position with the Labour leadership, the TUC and the overwhelming majority of trade unions, and we will work together to take these principles forward.

Further it will be crucial for the left in Britain, often semi-detached from political developments elsewhere in the continent to redouble its efforts to strengthen its links in solidarity across the continent. In the very immediate future I am certainly looking to the elections in the Spanish State to show that united we stand.

First published at International Viewpoint.

Tom Bramble

A POLITICAL earthquake has just shaken British and European politics. On a turnout of just shy of three-quarters of the electorate, 52 percent, or more than 17 million voters, have backed Leave in the British referendum on membership of the European Union. In doing so, they outpolled a Remain campaign that was backed by the entire financial and political establishment.

The vast majority of establishment opinion makers in the world of business and politics have declared the result a complete disaster. It wasn't supposed to be like this, they wailed. The drift in the polls back towards Remain in the days leading up to the vote had given them confidence that the threat of Brexit had been seen off. But within just a few hours on the night of June 23, their hopes had turned to ashes.

Even before the result was confirmed, the financial markets reacted. Sterling, which had been bid up in the run-up to the referendum, collapsed, falling to its lowest level against the U.S. dollar since 1985. Shares on the London stock exchange dropped sharply, with the banks leading the way. Investors are threatening to pull their money out of the UK, and doubts are now widespread concerning the future of the City of London in world financial and currency markets. The credit ratings agencies have threatened to downgrade Britain's AAA rating.

Contagion to other countries has spread rapidly. The euro suffered its worst day ever against the U.S. dollar. The price of gold hit a two-year high while oil fell by 6 percent. Any companies with extensive investments in the UK were burned, with Tata Steel and Tata Motors of India both seeing their shares hit hard.

"A vote that changed everything"

The political consequences of the vote for Brexit are enormous. Financial Times writer Philip Stephens described the implications for the British ruling class as follows: "This was a vote that changed everything. Economic and foreign policies crafted over nearly half a century overturned in the course of a single night. A political establishment shattered by an insurgency against the elites. The nations of the United Kingdom divided; and England split between its metropolitan cities and post-industrial provinces. A vote against globalization. A decision that weakens Europe and the West. Political earthquake is an understatement."

The referendum result will have its most shattering impact on the ruling Conservative party, the party that has been the first choice of the ruling class for overseeing British capitalism since the 19th century. Prime Minister David Cameron has gone, and it is likely his Chancellor George Osborne will not be far behind. The pair will go down in history as bearing responsibility for one of the biggest self-administered defeats to the party in a century or more.

But their departure does not resolve tensions in the party--far from it. The party is split down the middle over the EU. If Cameron is replaced by another Remain supporter, Tory Leave supporters will try to push them out; if leading Leave supporter Boris Johnson takes over, he will be white-anted from the start as he is loathed by many in the party. The process of withdrawal from the EU will take up to two years, and the crisis in the Tory party will accordingly be protracted and very bloody.

Before the referendum took place, journalists expressed concern that the outcome might be the disintegration of not one but two unions, not just the union with Europe but that of the United Kingdom itself, which dates back to the 1707 Act of Union bringing England and Scotland together. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, which runs the devolved Scottish assembly, is demanding that a second referendum on Scottish independence now be run rather than see the country forced out of the European Union--Scottish people voted 62 percent in favor of Remain. In the current circumstances, it is difficult to see a vote for independence failing a second time around. Scottish independence will be a serious blow to the project of British ruling class as it will remove a major economic and political power base for British imperialism in its dealings with the wider world. Richard Haass, diplomat and president of the U.S. foreign policy think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, described the referendum result as "the beginning of the end of the UK."

Not just Scotland, but Northern Ireland, too. This statelet, the product of the sectarian partition of Ireland by Britain in 1921, also voted Remain. Moves since the 1990s to more fully integrate the economies of North and South of Ireland under the aegis of Tony Blair's "peace process" and lubricated by EU funds will now be thrown into jeopardy as borders are once again thrown up between the two. Sinn Fein has already stated that as a result of the referendum "the British government has forfeited any mandate to represent the economic and political interests of people in Northern Ireland" and is calling for a "border poll" to maintain an open border with the South. Such an outcome would lead in fairly short order either to reintegration of the rest of Britain into the EU in deed, if not in law, as people, money and goods pass unhindered from the South to the North and thence to England and Wales, or the collapse of British authority in the North.

The Tory Party, which has been identified since its foundation with maintaining the power of the British state machine, could end up overseeing its fragmentation and enfeeblement.

Blow to world capitalism

This was a defeat not just for the British establishment but also for the ruling classes in Paris, Berlin and Rome, and Washington, Canberra and Tokyo, too. The European Union has been the means by which these elites have structured economic relations within Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world. It is a lynchpin of the neoliberal world economic order and also of Western imperialism. For this reason it has been encouraged from the outset by the United States. The European Union, with its unelected Central Bank and European Commission, has been one of the most important institutions enforcing austerity on the working class of Europe since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008.

Britain's vote to Leave threatens to upend all this, and could be the start of a broader unraveling of the EU. Fears of such an outcome explain why a senior German politician in Angela Merkel's CDU, Norbert Rottgen, described the referendum result as "the biggest catastrophe in the history of European integration," while the head of the German banking association said that it was "a black day for the UK and Europe." Germany's Bild newspaper led with "Europe's Black Day," while France's Le Figaro said that "This is the beginning of a real cataclysm." The European ruling classes are right to be worried. The dislocation caused by Britain's withdrawal from the EU will only add to existing fears of a return to recession across the Continent.

A vote against austerity

The vote for Leave has to be understood first and foremost as what Diane Abbott, a senior Labour Party MP, called "a roar of defiance against the Westminster elite." It was just the latest indicator of mass resentment by workers in the most depressed areas of England and Wales against the political establishment which has for four decades screwed them ruthlessly.

Whether it's workers, pensioners and the unemployed in the valleys of South Wales or in Yorkshire mining towns like Barnsley and Doncaster, where the coal industry has been shut down, taking tens of thousands of jobs, or those in the depressed regions of the North East of England--Sunderland, Redcar, Middlesbrough--where heavy industry has been shattered and whole communities thrown onto the scrap heap, the referendum was an opportunity to take revenge on the politicians who have treated them so ill. The same, too, in the Midlands, with cities like Birmingham and Coventry, historically the centers of British engineering, now hard hit by massive factory closures and rationalization.

Even in towns that voted Remain, the class dimension was obvious. In Oxford, Glasgow and Lancaster, just to take three examples, the more prosperous areas dominated by the universities voted Remain, the more blue-collar areas Leave. In London, the pattern was more mixed, with poor boroughs Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Haringey voting Remain, along with relatively prosperous areas like Hammersmith and Fulham and the City of London, but other poorer areas like Barking and Dagenham in the city's East voting Leave.

The importance of working-class immiseration in explaining support for Leave is borne out even in the opinion polls, which are a highly inadequate way of understanding class sentiment. YouGov recorded 60 percent support for Remain among what social scientists call ABC1 voters (capitalists, middle class and some sections of the working class) and 60 percent support for Leave among C2DE, broadly speaking the blue- and white-collar working class.

The fact that the referendum was used by workers as a means to express anger at decades of neglect was also recognized by supporters of Remain. Julie Elliott, one of Sunderland's Labour MPs said, "Some people are feeling really vulnerable at the moment and the north east is being really hard hit by the cuts--massive, massive cuts to the local authorities, health services and people are feeling very, very vulnerable." Over in Wales, Leanne Wood, the leader of the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru, which also supported Remain, said: "I'm of the view that it's austerity that is at the root of the problem here. People want change, and they've seen this as an opportunity to get the change they want."

This was not just a crisis for the Tories, however, but the entire political establishment which, with the exception of the Tory Brexit supporters, all supported Remain. All are discredited by the result.

Dealing with racism

Supporters of Remain on the left have argued that the poll was a referendum on immigration, and that the only decent thing for any anti-racist to do was vote Remain. Singer Billy Bragg for example tweeted that "Not every Leave voter is a racist, but every racist will vote Leave."

Some of this is pure bullshit. Fortress Europe is responsible for the drowning of thousands of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean in the last 12 months alone. And the area with the strongest Remain vote was Gibraltar, hardly renowned as a bastion of liberal anti-racism!

Sheeting the Leave vote to racism can also be challenged when looking at strong votes for Leave in areas like Newham in London's east, one of the most multicultural boroughs, where racists have been repeatedly rebuffed in their attempts to get a foothold over many years. Likewise in Leicester, a city with a very diverse population and a former center of textiles and clothing manufacturing which recorded a strong Leave vote.

But, putting aside the hypocrisy of some of those in the Remain campaign, it is true that many Leave voters were motivated at least in part by opposition to immigration. Polling shortly before the referendum showed that "immigration" was the number one concern of those intending to vote Leave. These voters falsely sheet home at least some of the responsibility for problems such as lack of jobs, long queues for public housing and overcrowded public transport to immigrants.

And certainly the result has been grist to the mill of the racists like UKIP's Nigel Farage and the Tory Leave campaigners who are only too happy to create a spurious linkage between hardship and immigrants in the minds of workers. Racist agitators like Farage are emboldened by the referendum result, as are Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, racist Eurosceptic politicians, who cheered the Leave result and called for referendums in France and Holland.

The fact that racists have been able to fish in the pools of working class misery and turn the entirely legitimate anger of many workers regarding their situation towards scapegoating immigrants is something that must be fought tooth and nail.

The crucial question now is what will happen to the millions of traditional Labour voters in South Wales, the East Midlands, the North East and elsewhere who defied the leadership of the party and trade unions to vote Leave.

Will they go to the racists of UKIP--the only political party that they agreed with on this issue? Or will they stay on the left, with the institutions of the workers' movement?

A lot of that will depend on what Labour, the left outside the Labour party and the unions do in the aftermath of this vote. If they bemoan the result and dismiss the anger that led to it, writing it off purely as a racist outburst, they will allow the far right to present itself as the political leadership of the British working class.

If they chase UKIP and further mimic its racist anti-migrant posturing, they will do nothing except promote their rival and make themselves irrelevant.

But if they challenge the racism, while embracing the anger that made this vote possible, then they could transform the political struggles in Britain. What has started as a crisis for the ruling class could become a real opportunity to roll back the four decade long offensive against the working class. Workers in Britain could then take their place alongside those in France now engaged in a vital struggle with their own government and bosses to resist the imposition of the kind of Thatcherite agenda that has been imposed on British workers for far too long.

First published at Red Flag.

Further Reading

From the archives