I’ve been watching the Brexit debate with quite a bit of uneasiness, but also a quiet confidence that the Remain camp would ultimately win the day. Because there’s no way the people of the UK could be that ridiculous, despite all evidence to the contrary.
As I went to bed last night the initial polls were putting Remain at a small majority and Nigel Farage, leader of the odious UKIP party, had all but admitted defeat, further bolstering my confidence. So I was shocked to wake up to a text from a friend announcing the bad news: the vote swung the other way. The UK has voted to leave the EU.
Maybe you don’t quite understand why this is such a big deal. I’m not an expert by any means, but here’s my take on the possible repercussions of the vote.
The most pressing issue is the economy– there’s been a cavalcade of experts warning that the UK cutting itself off from the EU trade zone is going to be disastrous. Attempts by Brexit supporters at refuting this have mostly resembled Donald Trump-style chest-beating and empty belligerence.
It could also be bad for the economy of its neighbours, and since I happen to live in one of those neighbours this is an issue of personal concern. Ireland, like many European countries, has only just begun to recover from the 2008 recession; we didn’t need an upset like this. The possibility has been raised of international companies pulling out of Britain and relocating here, which could be an unexpected boon; but if it comes at the expense of Europe as a whole it will feel like a Pyrrhic victory.
Things get decidedly more grim when you start to ask why people in the UK would risk this level of turmoil. What was at stake here? What were they fighting for?
Some shops in my town sell an English newspaper called the Daily Express, which as far as I can tell is right-wing propaganda for people who think the Daily Mail is too restrained. On any given day there’s a greater than 50% chance that its front-page headline will be railing against some inconsequential-sounding EU policy on tractor maintenance or wool import tariffs or something (I assume the people who write these headlines are currently experiencing a string of uninterrupted orgasms as we speak). I seriously doubt that the people behind the newspaper are actually as incensed over these things as they claim, and I doubt even further that their readers are. The actual motivation is a raging nationalism that can’t tolerate the idea of Britain taking orders on any level from a foreign power. They used to have an empire! They used to be the foreign power, taming the uppity natives and bringing the joys of cricket to brown people all over the world! Remember that? Remember the good old days?
That exact same attitude locked Europe into a state of continuous warfare for centuries. The EU and its predecessors have been a stabilizing force on the continent. I’m not saying the UK is going to leave and then decide to declare war on France, but with tensions between Russia and the rest of the world building we could benefit from any political influence that’s going to promote stability and unity.
But it gets worse when you dig into the other forces that promoted and supported the Brexit effort. Hatred and fear of immigrants. Racism. Xenophobia. The far-right is on the rise in Europe again, egged on by the emerging international “alt-right”, and today it saw its first victory. The people of the UK have sent a message that they can and will be swayed by fear-mongering rhetoric to vote in lockstep with fascists. Much has been (understandably) made about the frightening surge in American extremism in the wake of Donald Trump, but I think people ignore the similar mindset that’s been bubbling below the surface across the Atlantic. An isolated UK could become a kind of petri dish for the new European fascism.
A dubious consolation is the fact that the UK might not be the UK for much longer. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, and faced with the prospect of being dragged out of it by England and Wales, could successfully make a bid for independence. The failed referendum a few years ago was seen by many as a temporary set-back on its inevitable path to leaving the UK, and this could be the catalyst that pushes Scottish voters over the edge.
More surprising is that Northern Ireland also voted to remain, and is now facing a similar situation of being tied into a course a majority of its citizens don’t want to follow. Could this lead to a vote over a united Ireland? Probably not by itself, and probably not in the near future, but the possibility now seems more plausible than it did 24 hours ago. And to put it delicately, the question of Northern Ireland’s political affiliation isn’t one that’s tended to be debated peacefully. Just putting the possibility on the table could see the resurgence of the dormant republican movement that gave birth to the IRA and its successors; if the referendum actually passed, trouble could come from their unionist equivalents in the North. Either way, an uncertain future for the integrity of the UK risks waking a giant that was only put to sleep in the very recent past.
My only hope in all of this is that the negative consequences of the Leave vote will hit hard and fast, and the people who pushed this referendum will lose their public support as a result. But with exit negotiations expected to last two years at least, there’s plenty of time for the British right-wing to spin the situation to their advantage and come up with a convincing cover story.
If you think I’m over-reacting by invoking fascists and neo-nazis, think of it this way: for decades those groups have used the EU as a scapegoat to explain why Britain was unable to return to the perceived greatness of the good old days of Empire and white domination. When Britain leaves and that greatness still doesn’t return– when the economy is falling and the United Kingdom is breaking apart– they’re going to need a new scapegoat. Who do you think they’ll choose? The liberal politicians at home will be first. Then, when they’re voted out of office and time still hasn’t rewound to the glory days, others will take their place. Immigrants. Muslims. Those Other People. Tell me that doesn’t sound plausible.
So pat yourselves on the back, Great British public. You’ve voted to put your economy and the political stability of your centuries-old country in jeopardy at the behest of right-wing extremists who lied to you through their teeth, but you sure showed those bastards in Brussels what’s what!