In a historic move, the United Kingdom just voted to leave the European Union. Why did this happen and what does it all mean?
Right up to the day of voting, it looked like the votes to remain in the EU would win out. Instead, the UK voted to exit the EU by a comfortable margin of 52-48.
Certain consequences are unfolding quickly. Prime Minister David Cameron has already promised to leave office by October. Global markets are in turmoil, not necessarily because anything calamitous happened, but because markets despise uncertainty and unexpected changes. EU leaders are demanding swift exit negotiations, no doubt to send a message to other countries that may consider a similar course. This vote may very well signal the death of the United Kingdom as a political entity, as well. Scotland will likely vote to leave in order to rejoin the EU. In an even bolder move, Northern Ireland may vote to reunify with the Republic of Ireland. This would leave a UK consisting only of England, Wales, and minor overseas possessions. Suffice it to say, the fate of the UK may well be unraveling here.
So, who voted to leave? The information available is telling:
- People who feared immigration, yet have few immigrants around them, voted to leave.
- Record working class turnout pushed the leave vote over the top.
- Voters with less than a university education voted to leave.
- Leave votes broke down along age lines, as well: the older the voter, the more likely they voted leave.
- Wales and Northern England made the key votes to leave; almost everywhere else voted to stay.
I will not argue that there are no good reasons for a country to take back its full sovereignty from a supranational union. But the way this campaign unfolded is a disgrace. On the one hand, the argument to leave was based mainly on senseless fears of immigration and Brussels boogeymen, rather than a careful analysis of the pros and cons of both options. On the other hand, proponents of remain failed to engage seriously with reasonable critiques of EU membership. Politicians who favored remaining in the EU seemed to take that outcome for granted–much to their present embarrassment.
It’s unclear what kind of deal the UK will get from the EU now. The rest of the Union has little incentive to treat the UK kindly–indeed, quite the opposite, since it must send a message that breaking from the Union will be painful and costly. Even so, a punitive approach potentially inflicts tremendous damage to the continental economy, as well. The UK and the rest of the EU have deep economic ties that cannot be severed overnight. London’s primacy as the enter of European finance is now in jeopardy, but that will not disappear quickly, either. It will likely erode over a period of years as capital flows to continental cities like Frankfurt and Paris.
Taking a look at the bigger picture, what has happened here is a massive failure of rationalism and intellectualism. It doesn’t matter if you’re right and it doesn’t matter if you have good policies if a large swath of the population aren’t seeing those benefits and thus don’t believe you. Faith in democratic institutions and neoliberal economics have both been undermined by growing economic inequality combined with unresponsive governments. One thing many Western countries have in common is the production of political elites via university systems and wealth networks. Specific communities and universities produce the bulk of political leadership and especially political philosophy. Over time, these institutions and individuals have become less and less able to relate to and thus address the concerns of people who are some combination of unskilled, low-kill, uneducated, working class, or poor. These demographics have seen their prospects stagnate or decline while the professional classes and educated elites do much better. It does little good to counter these complaints with charges of racism and xenophobia–even if those descriptions are accurate.
The recent rise of right-wing populism in the West is not a coincidence, and it’s not happening without a reason. Growing economic inequality at lower socioeconomic strata combined with uncertainty and fear over the changing global order have shaken the foundations of Western democracy and the political institutions that uphold it. The consequences of the financial crash of 2008 have lingered for a great many people who see little hope for the future. They aren’t wrong that they’ve gotten a wrong deal, but they are wrong that immigration is a major cause. Immigration is a scapegoat more than anything else. Trends such as globalization, deindustrialization, professionalization, and financialization have been great boons for the educated classes, but they’re a net detriment to those on the outside. It’s not realistic for everyone to receive a university education, either–there are simply too many jobs which must be filled yet do not require higher education to perform.
The elephant in the room is austerity. If not for the austerity responses to the crash, welfare systems could have been infused with enough resources to soften the blow rather than leave millions twisting in the wind. If government refuses to help people in time of need, it’s fair to ask just what that government is good for. Unfortunately, right-wing populists don’t offer real alternatives. Replacing an imperfect system with an incoherent mess is hardly an improvement. This is the ultimate downfall of these movements, as well. Whenever they gain power, they fail. This is evident in every state in the US where the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has obtained significant power. Countries which break away from the EU or the Eurozone on a similar basis are likely to share the same fate. What right-wing populists want, they simply cannot have. They imagine impossible fantasies.
The UK, for instance, cannot relive its economic heyday because that was based mostly on possessing a sprawling, global empire that functioned on oppression and brutality. Such behavior is obviously not tolerated today. And while the UK may consist (mainly) of an island, it cannot be an island, isolated from the rest of the world, producing everything on its own with only a modest flow of international imports to meet luxury demands. The UK is also going to face the same demographic crisis as the rest of the West, as declining birth rates lead to an aging population and eventually population decline. Immigration is the only mechanism that helps to counteract this.
It is as yet unclear what a Brexit means for the UK in the short term, though it doesn’t appear to be good news thus far. The long-term ramifications may be even more dire, if the UK seeks further economic and political isolation. Western societies are facing a major crossroads as the breakdown of the neoliberal consensus in favor of right-wing populism threatens to destroy decades of relative peace and prosperity. Those coming to power on platforms that are anti-establishment, anti-government, and anti-international threaten to produce a more unstable world, and are very unlikely to do much good for their own countries, either.
One can hope that this is a momentary spasm that will shake itself out in a few more years. Only time will tell. If it’s not, though, the very foundations of Western civilization may be at stake–and it won’t be because an “invasion” of immigrants or refugees came in and destroyed our way of life. The fatal wound will instead be self-inflected, a suicide by fear.
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