Brexit due to class divide, not xenophobia

Referendum vote a rejection of status quo. Now, the hard work of finding a way forward.

A fortnight ago, the British people voted to leave the European Union. They did so against the advice of the leaders of all the major British political parties, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as an international array of major businessmen, scientists and cultural figures.

The electorate were told if they voted to leave the EU that terrorism would increase, pensions and public services would have to be cut and that a third world war would be more likely. Despite these apocalyptic warnings, 52 per cent of the British electorate decided to vote for "Brexit". 

The vote has brought a longstanding political, economic and social crisis to a head. It was an act of popular rebellion against the establishment - with "Outers" tending to be less educated, older and poorer, and more likely to be from the provinces than those who voted to remain. The Financial Times dubbed it "a pitchfork moment". Elsewhere it's been described as "an extraordinary act of national self-harm". In the immediate aftermath, the value of the pound dropped.

Many of my Singaporean friends, associates and colleagues have asked me to explain how this could be: Their default assumption is that this is a Trump moment and an indication that Britain has become rather xenophobic, perhaps even racist. This is the wrong inference but there are at least two very good reasons for making it.  

First, the very fact that Outers are, generally speaking, less educated, older and poorer and more likely to be from the provinces means that the actual people who voted for Brexit are precisely not the people who get invited to explain their reasons, especially to an international audience. Instead, angry "Remainers" have painted their opponents as - at best - globalisation's losers and - at worst - xenophobes and racists. So much for history being written by the victors.

"Leave" supporters in Clacton-on-Sea, an almost abandoned resort in south-east England, last month, ahead of the British vote on the EU. The simplest way to understand Brexit is in the context of the long fallout from the great financial crash. The poorer the area, the more likely it was to vote out; the less you have, the less you have to lose. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The other reason my colleagues are worried is that in the mind of much of the international media, Brexit was authored by Mr Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (Ukip). Mr Farage was the only leader of a political party who associated himself with Brexit. But simple mathematics explains this cannot be the whole story. Seventeen million people voted for Brexit in the referendum, while at the general election in May last year, Mr Farage did not even win the parliamentary seat he was contesting. Ukip is a minor party that attracts major amounts of media coverage because of the provocative rhetoric it employs; it is at least 13 million voters short of being able to carry a national referendum.

Moreover, cities demographically hostile to Ukip - cities like Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester, some of the most racially and religiously diverse places in Britain - voted to leave the EU. There is simply no way these university cities were persuaded to leave the EU on a slate of populist xenophobia, let alone racism. In Barking and Dagenham, East London, where less than half of the population identify as white British, 62 per cent voted to leave.

The simplest way to understand Brexit is in the context of the long fallout from the great financial crash. The poorer the area, the more likely it was to vote out; the less you have, the less you have to lose. However, it's more complicated than that because in some areas, regional affiliation trumped class interest - most strikingly in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to "Remain". Also, because Brexit was a protest vote, it did not speak with one coordinated voice or share a philosophy. Still, there are at least several loose groupings that have tried to articulate a rationale for Brexit and none of these is racist or xenophobic.

First, there are doctrinaire economic liberals. A key figure here has been Mr Boris Johnson - a Conservative who boasts about his Turkish heritage and was twice elected mayor of London. Mr Johnson is neither a xenophobe nor a racist. These people want to leave the EU because they think it's not international enough. They dislike the EU because they think it inhibits global trade. Billionaire Peter Hargreaves, for example, thinks Brexit will push Britain to emulate Singapore. "It was a mosquito-infested swamp with no natural resources," he said. "All they had were people with brains and hands and they turned it into the greatest economy in the world. I believe that will happen to us, too."

Second, there are internationalist campaigners of the left such as Mr Tariq Ali, Ms Jenny Jones and Ms Lindsey German. While people under 30 in Britain tend to see the EU as a marker of cosmopolitan internationalism, this older generation shaped by 1968 see the EU as propagators of a false, almost parochial kind of internationalism. The fact that the Eurogroup is led by Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, an appointee previously of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, is taken by them as indicative that the EU is less a modernising force than one dominated by economic and social privilege. They hold the EU responsible for all but deposing elected governments in Italy (right-wing) and Greece (left-wing). They see the deal the EU brokered to settle Syrian refugees in Turkey as proof of the EU's deep-rooted protectionism and xenophobia.

Third, there are trade unionists. Figures like Mr Mick Cash of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, for example, blame the EU's enforcement of regulations on freedom of movement and freedom of capital for pushing down wages and undermining full-time, secure employment. Since the great financial crisis, mass youth unemployment - as high as 60 per cent in parts of the euro zone - has prompted hundreds of thousands of people to leave countries on the periphery of Europe. Trade unionists blame EU policies for exacerbating this. They oppose the EU because they see it as focused on the international operation of markets, rather than on the international impact of the operation of those markets.

What all these groups share are concerns about freedom, about prosperity, and about accountability. It's certainly true that national cohesion played a part in knitting some of these concerns together, but it's clear that social and economic grievances were fundamental, not a programmatic dislike of immigrants. This is why many Conservative, Labour and Green voters joined with the infinitely smaller total number of Ukip voters. The world may be more global than ever, but the vast majority of people experience the world locally. In EU terms, the problems caused by the tragic rapid mass migration from places such as Ireland, Portugal and Greece caused by the crash become issues of rapid mass immigration in Britain. The EU's disgracefully inept response to the financial crisis has unleashed social and political chaos across the continent, spreading mass unemployment, deflation and even fascism. It's not an exaggeration to say that the unpleasant Mr Farage - a populist happy to flirt with xenophobia, but whose wife is European - would be much closer to the centre right than the far fringes on much of the mainland. Against this backdrop, the British people's refusal to endorse the EU's authority was not irrational. As one giant hoarding near me in London had it: Yes to Europe, No to EU.

In truth, we will not know exactly what Brexit means until a new government is formed that is invested in shaping a post-EU future. Because not many more than a handful of current MPs actually want to leave the EU, this may take a while. Indeed it is still conceivable that it will not happen at all and a mechanism will be found to subvert or undermine the demos.

For now, the biggest problem in understanding this referendum, any referendum, is its binary character. While people in my hometown voted overwhelmingly to leave, nearly all my professional friends voted to remain, but they all did so with caveats because the EU is in serious need of reform. These nuances get lost in a referendum but they exist nonetheless. For the moment, there is only yes or no.

The referendum was a staggeringly potent rejection of the status quo, not a programme for what the country wants to become. That battle is still to be fought.

•The writer is an assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University. He was formerly a strategic communications officer at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the United Kingdom.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2016, with the headline 'Brexit due to class divide, not xenophobia'. Print Edition | Subscribe