Why leave? - News analysis

A protest against parties and price of globalisation

Established political parties in Britain failed to address the rising discontent among those who are feeling left behind

When British Prime Minister David Cameron first came up with the idea of holding a referendum on his country's membership in the European Union, he argued the vote would settle, "for at least a generation", a debate that had overshadowed British political life for decades, and would stop his government colleagues from "banging on" about Europe, as he put it at that time.

What he got instead is Britain's departure from the EU, a much bigger debate about Europe which is guaranteed to rumble on for years, and the destruction of his political career. A more comprehensive own-goal can hardly be imagined. And all because neither the Prime Minister nor many of Britain's other politicians ever understood the sheer scale of the popular rebellion facing them.

The opinion pollsters who followed the 10-week referendum campaign predicted for some time that the outcome would be close, with the Brexiters, as those advocating Britain's departure from the EU are known, almost evenly matched with EU supporters. However, what the pollsters failed to predict is how powerful was the loathing for the EU among certain segments of the electorate, and the determination of Brexiters to be heard.

The outcome is a fundamental split. In some parts of London such as the leafy northern suburb of Islington or the super-expensive area of Kensington and Chelsea, over two-thirds of the electorate voted for Britain to stay in the EU. But most of England's countryside voted "no", and in some industrial parts of north England, rejection of the EU surpassed 70 per cent.

Furthermore, the four component members of the United Kingdom also split on this topic. England and Wales rejected the EU, while Scotland and Northern Ireland expressed their overall support for Britain's continued EU membership.


While life in the EU was good for Britain's upwardly mobile urbanites, the story was different for working-class households and particularly for single, working-class, white young males with lower education levels. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

An even more significant factor was the turnout. In urban areas such as Lambeth in south London where an astonishing 79 per cent of the ballots were in favour of the EU, turnout was a respectable but unremarkable 67 per cent of those entitled to vote. But in northern areas of England, where hostility to the EU was intense, turnout was as high as 75 to 80 per cent of the electorate.

In British parliamentary elections, high turnouts don't matter since MPs fight in constituencies. It makes no difference if an MP is elected by a majority of one vote or a majority of 10,000. But in a referendum where the votes are counted nationally rather than by constituencies, each vote cast counts towards the final result. The Brexiters were simply better at galvanising their voters, and in getting them out to vote in larger numbers.

That is because the referendum was not only about Europe. It was, in effect, a typical British revolution: one without violence or bloodshed, but still inspired by a deep sense of frustration and executed with swift brutality.

Those who voted against the EU were largely white working-class voters, people for whom the European Union is regarded, not as an opportunity, but as a threat; workers who saw their jobs taken away by the hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central and Eastern Europe who poured into Britain over the past few years.

For employers and businessmen throughout Britain, this influx of relatively well-educated and highly motivated European workers was a huge advantage. They also made life easier for anyone living in Britain's big cities, since EU migrants depressed wages and generated new opportunities in service industries. It is always nicer to be served in a restaurant by a fresh-faced, smiling waiter from Poland than a surly English worker.

CLASS DIVIDE But while life inside the EU was good for Britain's upwardly mobile urban families, the story was different for working-class households and particularly for single, working-class, white young males with lower education levels.

 

  • WHAT FUELLED BREXIT

    Fear and frustration over immigration

    Brexiters worry about how uncontrolled immigration from the EU is changing their country's character and putting pressure on its health and other social services.

    Fury of the poor white working class

    They resent foreigners competing for low-end jobs and forcing wages down.

    Resentment of London

    Voters in the north-east and Midlands resent being "preached at" by the well-off establishment in London about the potential wider economic downsides from Brexit when they have not benefited from the wealth created and centred in the capital.

    Resentment of Eurocrats

    Brexiters' cry of "taking back our country" resonated with voters who believe the UK can do better without EU red tape and contributions to its budget.

In older days, such people could still hope to gain employment in the unskilled labour market. Today, however, Britain's unemployed are often unemployable as well, replaced by EU workers willing to take up any job and happy to get low pay. What in Britain is just a minimum wage is still a small fortune in, say, Romania.

For Britain's marginalised communities, warnings from Mr Cameron that departure would reduce investment, depress the value of the pound or reduce Britain's influence on the world stage were simply irrelevant. What such unemployed workers want is a stop to the ready supply of European labour and a recovery of their sense of identity; reassurance that Britain is still their country.

It was always pointless for British politicians to avoid discussing the question of immigration during the referendum campaign, since for most voters, the EU was all about unrestricted migration.

The referendum was also a revolution against Britain's established parties, none of which proved able to address the growing sense of resentment in rural communities or decaying post- industrial towns. The vote was also a rebellion against globalisation, a reminder that while the forces of global markets have created winners, they have also created many losers. The losers have votes, too, and are ready to use them.

Although Mr Cameron had to resign after losing his referendum gamble, it is not his ruling Conservative Party, but the opposition Labour, that has most to fear from this political uprising. Most of the Brexit votes came from areas that are rock-solid Labour parliamentary constituencies, from people who now feel Labour is no longer their standard bearer.

And Labour will find it difficult to regain these marginalised voters' trust, for there is another political movement competing for their loyalty.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) was created to fight for Britain's withdrawal from the EU. With that achieved, UKIP could morph into a broader social justice movement, one based on largely English nationalism, one objecting to globalisation and immigration.

So, what began as just an anti-EU vote in Britain this week could well turn into a broader realignment of British politics, and a popular revolt in other EU countries exposed to similar problems.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2016, with the headline 'A protest against parties and price of globalisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe