William Goldman’s famous quote about Hollywood—“Nobody knows anything”—could also apply to the prolonged, painful extraction of the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU), aka Brexit. The truth is, no-one knows the truth. Will it actually happen, or will there be another snap election where Labour includes the promise of a second referendum on EU membership? Will Europe (or, more specifically, France and Germany) “punish” the UK, or will they realise that to do so would be self-defeating? Will Brexit push up the price of food and drink, as claimed by Remain, those on the side of the UK staying in the EU, or bring them down? Can the UK survive as a single entity, or will Scotland and Northern Ireland pull away in a frantic (and probably hopeless) bid to stay within the common market?
Though making predictions is rash, a second EU referendum seems unlikely. Of the major political parties, only the Libdems have openly called for it. Even Labour, most of whose MPs are firm Remainers, probably wouldn’t dare to run the risk of being labelled anti-democratic by the pro-Leave mainstream press. As GIDSS reported recently, Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is in the bizarre position of being anti-EU, while leading a parliamentary party who are mostly pro-Remain, yet whose own constituents mostly voted Leave. Corbyn has been openly hostile towards moderate MPs within the party, yet cannot openly admit his true feelings about the EU because—well, who knows?
The Brexit vote has been crudely represented as Left/Remain v. Right/Leave; however, the debate has simply demonstrated that “Left” and “Right” are the terminology of the past and should be consigned to history. Many of Corbyn’s most fervent supporters—the leaders of the still-powerful unions—represent workers who have been failed badly by globalisation; many regard free movement (aka cheap labour) as a threat to their livelihood. Those at the bottom of the heap are the ones most affected by migration, which, for all its benefits, has placed a huge strain on housing, the NHS and transport, as well as jobs.
A few days after the Brexit result, there was a huge march in central London attended by pro-Remain protesters, almost all of whom would describe themselves as being “Left wing”, or at least progressive (itself a seemingly innocuous yet rather unpleasant term—implying that only “The Left” believe in progress). Interestingly, these pro-migration, and mostly middle class, demonstrators were also marching on the side of big business—which wants the UK to stay in the EU in order to enjoy its many benefits.
Meanwhile, the Leave camp, though spear-headed by hard Right ideologues within the Conservative Party (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove) and Ukip (Nigel Farage), also contained a number of politicians who would still consider themselves “Left wing”—notably the controversial former Labour Party MP, “Gorgeous” George Galloway. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn’s own spiritual mentors, Labour elder statesmen, Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were vehemently anti-EU and vowed to take back power from Brussels—sound familiar?
There are a number of other inconvenient truths, when it comes to the EU “Project”. Although, in general, the northern industrial nations have benefitted splendidly, the countries of southern Europe—Portugal, Italy, and in particular Greece—have lurched from crisis to crisis since joining the Eurozone, and youth unemployment in some regions runs at fifty per cent and higher. In Calabria, the pro-EU Guardian reported last year, it runs at 65%.
It should also be admitted by Remainers (declaration of interest: I voted Remain) that the EU hasn’t been robust enough to safeguard its members from global economic crises, most notably in 2007-8. In the UK, there were also severe recessions in the early 1990s and a decade earlier. Remainers get very cross when you bring up these awkward truths, as I discovered when I was invited to speak on BBC Radio 4 about why I would now vote to leave if there was another referendum. “Friends” defriended me, or denounced me as an apologist for xenophobes; yet all I really said was that the people have spoken, and now we should get on with it. After all, if there WAS another referendum and the country voted Remain—by no means a given—do we really believe Leavers would accept the result? Where would it end?
Brexit has been incredibly divisive in the UK. Families have fallen out, marriages have broken down, and both sides have hurled abuse—and un-truths—at their opponents. Claims by the Leave campaign, that leaving the EU would mean an extra £350 million per week for the NHS, were roundly—and rightly—condemned, as were posters portraying migrant “hordes” from the developing world along with the slogan “breaking point”, which had sinister echoes of the 1930s.
However, it should also be pointed out that the Remain side’s campaign—aka “Project Fear”—was also characterised by misleading stats and apocalyptic predictions, as well as the occasional brazen untruth. For instance, in May 2016, then-PM, David Cameron (who would be sunk by the vote he was pressed into calling), denied there were plans to allow Turkey to become full EU members. Yet, just 18 months earlier, in December 2014, he had said:
“In terms of Turkish membership of the EU, I very much support that. That’s a longstanding position of British foreign policy which I support.”
The Turkish question matters because it goes to the heart of fears in the West about where the EU might end up, and probably swayed millions into voting to Leave. For many ordinary people—not only in the UK but across Europe—there has been increasing unease about mass migration, which increased exponentially as a result of the war in Syria and a rise in trafficking from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean, often organised by Isis and other criminals. This coincided with a number of high-profile terror attacks, most notably in France but also in the UK, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, mostly (though not always) inspired by Islamism. For many in the UK and elsewhere, the prospect of Turkey—sharing borders with Syria and Iraq—becoming full EU members, and potentially enabling the free movement of its mostly poor, Muslim population, was frightening. Yet, senior Labour figures like Corbyn’s former lover, Diane Abbott, dismissed such fears as pure racism.
The vote wasn’t all about migration, though. It was also partly a hankering for a past, real or imagined, when Britain (as opposed to the UK, which includes Troublesome Northern Ireland) made its own laws, went its own way, and ruled the waves (or, if you prefer, waived the rules). This belief may be almost wholly illusory, but remains seductive for older voters in particular, a great number of whom voted for Brexit. This led to appallingly vicious attacks on so-called Baby Boomers—there were claims that over sixties shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and stats about how many, who’d voted Leave, were now deceased circulated on social media, aided and abetted by literary luvvies like Ian McEwan. Such unseemly behaviour did the Remain side little credit—and in the interests of fairness, it should be mentioned that between 30 and 64 per cent of younger voters didn’t bother to cast a vote on 23rd June 2016.
As Prime Minister, Theresa Maydashes to Brussels for crisis talks, facing increasing calls to quit as the divorce bill spirals, it should be added that the ruling Conservative Party are, if anything, in even more of a spin about Brexit than their Labour opponents. But that’s another story—and one I’ll discuss in a future essay. With Brexit, there is only one certainty: this one will run and run.