Understanding Brexit: A democratic revolt against a deaf and cocooned elite

5 July 2016
Internazionale Rome

The Leave vote on the 23 June referendum was essentially lashing out at 'the fat cats’ who have hijacked the British economy and at the main political parties' neglect of immigration issues, says columnist David Randall.

If you want to start to understand why Britain voted to leave the European Union, you could do worse than choose the time around 8,500 years ago when polar ice melted, sea levels rose, and the low-lying land that joined England to the continent sank under the sea. So began the arms-length relationship of Britons with Europe and evolution of the skeptical, at times hostile, psychology that goes with it. Looked at historically, then, the aberration in Britain’s interaction with the continent is not so much last week’s referendum result, but the 44 years of half-hearted European Union membership which it will bring to a close.

That view may seem like typical British aloofness, but separateness, a certain distance (reinforced by the intimidating moats that are the North Sea and English Channel) is central to English history – and the main reason, rather than military prowess, why we haven’t been invaded for 950 years. The mindset that has evolved behind the sea walls, coastal forts, and towering chalk cliffs is often awkward, sometimes truculent, a little cynical, and has a sense of irony that finds all-embracing ideologies or grandiose political projects difficult to take seriously.

That’s why even the most ardent EU enthusiast spoke only during the campaign of what leaving might mean for living standards, jobs, pensions, and house prices, and never once attempted to invoke – to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth – the ideal of a fully integrated single-state Europe.

Outside a few metropolitan circles (the BBC, Guardian newspaper etc), this Europhiles’ wet dream does not play well, and the mismatch between this vaunted vision (which many Britons suspect EU officials of edging inexorably towards) and the mere trade deal which Britain originally signed up for in 1972 was something which much exercised Leave voters. Many wanted Britain to take back control, and restore, if you like, the political North Sea that once separated us from Eurocrats and all their works.

But none of this would have come into play were it not for two things: Gordon Brown keeping Britain out of the Eurozone (a referendum impossible with a shared currency), and the internal travails of David Cameron’s Conservative Party. It had – has – a large Eurosceptic element, and, a year or so ago, was under increasing pressure from the success in opinion polls of the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

To try and kill these two worrisome birds with one stone, Cameron promised a referendum, and – amid fanfares of boastful trumpets – went off to negotiate a better EU deal for Britain. What he got was pitifully meagre, returning from Brussels like a man who said he would buy the family’s food for the week only to come back with just a bag of Fonzies. His claims of triumph were greeted with hollow laughter. Electorates don’t like being taken for mugs. Nor did they appreciate being told by him that, if they voted Leave, catastrophes up to and including increased risk of war would ensue.

Joining him in issuing warnings of economic pestilence and Biblical plagues of poverty were the banks and big business. This was not good tactics. Ever since the financial crisis that began in 2008, most people here (and elsewhere, I suspect) have itched to see bankers, financiers, and corporate big-wigs (grossly over-paid, protected from the consequences of their own incompetence, and beneficiaries of the migration-assisted low-wage economy) punished in some way. Normal elections, contested between two main parties disinclined to do anything as vulgar, denied people that opportunity. But here, in the referendum, was a chance to give the fat cats a kicking. And it was taken.

Britain’s EU membership might just about have survived all the above, but not the issue of immigration. The country has a long tradition of welcoming and absorbing millions of Commonwealth citizens, and victims of religious and political persecution.

But in recent decades incomers have arrived in numbers too large (officially, five million since 1997, and almost certainly many more), and in a timescale too short, for easy assimilation, or for public services to comfortably cope. Concern about this, and its impact on the availability of health care, homes, and school places, was not only ignored by much of the media, but often dismissed as a species of racism. Since the two main political parties were, until very recently, disinclined to address the issue, let alone do anything about it, there was no electoral outlet for those unhappy about these profound changes.

Well, the dam broke with the referendum. The EU, rightly or wrongly, was seen by millions as firmly associated with uncontrolled immigration, to which, given Brussels’ expansion plans, there might be no visible end. So here at last was a way to register their feelings at the ballot box. Strikingly, in areas of highest immigration, three in every four votes was for Leave.

This was – whether you applaud it or bewail it – a democratic revolt by 17 million working and middle class people against an unrepresentative and cocooned elite that had, for too long, dismissed their concerns as unsophisticated ignorance, and insisted that they alone knew best.

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