AFTER a viciously xenophobic and violent campaign that even saw the unprecedented killing of a popular Labour MP, Jo Cox, the Brexit (Britain plus exit) camp secured a surprise victory in the UK referendum on leaving the European Union. 52 per cent (of the 72 per cent who voted in the referendum) chose to end the UK's 43-year-old association with the European Union (erstwhile European Economic Community). In the wake of this Brexit verdict, Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned to remain in the EU, resigned, the British Pound plummeted quite sharply and the share market has experienced a rude downward pull.
The result exposed a sharply divided Britain, geographically as well as generationally. Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted overwhelmingly in favour of remain. Scotland, which had narrowly agreed to remain with the UK in another recent referendum, obviously feels quite unhappy with the verdict, and another referendum leading to an independent Scotland as a member of EU is now a distinct possibility. The question of independence of Northern Ireland and unification with the Irish Republic (an EU member) is also likely to assume renewed political relevance. In generational terms, the young clearly preferred to remain in the EU with 72 percent voters in the 18-24 age group voting 'Remain' as opposed to the 60 percent 'Leave' vote among pensioners. There is also a divide between cosmopolitan multi-cultural cities of Britain opting for European affiliation and the less ethnically diverse smaller towns, many of which are in regions of industrial decline, where the ‘Leave’ message found fertile ground.
Politically, the result was achieved then through the right’s opportunistic mobilization of widespread anger and frustration over austerity, and its appeal to deep-seated racism and jingoistic nationalism. The rabidly rightwing, racist and xenophobic UK Independence Party (UKIP) led by the rabble-rouser Nigel Farage, alongside the Conservative pro-Leave faction led by former London Mayor Boris Johnson, had built up the Brexit campaign with its virulent anti-immigrant anti-refugee rhetoric, effectively turning the vote into a referendum on immigration. It made more explicit what the mainstream parties had been doing for years - blaming migrants and refugees for the effects of austerity policies, unemployment, low pay, and the housing crisis, with a toxic campaign which spread the falsehood that EU membership forces Britain to take in large numbers of refugees and migrants (in fact numbers of non-European refugees and migrants entering the UK - the real focus of UKIP’s hate campaign - have remained far lower than for other EU countries).
It is perhaps no coincidence that on the morning of the day that a supporter of the far-right Britain First group murdered the MP Jo Cox, who was an advocate for refugee rights, Nigel Farage had unveiled his new poster campaign which showed a long line of Syrian refugees with the slogan ‘Breaking Point’. Tapping into the popular anger over years of austerity which have eroded the welfare state, most notably the National Health Service (NHS), another of the ‘Leave’ campaign’s most successful slogans was the lie that freedom from the EU would enable Britain to increase National Health Service (NHS) funding by £350m, a claim which was immediately retracted by Farage, Johnson et al on the day after the referendum, when its purpose had been served. By and large, Labour supporters voted for 'Remain'. A section of voters who voted Leave however publicly regretted their decision, and millions of voters raised the demand for a second referendum since the result was so close.
David Cameron called the referendum in a self-serving and, as it turned out, spectacularly ill-judged attempt to pacify the Eurosceptic sections of his own Conservative Party and prevent them from defecting to UKIP. These pro-Brexit Tories, like Boris Johnson and the much derided former Education Secretary Michael Gove, having used the referendum to further their own political careers, turned out to have little plan for what to do next.
Arguably however there are powerful reasons for a section of the ruling class embracing Brexit. One is the growing economic crisis and insecurity and the consequent quest for reclaiming economic sovereignty from the EU stranglehold. Unlike Greece and Spain which with strong left forces, aspired for freedom from the European debt burden and to pursue economic policies to suit their own interests and priorities, Britain however hopes to regain its lost economic might along the very trajectory of neo-liberalism which has already weakened the economy and eroded its once comprehensive welfare framework. Shortly after the result, Boris Johnson has suggested that EU trade agreements like the free market fundamentalist Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), one of the main reasons why certain sections of the British Left supported Brexit, will be retained even after leaving the EU.
The other factor is the Euroscepticism inherent in Britain's foreign policy and self-perception. When the end of World War II heralded the downfall of the British colonial empire, British foreign policy had to reinvent itself in the post-colonial world. But instead of forging ties with the rest of Europe, Britain preferred to rely primarily on her special relationship with the US and unequal and paternalistic ties with former British colonies as institutionalized in the Commonwealth. It was only in 1973 that Britain finally entered the European community. Even after joining the European Union, Britain retained its own pound sterling as the preferred British currency and did not fall for the charm of the Euro.
Within Britain, Brexit has emboldened the rabid rightwing spectrum ranging from various racist, chauvinistic fringe outfits to an ascendant UKIP and the aggressively neo-liberal Conservatives. The leadership crisis in the Conservative Party which was triggered by the result has been resolved with the replacement of Cameron by Theresa May as the UK’s new – unelected - Prime Minister. May, who supported remaining in the EU but maintained a strategically low profile during the referendum campaign, had as Home Secretary initiated a series of repressive measures and human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism and controlling immigration (notably the notorious Preventing Violent Extremism or ‘Prevent’ initiative). May’s new government (in which the colonial apologist Boris Johnson is the Foreign Secretary) is expected to be highly authoritarian, openly racist and committed to deepening surveillance and repression along with a renewed austerity offensive. Within the Labour Party too, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the best thing to have happened within the Labour camp, marking a clear rupture with and reversal of the pro-market war-mongering Blairite New Labour trend, is now faced with renewed rightwing challenges, as Blairite MPs have used the result as a pretext for an attempt to oust Corbyn, despite his unprecendented mandate from members and supporters, ahead of the release of the Chilcot Report which they feared would indict Tony Blair for his role in the Iraq War.
While immigrants from various EU countries, especially from the erstwhile East European bloc, face an uncertain future, British Asian and Black communities are having to deal with heightened racism and Islamophobia, with a huge rise in racist attacks even in the few weeks since the referendum. And across the Atlantic, it is the vicious anti-immigrant anti-Islam politics of Donald Trump which feels pumped up by the Brexit victory. Whether in the US or the UK, it is clear that only building a strong grassroots movement which offers a real alternative to austerity and neoliberalism, with anti-racism and solidarity with migrants and refugees at its heart, can counter these rising forces.