- June 25, 2016
In the Jamie Lee Curtis comedy Freaky Friday, a mother and teenage daughter wake up to find themselves trapped in each other’s bodies as a result of a magic spell. Yesterday I underwent a similar but even more disturbing transformation. On Thursday night I dreamt that Remain had won the referendum. Early on Friday morning I woke up to find Nigel Farage crowing about ‘Independence Day’ and celebrating a victory for the ‘real, decent people.’
Over the next twenty-four hours, along with millions of my unreal and indecent fellow-citizens, I found myself trapped in a country that I didn’t want to be in, facing a horrible future that I couldn’t escape from.
No one can say the country was in good shape before Brexit. Large swathes of the population were clearly not doing well. Food banks; zero hours contracts; worsening labour conditions; wage stagnation; cuts and atrophied public services; pressure on schools and GPs surgeries; high rents; social cleansing’ gross social and regional inequality; a lack of affordable housing; a succession of paedophile scandals involving high-level institutional collusion; and the near-collapse of the British steel industry – it wasn’t Shangri-la and it wasn’t Jerusalem.
At the same time, the country wasn’t exactly hell on earth. .It wasn’t in recession. Unemployment was at a 10-year low (even if that outcome was partly due to a rise in part-time work and austerity-induced precarity). Our much-loathed immigrants came here to work, not in order to drain the nation’s bodily fluids, and they did so because there was work available. Contrary to what many of us have been told, their presence, according to a 2014 UCL study, was good for us too, providing a net gain of £20 billion to the country’s public finances. Northern Ireland was not at war with the British government or with itself, partly because of the money that the European Union provided to the region through the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and other structural funds.
As a result of Thursday’s decision, none of that can be taken for granted. We now face the possibility of a national and possibly international recession, at a time when the global economy has barely recovered from the last one.
We are likely to witness the breakup and collapse of the United Kingdom; the secession of Scotland; the disintegration of the European Union on terms set entirely by the far-right. We might also see the collapse the Irish Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, as EU funds disappear and the reappearance of Ireland’s neutral border reopens sectarian divisions that have been held in abeyance for nearly two decades.
After decades of painstaking agreements and negotiations that have made it possible for Britons to live,work and study anywhere on the continent, and for Europeans to do the same here, we now face the curtailment and elimination of these rights. We face years and years of painful negotiations as a succession of almost certainly weak governments attempt to disentangle themselves from the agreements that their predecessors voluntarily entered into.
No one can say for sure how all this will turn out, but it is difficult to imagine that the clowns who led us into this mess can negotiate their way through its consequences, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the final outcome will be worth the massive waste of energy and the turmoil and uncertainty that it is almost certain to engender. .
Already their efforts have divided and polarised the nation, after what is perhaps the dirtiest, ugliest and most dishonest political campaign in British history. After decades of moving away from a society that once had signs up saying ‘No blacks or Irish’, this campaign has unleashed and legitimized toxic hatreds, prejudices and expectations that will be difficult, if not impossible to put back in the bag.
Brexiters – both left and right – would like to pretend otherwise – but xenophobia, bigotry, and outright racism have been the decisive components of this referendum, which produced the dramatic shift towards Leave in the last two weeks. The fake promises from Boris Johnson to ‘heal’ the nation – the same Johnson who profited politically from Farage’s dogwhistling and engaged in it himself – would be laughable if they weren’t contemptible.
This was a campaign in which an MP was murdered because she supported EU membership, supported refugees and immigration, yet more than half the population chose to vote for the exact opposite of what she stood for. Faced with arguments from Nobel Prize-winning economists and political scientists who warned of the calamitous consequences of Brexit; they chose to follow instead a motley crowd of mountebanks, chancers, ideologues and demagogues who engaged in what legal expert Michael Dougan called “dishonesty on an industrial scale”.
These same politicians told the public not to believe in the ‘experts’, and when their arguments came apart they coolly, cynically and willfully stirred up fear and hatred towards everything foreign, whether it was ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’, rapist refugees, Turks or ‘immigrants’ in general.
It’s clear that some of those who listened to this siren song are already beginning to regret it. Even Cornwall, which voted to leave, is now asking for the government to replace their EU fund. They won’t be the only ones, when other regions discover that the EU actually gave them money as well as taking it. For all the Christmas hamper promises that Brexiters made during the campaign, there is about as much chance of bailouts from the gaggle of rightwing libertarians and Tory free market zealots who brought you Independence Day as there is of snow falling in the Sahara.
It’s also questionable whether there will even be much wealth to redistribute. China is already looking askance at further involvement in the UK financial services industry. The EU has made it clear that the UK won’t get the same access to the single market that it had before. The creepy fraud Farage has already been rowing back on the campaign promise that the EU’s mythical £350 million per week will go to the NHS. Those pensioners who voted in such high numbers for Brexit may well see their state pensions decline.
And as for immigration – that great obsession of the British public, don’t expect miracles there either. Many of those who voted imagine that the 13 percent of the population that is immigrant will miraculously vanish. But if ‘control’ over immigration means bringing numbers down to the ‘tens of thousands’, that won’t happen unless Britain withdraws from the single market.
Even then it will require even more draconian enforcement measures than those we already have to stop people coming and strip the rights from immigrants who are already here. Expect tougher restrictions, curtailment of rights, exclusionary practices. Expect an escalation of immigration raids, deportations, detention, ID checks etc, so our newly-independent nation can make that distinction between insiders and outsiders, natives and aliens, absolutely clear.
We might also expect an increase in street-level violence as the openly fascistic and belligerent chauvinists who welcomed Brexit see their hatreds legitimized. There is also likely to be more anti-immigrant scapegoating as ever-more embittered sectors of the population watch the economy nose-dive and their Brexit dreams turn sour. We can expect an increase in verbal and physical attacks on people of colour and people with foreign accents who aren’t ‘like us.’
One of the great lies of the Brexit campaign was the notion that a post-Brexit government would welcome immigration from outside the EU – a promise that ignored decades of legislation intended to prevent entirely that outcome. No one should hold their breath and expect this phony cosmopolitanism to be realised any time soon.
This is what we voted for on Thursday, even if we didn’t know it, thanks to a reckless gamble carried out by the most useless and destructive prime minister in the history of the country, a PR man who epitomises the arrogance and fecklessness of the British ruling class.
Some historical tragedies and catastrophes are not chosen but are inflicted by others. Like an invasion by a foreign army, say. Others are the result of specific decisions taken from a set of options and possibilities that were also available. The British public did not have to do what it did on Thursday, and I suspect that historians in the future will ponder for many years over the massive wound that the electorate inflicted on itself, and will struggle to understand rational reasons for that choice. Some have described the triumph of Brexit as a victory of the ‘quiet people’ against arrogant Brussels ‘elites’. Others have characterized it as a rebellion against the ‘establishment’ in this country.
Some sections of the left have seen Brexit as a revolt against neoliberalism and austerity. Never mind that the EU didn’t dictate the austerity policies inflicted on the country by two extremist Tory governments that used the 2007/08 crisis as a pretext for an all-out class war and an assault on the welfare state. Never mind that many of the newspapers and politicians who supported that process are also part of the ‘establishment’ and the ‘elite’ that supported Brexit.
As anti-establishment rebellions go, this was the political equivalent of shooting yourself in the head, or wrenching the wheel of a truck because you don’t like the direction of travel, simply in order to drive it off a cliff.
Of course there are many who don’t believe this, who think that Britain has recovered its national ‘destiny’ – as if there is such a thing. The Daily Express – a paper that would have fitted comfortably into Nazi Germany, if you substitute the word ‘migrant’ for ‘Jew’ celebrated the triumph of its ‘glorious crusade’ today.
Brexiters may raise their glasses and jeer and tell me and others to leave. the country – I expect that we will hear a lot more of this kind of talk in the months and years to come. Lexiters may dream of a brave new world of internationalist struggle, but I see nothing good whatsoever about the decision that was taken on Thursday and the politics that made it possible.
“Make good choices, ” Jamie Lee Curtis tells her teenage daughter in Freaky Friday. On Thursday, the British electorate made a very bad choice indeed. Some of those who made it will be dead before these dreams and fantasies come crashing down.
The tragedy is that millions of people who didn’t make that choice will also pay for it, and will remain trapped inside a country that is now locked into a very bleak trajectory of conflict, disintegration, bitterness and anger that will dominate its politics for decades, and is likely to transform the UK into something nastier than many of us once thought possible.