Morbid symptoms that precipitated Brexit

By Martin Vogel

Antonio Gramsci

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is easily the most cataclysmic political development of my lifetime. I have spent the last days stunned and despondent; absorbing the news more than making sense of it.

Although I count myself thoroughly European, it was not a foregone conclusion that I would vote Remain. It is self-evident that the EU, as an institution, is ossified and dysfunctional, incapable of addressing the seismic challenges it faces with the Euro or of mustering an effective humanitarian response to the refugees arriving at its borders. Conceived to heal division, the EU has become a wrecker of social democracy that has engendered extreme right-wing politics across the continent.

Such concerns did not persuade me, though, of the prospectus for leaving. That Britain’s economic interests lie in being part of the EU is a no-brainer. A bigger consideration for me was the case for staying engaged in Europe’s conversation, trying to keep it’s project for co-operation on the road. As the referendum campaign unfolded, the xenophobia and hatred stirred up by the Brexiteers dispelled any notion that there might be a decent argument for leaving.

I assumed this was the famed British good sense that would prevail. As it turns out, mine was the mindset of a Londoner and we’re not the nation I thought. The referendum became the vehicle for the expression of insurrectionary rage by communities that have not just been left behind in a de-industrialised landscape, but have barely registered on the consciousness of metropolitan Britain. The mood of this other Britain – largely England, but it includes Wales as well – is caught by John Harris, who has spent six years documenting the frustrations around the country:

“We met builders in South Shields who told us that their hourly rate had come down by £3 thanks to new arrivals from eastern Europe; the mother in Stourbridge who wanted a new school for ‘our kids’; the former docker in Liverpool who looked at rows of empty warehouses and exclaimed, ‘Where’s the work?’ In Peterborough in 2013, we found a town riven by cold resentments, where people claimed agencies would only hire non-UK nationals who would work insane shifts for risible rates; in the Ukip heartlands of Lincolnshire, we chronicled communities built around agricultural work and food processing that were cleanly divided in two, between optimistic new arrivals and resentful, miserable locals – where Nigel Farage could pitch up and do back-to-back public meetings to rapturous crowds.”

And here’s Henry Bull describing life in his home town of Boston in Lincolnshire:

“Boston has suffered in the last century. In this once wealthy market town, the prospects for education, employment and a happy, prosperous life can be terrible. Unemployment is a problem, drugs are an epidemic, the murder rate is the highest in the UK, and life expectancy is significantly lower than the national average. Boston is in a bad way, and to deny that is to deny the facts. There’s no one explanation for this, but there is an easy one. Boston has experienced massive immigration in the last twenty years, and it’s fundamentally changed as a result…

“The real causes are slippery and difficult to pin down, but voters are looking for someone to blame – and the media and Leave campaign has been hugely successful at convincing them that their real enemies are immigrants and the EU.

“Not the Tory government who imposed cuts that have so badly affected their public services.

“Not the gangmasters who consistently hire immigrant workers in appalling conditions and in the process price locals out of the job market.

“Not the CEOs who’ve relocated their factories overseas and kept their profits high.

“Not the business owners who advertise jobs in other countries rather in their own town, taking advantage of the disadvantaged for their own bottom line.

“Not even the electorate, for voting this Tory government to power on a program of austerity, swingeing cuts and pro-business law making.”

We’ve argued often enough here that the social and political order is in transition. It has been apparent, since the financial crisis, that the thirty-year settlement on the dominance of market-based solutions is exhausted, but we’re still at the early stage of a struggle to define what will succeed it.

Since 2007, the banks and corporations most invested in neoliberalism have successfully closed down the space for political leaders to contemplate how to create a more cohesive social order. Those of us doing well enough out of the economy have – wittingly or unwittingly – colluded with the status quo. As we data-roam on holiday in southern Europe, spending the winter months enjoying Scandi dramas, and having converted our cuisine to Mediterranean sensibilities, we construe ourselves as part of a shared continental culture while being disconnected from large sections of our own nation. We speak of a European Union that protects workers’ rights. But, as Janice Turner observes, this rings hollow for those on zero-hours contracts (£):

“In London I hear people rave about the “gig economy”, the cheapness of Uber, the snap-your-fingers-and-it’s-here Amazon Prime and Deliveroo. So modern, and the people who serve you, well, they’re young dudes or hard-working migrants. It’s cool! Outside cities, the gig economy means fiftysomething ex-miners turned minicab drivers, the jobcentre presenting you with a list not of sits-vac but temp agencies that may give you six weeks packing salad or a week of warehouse night shifts.”

All the while, since 2007, the yearning for a better way has struggled to be heard, transforming itself into a seething anger. Observing the developments of recent years – the independence referendum in Scotland, the collapse of the Labour Party, the rise of figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump – I’ve been reminded of Gramsci’s pithy analysis of the inter-war years:

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Since Friday morning, the morbid symptoms have come in bewildering volume which may signify that the old is dying. Where before, we were bridling against a union of nations that was struggling ineptly to navigate complexity, now we are on our own and most certainly facing chaos. In scenarios of chaos, the priority of leadership is to establish some point of control from which to build out stability. As I write, we face a vacuum of leadership in England and the real possibility that what might be born will be shaped by a struggle between the right of the Conservative Party and the far right of UKIP. Already, it is evident that the Brexiteers’ victory has encouraged racists and bigots to feel licensed to intimidate with impunity.

If something positive might come of this, it could be that we begin to reconcile competing solidarities. Here in London, our strong vote for Remain was born of two solidarities: an internal solidarity in which people of diverse cultures (and more diverse levels of affluence and hardship than is appreciated outside the capital) rub along surprisingly well; and a solidarity with the world beyond our shores, easily empathising with the migrants and refugees who try to reach the European Union. It’s fair to say that solidarity with hard-pressed communities in the UK has not been high on the agenda, simply because these communities are not very apparent to most Londoners. There is no way forward from here which does not include solidarity with those in Britain who have missed the upside of globalisation. Short of this, the xenophobic right will fill the vacuum by sewing discord.

Solidarity with our fellow citizens should not, and need not, be founded on anti-immigrant foundations. The economy needs immigrant labour and the tide of migration is, in any case, unstoppable. That 50 per cent of immigration to Britain comes from outside the EU is testimony to that. The task is to address concern with immigration by addressing its impacts: investing in public services in the communities that feel under pressure from immigration; empowering workers to contribute to the running of organisations, to raise productivity and remove exploitative practices; clamping down on employers who prefer to import whole workforces at low cost to avoid paying a decent wage locally; finding ways in public life to discuss the impacts of immigration while reasserting the taboo on inciting xenophobia.

Organisations and those who lead them have a responsibility in this. The corporate world has pushed the neoliberal settlement to breaking point in Britain. Some will start transferring operations abroad. But they can have no comfort that electorates elsewhere in Europe won’t bring about a domino effect of EU exits. They will have to be more cognisant of their stewardship of the communities in which they operate – the conditions in which they employ people, the freedoms they demand of governments, the amount of taxation they pay to fund the public services on which they depend (education, transport infrastructure, health, etc. etc.). The media, particularly public service media, have to find ways to be more informative, less gratuitously entertaining, in how they explain the world.

These are dangerous times. We have no idea where we’re heading. As Martin Wolf said of Brexit on Friday morning, “It is, for me, among the saddest of hours.” Like Alistair Campbell, I don’t believe we should necessarily accept turning our back on Europe and “make it work”. The mandate given by the referendum is completely unclear and may yet be reversed in a general election. But there can be no ignoring the howl of rage. That way, darkness lies.