Brexit: A revolt against the British elite

Last week Brexit became a reality when 52% of British voters, based on a 72% turnout, voted to end Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU). The result sent shockwaves through the economic and political establishment in Britain and Europe as well as across the world. The two main political parties, Tories and Labour, are in disarray. The British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to resign and $2 trillion was wiped off global stock markets the day after the referendum.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen!” splutter the media commentators desperately trying to explain why the Leave campaign won despite the directives to Remain by almost the entire business and political establishment. Now people are asking:  Is Leave an anti-establishment blow by ordinary people angry at the austerity they’ve suffered at the hands of the EU and Tory Government? Or does it reflect the racist, inward looking Little Englanders who naively welcomed the chance to isolate themselves from Europe and the world?

Political disunity

The Leave vote has not only threatened the political unity of the EU but could also trigger the breakup of the United Kingdom. While England and Wales voted to leave the EU, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted to remain. The Scottish National Party, who control the Scottish Parliament and campaigned for Remain. The size of the Remain vote, 62%, in Scotland gave them the chance to demand a second independence referendum. Since the 2014 referendum support for Scottish independence has grown as the Scots feel alienated and attacked by British politicians and increasingly want control over their economy and government. A second independence referendum would most likely result in Scotland leaving Britain and fracturing the United Kingdom.

The Tories and Labour, who campaigned for Remain, are struggling to deal with the aftermath of Brexit. The Tories, historically divided over Britain’s EU membership, are now in turmoil. Although few people shed any tears when David Cameron resigned, he was the least unpopular of the Tory politicians and the next Tory leader has the unenviable task of unifying their party. They will need to do so while trying to sell more cuts to voters who just spectacularly rejected the politics of austerity. Even UKIP, who fronted the Leave campaign, hasn’t escaped the Brexit backlash as anger at their racist, hate filled campaign intensifies. The ongoing viability of UKIP, now they have one their central political goal, is in question.

Working class revolt

The Leave vote has dramatically exposed the growing class divide within Britain. In England and Wales the Leave vote was highest in working class areas such as Birmingham, Stoke on Trent and Sunderland while the Remain vote was highest in areas were younger, middle class people lived such London, Cambridge and Brighton. The regional towns and cities across England and Wales were been hit hard by deindustrialisation of the 1980s, losing thousands of jobs in the shipyards, coal mines and factories that haven’t been replaced by alternative industries offering large numbers of skilled and semi-skilled jobs. People living in these towns and cities have seen little of the wealth created during the intervening decades and have been alternatively ignored, patronised or attacked by both Labour and Tory politicians.

Lisa Mckenzie wrote in The Times “the referendum, for most working-class people, has been a referendum on their lives today: how insecure they are, how they struggle from week to week, and confront the fear of homelessness that looms over hundreds of thousands of working-class families.” Working class people are already suffering economic austerity enforced upon them by the very politicians urging them to vote Remain to avoid economic catastrophe. They used the EU referendum to punish those politicians who failed to acknowledge, let alone solve, their economic and social problems.

Confronting racism

A generational divide has opened up since Brexit. A majority of younger people – who didn’t vote or voted Remain – are angry with the older Leave voters, fearing a rise in racism and anti-immigration rhetoric and the undermining of multicultural Britain. Much of the referendum debate focused on immigration, and many people voted Remain simply to avoid siding with the racist in UKIP and other far-right groups.

The poverty and deindustrialisation that has devasted Northern England, the Midlands and Wales has created a fertile breeding ground for racism and anti-immigrant attitudes. Many people, left behind by the recent economic boom and battered by the Global Financial Crisis, have watched their jobs shipped overseas, their wages undermined by big business importing cheaper labour from Eastern Europe and their health, education and transport systems collapsing under the strain of too little investment. They have bought into the common idea that the only way to protect their jobs, wages and public services is to close the borders. These genuine economic fear have been exploited by the Tory Party and UKIP, by whipped up xenophobia and scapegoating immigrants and refugees for problem created by neoliberal policies.

The Leave victory boosted far-right parties across Europe who now calling for their own referenda on EU membership. Yet it has also encouraged the left parties and the workers movement across Europe to challenge the EU elite. Since the onset of the Eurocrisis the EU establishment has warned that leaving the EU will result in wholesale economic destruction. All eyes will be now be on Britain.

Despite the Remain campaign’s call for anti-racist votes it failed to point out the real causes of the rise in racism across Europe: the crisis of capitalism and the EU leaders who imposed austerity on European workers. And they had no qualms stomping on democratic rights and national sovereignty in doing so.

Working class leadership

Despite the hysterical response for the mainstream media, it is far from inevitable that Britain will sink into the economic abyss and allow the geographical, generational and ethnic divisions to grow and rip the country apart. Though with an emboldened far-right, British socialists must come out on the front foot against racism.

The key issue to fighting against toxic elements in the Leave campaign is to now organise a unified, socialist approach to Brexit. So far the far-right has exploited the lack of working class leadership coming form the left and the trade unions, and the failure to offer working class people a real alternative to the austerity and neoliberalism imposed upon them by the British and European ruling class. Brexit now represents an historic test for the British left to articulate an alternative to neoliberal capitalism and austerity.

To do this trade unionists and socialists inside and outside the Labour Party must unite and put forward a socialist program of investment in jobs, housing, education, healthcare and other services that have been ravaged by austerity.  Only this approach can unite working class people and challenges the root cause of growing racism within British and European society. If they can be done then Brexit could signal the start of a working class revolt across Europe that can begin to reverse the devastating impacts capitalism has had on working class communities.

The struggle for a democratic, united, socialist Europe must be our response to Brexit.

By Emma Linacre

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