The United Kingdom leaves the European Union after 40 years. What happened?
The lead up to the vote was revealing. The chattering classes were unanimous: the Remains would carry the vote, no sweat..
However, several events led me to think otherwise. The first was the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox (on the Remain side) by a hate crazed New Right fanatic:
In chillingly Donald Trumpian words, the killer vowed to make his country "great again". Of course, madmen are everywhere and act unpredictably. In itself, the killing merely hinted that political divisions in the UK were highly polarized and running deep, no more.
After the killing a truce of sorts was arranged between the Remain and Exit camps. Politicians of the Left and the Right decried the mad act. The "truce", however, lasted but a few days before the invective began to flow again, convincing me that we weren't witnessing a "normal" political debate. The senseless murder of an idealistic militant should have brought saner voices to the forefront. But it didn't, not for long, anyway.
By the eve of the vote, I viscerally gave the nod to the Exits. More interesting, why did the chattering classes, more politically informed than me, not see this coming? Where did their tunnel vision come from? Even the stock markets confidentially rose in value before the vote.
So, again, what happened? The pundits and the powerful appear to have been disconnected from the political reality of the people, that much is evident. There is certainly a lesson to be learned here, I think..
One of the points raised during the post mortem was the fact that Remain voters tended to be younger and better educated while the Exiteers were relatively older and less educated. This has been interpreted in a light favorable to globalization by some commentators. For them, the Exiteers represent an "Ancien Régime" (?or perhaps even the Great Unwashed in person?) The Exit campaign belongs to a superannuated past, an old guard waiting to be taken out feet first (and then forgotten..) In this view, the Remain side represents Youth, Beauty, Progress, all that is Good and Noble in Modernity.
While flattering to liberals, progressives and moderate conservatives, this view is fundamentally flawed, representing a truncated and highly "edited" version of modern socio-economic reality.
In most modern societies, the young vote less than their elders. Who then were the young who voted? The young Remain voters were those who benefited from the present EU "System". They are educated. They earn high salaries in multinational corporations. Their work is interesting and challenging with rich opportunities for advancement and the respect that brings. Their careers will likely be spent in several countries (where their abilities to speak several languages will serve them well). They will travel widely, have many adventures, lead the Good Life as members of the Servitor Class of the Corporate Elite: the professionals, administrators, middle managers, technicians. Since the creation of the EU, the standard of living of these classes has indeed risen. It is not surprising that the educated young technocrats, entrepreneurs and financiers voted to remain in the EU.
The youth of the working classes, the chronically disadvantaged and the poor were not stimulated to vote to remain in the European Union. Their job and income security has rather declined since the EU's creation. And to rub salt into open wounds, immigrants with university degrees ostentatiously flaunt the Good Life before their eyes while their lives, the lives of native British common folk, decline and grow less secure, decade by decade. Under these circumstances, youthful political apathy might well be re-inforced. On the other hand, their elders, who do vote, have had many years to stew in the juices of resentment, frustration and insecurity. And they voted to leave the EU. This analysis (not verified on my part) does at least fit the observed voting patterns with respect to age, education and income.
Since - aside from a few rebels - the chattering classes belong to the educated elites, they could not see - even less comprehend - the frustration, rage and fear simmering in the consciousness of the laboring "masses". Thus the result of the referendum could only come as a great shock, indicating the disconnect from reality of the elite classes.
A case in point: It is argued that Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to gain political legitimacy with his ill-advised referendum, believing the people would never be so stupid as to vote to leave. His goal was - apparently - to consolidate his position against the reactionary rump of the Conservative Party. He grossly miscalculated and within hours of the stunning results he resigned. Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, appeared stunned, almost speechless by the victory. It soon became evident he had no Plan in case of an Exit victory vote! His real political goals, I suspect, center around the kick the demogog gets from raising the rabble, making them sweat and jump through the hoops he tosses, the heady adrenaline rush of raw, primate political power (and, hey! they pay you for it too..) A final case of an unprepared victor: Boris Johnson. All the pundits I listened to believed that Johnson had his sights set on the PM's office. But Johnson, too, was speechless and stunned in the early light of the Exit camp victory. Perhaps he too, like PM Cameron, "only" intended to feather his nest with votes cheaply won through demogogy. Johnson, like Cameron, may feel that he bit off more than he could chew. In a stunning announcement this morning Johnson threw in the towel and announced to general stupor that he will not contest the leadership of the Conservative Party.
Another irony of the vote. Going into the referendum Labour was a house divided. Generally, the traditionally anti-nationalist Left has supported the EU. However, a segment of the Left (correctly) rejects the EU as a "businessmen's club". As I write, the Labour Party appears to be tearing itself asunder. It's leader, Jeremy Corbyn is a long time Euro-sceptic of the Left. During the referendum campaign, he somehow got himself convinced to support the Remain campaign but, because his heart was not really in it, his performance in defending that position has been described as (at best), "lackluster". Many pro-EU Labourites now want Corbyn to step down while anti-EU members believe he has sold out. If Corbyn quits, the referendum will have succeeded in taking down the PM, the Labour Leader and the strongest contender for the Conservative leadership. Not bad, not bad.. kind of a universal booby trap..
On the whole, it is hard to muster too much sympathy for the EU (or the UK) at this point in time. The neo-conservative / libertarian elites in large part constructed the booby trap they fell into. One of the nobler original objectives of the EU was to create a United States of Europe, based on the economic and political intergration of the founding nations. This would have included a good measure of Social Democratic regulation and policy. In an attempt to avoid such political integration - and the policies it implied - the neo-con / libertarian elites in the UK pushed for rapid expansion of a deregulated "Free Market" zone into the countries of Central and Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The cover argument used here was that, given the total incompatibility of the social and economic systems of the Eastern countries with those of Western Europe, the only common ground could be the mythical deregulated "Free Market". In reality, it was a very clever ploy to torpedo the political integration of Europe while maximizing the profits of multinationals and the salaries of their "officers" and of the Servitor Classes who service the multinationals with their expertise.) Except of course, the trick backfired! The "Free Market", as elsewhere, rather than leveling inequities magnified the gulf between rich and poor and actually penalized the lower socio-economic classes. It reduced job and income security and stiffled upward social mobility for the lower classes. Hence the unexpected "vengeance of the white trash" now playing out in the UK and Europe before the stupified eyes of the chattering classes.
Of course, such an analysis does not do justice to the dream of a United Europe. It is true that, during the last few centuries, we have generally built our social and economic systems on blocks that are too unweildy to be practical. Good governance, good ecology and good post-fossil fuel economics all dictate that we scale down the size of social, economic, and political units. Yet, the fact remains that some challenges and opportunities are necessarily non-local in nature. Consider science: its full development is totally dependent upon the free exchange of information of researchers throughout the world. The exploitation of extra-terrestrial resources (asteroid belt mining, solar energy capture above the earth's atmosphere, space exploration and colonization..) is another area that would require global collaboration. Thus the idea of a European Union is not, in itself, a bad idea. It's current implementation - "a businessmen's club" benefiting the multinational corporate elite at the expenses of the "masses" - remains a deplorable miscarriage of a once noble idea, a fact exposed all too clearly by the stunning victory of the Exit campaign.
For a good overview of the chaos produced by the referendum and the immediate aftermath:
For the (pseudo-)"revenge of the white trash" in North America. Some interesting parallels there!