(2016.07) Lesson Learned: Brexit Was About Much More Than The EU

Miguelángel Verde Garrido | 6th July 2016

Many reasons are forwarded as explanations to why the recent UK referendum resulted in a vote to ‘Leave’ the EU. There are three reasons that are widely discussed and considered to have had a significant impact on the result. Disinformation, xenophobia, and disenfranchisement have proven a dangerous concoction for the UK voting population, but their consideration shows that the lesson to be learned is not only for the UK. Rather, it is a lesson for every liberal democracy that is failing to deliver its promises and where citizens have forgotten the importance and consequences of their civic responsibilities.

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Voting to ‘Leave’ … what exactly?

When analyzing the referendum results, a number of reasons are mentioned to explain the way the votes turned out. Some of these have resonated louder than others: economic and political disenfranchisement; misinformation and disinterest; and, xenophobia and racism. The complexity of the Brexit referendum as well as the UK’s political dynamics are such that it would flippant to argue that any single reason was more important than the others for the ‘Leave’ campaign’s victory. However, refusing to understand that they each actually did inform the results significantly would be equally frivolous.

Racism and xenophobia

The fear of immigration, rather than the reality of immigration, did significantly strengthen the ‘Leave’ campaign. This is evidenced by the fact that those areas with the highest rate of immigration were the ones least anxious about it, voting ‘Remain’. On the contrary, areas with the lowest rate of immigration tended to vote ‘Leave’. The darkest stain in the weeks leading up to the Brexit referendum was the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox. Cox’ murderer shouted “Britain first!” when he attacked her. When asked for his name at the start of his trial, he stated that it was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Cox was an Oxfam aid worker who had served in war zones for almost a decade before she became MP; she campaigned successfully for the UK to accept children refugees, and was always a stout internationalist.

The referendum results have only enflamed abusive and violent nationalism further, leading the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights to raise alarm about the attacks of EU citizens in the UK and even of UK citizens who are not white. UK citizens and residents who condemn these disgusting acts have taken to documenting them in social media networks and have started wearing safety pins to show of solidarity with immigrants and non-white UK citizens.

Misinformation and disinterest

Besides the blatant lies of the ‘Leave’ campaign, publishing misinformation about the EU is a tradition among UK’s right-wing tabloids, particularly The Daily Mail, which have spread “white lies, half-truths, and disinformation” for decades and to which the EU has officially responded in over 400 instances. Michael Gove, member of the Conservative party and supporter of the ‘Leave’ campaign, was consistent in dismissing studies and refutations that economists offered on the impact of the UK leaving the EU, infamously stating: “People in this country have had enough of experts”. The fact that areas in the UK that are most economically dependent on the EU were those where the ‘Leave’ vote was strongest further evidences how seriously misinformed the voting population was. It should not come as a surprise that Google searches in the UK for “what is brexit”, “what is the eu”, and “what happens if we leave the eu” started were several times the average after voting had finished (although, to be sure, the search increases reported by Google themselves may not as representative as widely reported).

While 43% of polled voters stated they always knew what they would vote, nearly a quarter, 24%, decided the week before the referendum, and 10% the day before they filled up their postal vote. Hence, a third of the voting population made their choice in the very last days to a referendum announced three years earlier. To be fair, most countries and their citizens never vote on a policy matter of such magnitude and vast implications. Voters do not have to be political or policy experts, and they may not have the time, the education or the skills required and access to services to be able to inform themselves better on certain issues. To disregard these social, economic, and political realities would be naïve and elitist.

For that reason, the responsibility for the referendum results lies as squarely on the shoulders of the government as on the shoulders of the voters themselves. The fact that numerous voters expressed dismay about the impact of their ‘Leave’ vote after the fact does say much about that part of the voting population, and yet, it also says a lot about the government, whose voters candidly explained that they did not know their vote in the referendum would matter.

Cameron had more than three years from the moment he offered the referendum to ensure that the voting population and, especially, first time voters – who were only school children in 2013 – were properly informed about the EU and the benefits it provides the UK. In this sense, the government’s communication strategy and efforts at political education failed miserably. There are arguments that claim that the fact that the referendum depended on direct democracy is where the blame lies. Were the result to have been a ‘Remain’, perhaps that argument would not be claimed so loudly, and the referendum would have prompted claims about the strength of democracy exercised directly by citizens instead. For that reason, it can be argued as easily that the blame lies in the “vulgar politics” that led, escalated, and have peaked with the referendum and its results.

However, it is important to also acknowledge and address the fact that a considerable part of the voting population was negligent in their civic responsibilities. This fact is neither exclusive to UK voters, to the UK, or to EU member states and their citizens, but rather a global problem that continues to intensify and is left mostly unaddressed. Convenient for economic and political elites, who think it is best to have uninformed voters, it is a fact that is preferred until it isn’t, for example, when populists exploit the same frailties in democratic governance for their own purposes and when establishment politics find out, only then, that it is a fact too late to address.

Economic and political disenfranchisement

There is a profound contradiction in praising liberal democracy without fulfilling the promises of liberal democracy, in speaking about the importance of globalization while only globalizing the flow of trade and services, capital and monetizable information, in demanding the loyalty and support of voters while abandoning them to austerity, crumbling cities and services, and despair. The United Nations has condemned the austerity measures introduced within the UK in 2010 as adverse to “the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, in particular women, children and persons with disabilities”.

UK’s youth overwhelming voted ‘Remain’, but there are claims that their turnout was close to only 36%, a fact that is then condemned by older voters. Whether the turnout rate that is claim is correct or not: why was there an expectation that young people would be politically educated and engaged when the cost of university education in England is the highest in any industrialized country? Furthermore: why was there an expectation that voters would not rally behind a mendacious campaign that promised to protect the NHS, when the government contributed to disinformation with its refusal to disclose how the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could impact health services? Moreover: why was there an expectation that the middle class would support the vote that the government wanted them to, when its globalization policies benefit the richest as well as the poorest in the world, but neither favor not benefit them, who are always struggling to reach what their parents had and to disprove the fact that is what their children probably will not have? And, lastly: why was there an expectation that the referendum results wouldn’t be disastrous when the disaster – poverty and inequality; political indifference; racism; political elitism; a historico-political identity conflict – is “decades in the making”the disaster – poverty and inequality; political indifference; racism; political elitism; a historic-political identity conflict – is “decades in the making”?

All these reasons could explain why the ‘Leave’ vote won, but only considering them carefully do they also explain that the results could have much more to do with the UK than they ever had to do with the EU.

That which will be

Cameron has resigned, Corbyn faces a revolt within the Labour Party. Johnson will not run for prime minister while Gove. UKIP wanted to reform into a new party without Farage, but he briskly resigned before his party members had the chance to demand his resignation. The expected leadership is nowhere to be found. However, directions for action can be found elsewhere. There are proposals for a progressive alliance to move past the divisive and indecisive politics of conservatives and the far-right. There are reminders from Europe and from abroad that patience and reflection are required both in the UK and the EU. There are discussions that shouldn’t be stifled, which consider whether among the ways forward there could also be a way back. The future is uncertain and our imaginations encompass everything from fear to gloominess to confidence to – even – optimism.

Whatever may come, there is a lesson to be learned. As citizens, no matter our countries, we cannot ignore that we must make efforts: to glimpse, at least, the consequences of our political decisions, support, and votes; to avoid being manipulated and left uninformed; and, to choose (at whichever level of involvement we may have with politics) those options that are in the best interest of our societies – not only the ones that are in our own, and certainly not the ones that in the best interest of those who would sacrifice us to struggling against each other for them as their blinded and obedient electorate.

For details on the referendum campaigns, the immediate consequences of the results, and the the profound splits made evident within the UK afterward, read the first part of this blog post, “Brexit, A Web Of Lies, And A Disunited Kingdom”.