31 July 2016

Brexit: the nightmare becomes reality

On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a referendum, 52 to 48 percent, to leave the European Union.

Brexit is a political, economic, and cultural disaster for Britain. The right-wing politicians who spearheaded the Leave campaign were the xenophobe, Nigel Farage (UKIP leader) and the Tory opportunist and showman Boris Johnson (former mayor of London), a man who aspired to replace Cameron as Prime Minister, but was stopped in his tracks by the Tory establishment.

The success of the Leave campaign was due to their hammering a single point: if Britain left the EU the number non-British workers and immigrants in the country could be reduced. Their campaign was openly xenophobic and sometimes racist. Yet the fact that this xenophobia bore fruit in Labour-voting heartlands outside the multi-cultural metropolitan areas was that it tapped into a well of anomic anger arising from the pains inflicted on working people by unbridled market fundamentalism (under both Tory and New Labour) since the 1980s.

Enhanced in English politics today, as a result of the Leave campaign, are two unpleasant right-wing forces. The first is the strengthening of illiberal, xenophobic and nationalistic ideologies, promoted by UKIP and right-wing elements in the Tory Party. This has already led to a string of street attacks on people judged “non-British.” The second force is an accelerated neo-economic liberalism advocating a bonfire of worker and consumer protections along with welfare rights and benefits. These two, xenophobic nationalists and free-market fantasists, may at times collide, but their dialectical dance on the political right will probably drown out the voices of the metropolitan liberal left, social democracy and wider progressive left.

The ramifications for British politics resulting from Brexit are huge, especially for Scotland which voted heavily to remain in the EU, and for Northern Ireland where some sort of re-imposed border with the Republic seems almost inevitable. Exactly when, or at what speed, Brexit will occur remains to be seen. But the threat and reality of a Britain excluded from the single market promises economic pain, which will in turn exacerbate the political tensions.

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