Brexit / ask the wrong question and no one will know the answer

There is perhaps no need to reiterate what the mood concerning the referendum vote on EU membership is in this country currently. It is one of shock, anger, disbelief, embarrassment, worry and concern.

Being asked by non-Brits living in the rest of the EU or further afield what on earth has happened, it’s hard to explain that while prior to the referendum there was concern, there was also a sustained atmosphere that common sense would prevail and an exit would simply not be possible, as if it defied the laws of logic. But politics is not reasonable, nor kind, and set the stage badly without a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of the landscape, the consequences can be grave.

It is important not to generalise the analysis of the why and how – it was a very polarised outcome – but the mapping of its geographies, and reverberating of class divides, the political wrangling at the top reveals the undercurrents of the dynamics, obvious they may be to many.

Much has been made in the national, European, and international press about those coming forward saying they had no awareness of what they’re voting for, or google searches on what the European Union actually means for the UK abounding. It is of course difficult to draw conclusions from these occurrences, but even without those, it was hard not to fall into platitudes of the uneducated voting for their own demise, fuelled by the easily digestible populism of tabloids and the terrifying brexit triumvirate of Johnson-Gove-Farage generating a barrage of soundbite half-truths (or lies).

Of course, there is an issue around a broader socio-political education, the lack of a European narrative, particularly within the historical dimension, anti-intellectualism (‘people being sick of experts’), and an un-nuanced debate within a relatively unaccessible public sphere, more polarised into political and class binaries – owing to some extent to system peculiarities such as the binary-enforcing voting system and class divide-reinforcing peerage system of the house of lords, as well as the exclusivity of the current Government club. Structural and intellectual polarisation within a system perhaps shapes the behaviours of those of moving within it.

Having said this, there was an interesting contribution on the Guardian on working class voices. Less so due to a lack of knowledge, but more for a lack of options for influencing their position, the vote was only marginally about the EU, but moreover a protest vote on the dire situation those voting ‘leave’ considered themselves in.

The geographies of voting in England and Wales illustrate that remain supporters were mainly concentrated in the south, or in knowledge economy-led cities, partially drawing a rift between the wealthier and poorer parts of the country, but more so acting out an ideological rift between the cosmopolitan educated elite, and the upper class leadership, against the British working class across much of the English regions – an FT article illustrated the irony of these regions being at the receiving end of a major share of EU infrastructure funding and social funds. The argument made pre-referendum was consistently economic; a narrative that has always had more of a pull for the UK than the more idealist, less tangible concept of pan-European unity. The meaning of ‘economic benefit’ for those in the regions, who have seen their industries falter and diminished over decades, alongside a string of regional development policies of varying success, followed by the abolishing thereof with political tides, is empty.

For those who are locked into the far more immobile lives of small-town Britain (of course this is not a representation of many second and third tier cities, who are achieving faster growth than London itself, often based on historically endogenous dispositions for industries aside from the knowledge economy fixation), the economic narrative read like a manifesto for the elite in power, out of reach and out of control for most – just as economic benefit was cited to support the financial elite following the economic crisis, alongside austerity for local authorities and their services. The irony is of course that the consequences of leaving will have far graver effects than ‘protest voters’ under the assumption they had nothing much to lose would have ever known – see measured dialogue in the political public sphere above.

One of the key issues however remains the irresponsibility of those in charge of initiating the referendum, and those leading the populist, empty ‘leave’ campaign. Referendums, if used wisely, can be a powerful mechanism to instil and build democratic ownership of political decision-making. Switzerland, where referendums are part of the political fabric of the country, is one such example. There are increasingly other progressive, localised mechanisms at play in the UK, such as deliberative democracy and citizens assemblies via Citizens Assembly, Democracy Matters and the Electoral Reform Society, and some interesting research from the Crick Centre in Sheffield, and an interesting take from the RSA.

Most recently, however, national referendums seemed to have become dangerous populist tools to put the public before a monumental political decision without an existing culture of shared political decision-making or decent mechanisms to distribute and debate complex political processes, just when the leadership seems to be unable to deal with the complexities of the situation – Greece and now the UK are points in case.

Was a referendum, with a binary no/yes option, the right tool to resolve the real problems that the EU in fact has with its management of membership, finance, legislation and its convoluted, remote governance, in a day and age when simplistic conceptions of political ‘independence’ are neither realistic nor desirable to deal with the countless interdependent, pan-European, international issues we all face? (there are of course good arguments for a reformed, devolved system) – Obviously not.

It was a childish, simplistic move driven by internal party politics, pandering to the populist public sphere and its out-dated, right-wing rhetoric. The impact of toying with this ideology will be grave and can already be seen in the right-wing harassment encouraged by the referendum result. It is of course not surprising that local, regional and national identities become emboldened in times of uncertainty, economic fallout and are accompanied by populist panics about immigration. While these sentiments need to be accounted for, it is irresponsible of leadership to give in to these currents for their own political gain.

Of course, the role of the EU and its negotiators cannot be underestimated – it has made mistakes in its unwillingness to reform its institutional, ideological and financial fabric, and has been, like any big complex organisation, slow to adapt, embattled by financial crises, political upheaval, and inability to manage the refugee ‘crisis’. However, the political blackmail rhetoric of the UK to achieve change for itself, rather than as a driver of change for the union, is unlikely to have helped move things forward constructively.

The question of ‘what now’ is illustrating the complete lack of planning for this scenario by the current government who brought about a monumental historic seismic shift in the make-up of European and world politics – but on a negative scale. The sentiment that accompanies the aftermath is one of destruction, uncertainty and fear, about how this new reality might look. It will undoubtedly have serious consequences for the health system, the financial sector, higher education and research, international trade relationships, economic migration from within and outside the EU/UK, employment, the arts, infrastructure and the construction sector, and the list goes on.

One viable, mature decision would be for the current leadership not to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that would instigate the exit of the UK from the EU – as the referendum is not legally binding, government could take the decision not to implement. While this sounds like a bigger political suicide than going through with ‘Brexit’, it would be the more constructive option, in the clear absence of a ‘leave’ plan, although most likely hampered by the completely disintegrated leadership both in Government as in the opposition.

That said, the political mood of EU leadership is suggesting the facilitation of a swift exit, making an example of the UK and limiting any further potential splintering of the union. Diplomatically, this is unchartered water and could go either way – denying the UK the extra rights that it is seeking to retain in order to avoid other countries following suit in individual case negotiations, or perhaps finding a moderately constructive intermediate solution, paired with a radical reform of the EU for the remaining union. Electoral rhetoric in Spain’s current re-elections across all main contenders has already utilised the ‘worst case referendum scenario’ as an argument against upheaval and uncertainty and the need for reform within the EU.

The vote to leave has thrown the UK into political and economic backwater and is perhaps the biggest political blunder of a government in recent history.  We can hope for some mitigation by the expertise of the institutions frantically working to draw up alternate scenarios, or benevolent negotiations in the months to come, or with some wishful thinking a revision or taking back of the decision through vetos or regional referendums. In the meantime, the government’s pandering to populism in the face of complexity and a complete misjudgement of the implications has brought the uncertainty to millions of people they were trying to avoid.

Carina Schneider

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