In many ways the UK Brexit vote does not make sense. It would seem foolhardy for a service economy to alienate itself from its main market; the EU. Public blood-letting leading to the resignation of a sitting Prime Minister is an unusual course for the Conservative party to take. Labour’s decision to run an anemic campaign that fails to solidify its support is unlikely to move it towards being a credible opposition. Voting for chaos during a fragile economic recovery will not produce the jobs and services that people say they want.
The Remain campaign deployed a procession of experts to help people make the logical choice to stay in the EU. They failed to convince people because the decision to vote Leave was not logical. Not logical, but completely understandable.
In speaking to people in the UK over the week before the vote I heard two underlying emotions driving the decision to vote Leave. For some the Leave vote was about identity, agency and hope. For others it was about being more comfortable “in a time when movies were in black and white, and so was everything else” as the poet and musician the late great Gil Scott Heron once wrote.
The political and social commentators offered additional complexity. One school of thought is that it was a vote by people who do like the fact that the UK is one of the most globalised economies in the world and part of “team Europe”. They would rather the model of the British Empire where the UK and its people had a clear identity and led the world.
Another is that it was due to legacy and nostalgia. Older people with a feeling that they have been left behind and struggling to make sense of diversity and new social norms chose to decrease their anxieties by returning to the idealized, simple Britain they grew up in and understand. Older people voted to Leave though the people who will have to live with their decision; those under 34 voted 3:1 Remain.
Others still suggested that it was a vote by the hard pressed working class in the old industrial north that feel they have been ignored by the new service economy. They wanted to hit out at the system: the faceless civil servants and “lying” politicians they blame for causing their problems and ushering in newcomers as cheap labor to steal their opportunities that are left.
Put together, it was a vote for a different future made by people uncomfortable about their current situation and so looking to the past for solutions.
I wonder if it misses the point.
The UK’s problems are not unique or difficult to analyze. The UK has not ensured that its wealth is shared and that there is proper investment in people or society.
The GDP per capita has almost doubled since the year 2000 but income and opportunity inequality have increased steadily at the same time. Because of this, the UK is richer than it has ever been, but the vast majority – over 80 percent – of the money goes to the top 10 percent.
Education, health services and welfare are under strain and underfunded compared to the rises in GDP. This is not because of the 300,000 plus immigrants that come to the UK each year, because immigrants have always added more to the GDP than they have taken. It is also not because of EU rules or payments because the annual marginal 5.7 billion pounds the UK pays in is dwarfed by revenue from trade and other economic and social benefits linked to the single European market. It is because the decision of successive governments backed by the electorate has been austerity rather than investment. Three hours after the Leave vote was confirmed, the Bank of England unveiled a 250 billion pound war chest to support the financial sector and the pound through the crisis. They are ready to spend 20 years of EU payments in a few months to support Banks when that money could have been invested in hard hit areas to build new industry and jobs.
The UK has not invested sufficiently in the social space to develop a shared identity for Britain that transcends race and class. While recently in the UK I heard that advances made over the last decades have been lost. Numerous programs, community groups and laws that promoted equity and unity have been cut.
If Canada is to learn anything from this, it is that populations who do not see the benefits of their labor, do not get the support that they need to thrive and do not have clear social leadership will eventually rebel. In the UK, that rebellion was to give the establishment the finger and produce chaos.
The problem for people who care about the UK is it is so clear that this gesture is self-defeating.
The people who will suffer are the people who voted for Brexit who are some of the most vulnerable people in the UK, older people and those outside London and Scotland. There is no plan for how areas like the North of England will be economically re-launched. And as for Wales, which is a significant recipient of EU support, it is difficult to see how a smaller UK economy will replace the funds that will be lost.
Leaving the EU will make things worse for these groups and the Brexit vote will undermine what is left of the United Kingdom. United will have to be taken with a pinch of salt now; Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London have different aspirations than the rest. And some black and minority ethnic groups see the vote and the possible new leadership as racist – they are looking for other opportunities and could take their global links with them. It is difficult to see how it will be possible to generate the collective effort needed to build a vibrant economy while dealing with such internal divisions.
The UK economy will contract. There will be more austerity, rising unemployment and pressure on the workforce for more efficiency. People will be asked to do more for less and with less of a safety net. Some people will break either physically or mentally and there will be higher rates of illness and mortality. Tightening belts in this way squeezes out life. The UK will be diminished in economic muscle, influence and health.
The impact of Brexit will be seen for years to come. So perhaps we should all learn the lessons so it does not happen here. Put simply, for a stable and healthy future we need to ensure that income inequality is properly dealt with, we need to invest in post industrial areas and the social safety net so that people can live comfortable healthy lives and we need to do more to develop a shared identity. Moving from a “me” economy to a “we” society where nobody is left behind is in all of our interests.