Brexit: The Fallout
The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union reflects wider patterns of voter disillusionment with establishment politics.
Analysis | Feilidh O’Dwyer-Strang — with thanks to Sam Corey
In the three or so weeks since 52.1% of United Kingdom (UK) referendum voters opted out of their 43-year agreement with the European Union (EU), a raft of seismic political and economic shifts have taken place across the continent. The uncertainty surrounding exactly how, when and even if the Brexit will take place has created an atmosphere of regional instability throughout the EU.
In the final days before the vote, aggregate polls indicated that although the race would be close, remain would narrowly win. Yet as the result poured in on June 23, 1.3 million more voters had opted to leave over remain (from a total of 33 million), surprising EU citizens and leaders across the globe. Before exploring why UK voters behaved as they did — here’s a brief recap of the tremendous political upheavals that followed the Brexit referendum results:
- The pound dropped to a 31-year low.
- World markets lost two-trillion dollars of value and many pension funds took a pummeling.
- Scotland — whose voters were vastly in favour of remaining — indicated they may seek a second independence referendum.
- Prime Minister David Cameron resigned — pledging to step down by October. Cameron headed the remain campaign and had promised the referendum in 2014 in order to appease Eurosceptics within his party and secure a second-term in office.
- Straw-haired Trump-esque former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who was seen as Cameron’s likely successor, announced he would not seek the position after reportedly losing support from former ally Michael Gove. Gove reportedly regularly attends private dinners with his former employer, press baron Rupert Murdoch, to discuss “political matters.”
- Theresa May became the new Prime Minister after a leadership run-off and appointed Boris Johnson as foreign secretary
- Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn faced mass-resignations from his shadow cabinet, some of whom perceived Corbyn as weak in promoting the remain campaign. Corbyn, who is to the far left of mainstream Labour, was elected as leader last September and is popular among Labour membership and young voters. He will likely contest another leadership run-off.
- Reports of hate crimes and racial violence skyrocketed in the days following the vote.
- EU leaders hinted there would be no deal allowing the UK to retain single-market access which did not include free movement of citizens. Market uncertainty prompted several major international companies, including Vodafone, to begin discussions about moving their headquarters out of the UK.
As the fallout continues, polling in early July showed large portions of leave voters suffering from buyer’s remorse. So how did this happen?
In months prior to the vote — a majority of establishment figures from the business, economic and political realms had put forward passionate pleas to the UK public, calling for unity and warning of dire consequences that Brexit could wrought. UK Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S President Barack Obama and U.N General Secretary Ban Ki-moon all sided with remain.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove, of the leave campaign, was asked on June 3 whether there was a single economist who thought Brexit was a good idea. His reply was perhaps emblematic of a sentiment among leave voters: “I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” he said.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage was a prominent face during the leave campaign. His call to “Take Back Our Country”, played to a similar nativist sentiment as Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” election slogan. The leave campaign had been built on promises of redirecting £350 million a week the UK sent to the EU to boost the National Health Service (NHS); closing borders to immigrants; and freeing the British economy of the onerous EU regulations and bureaucracies.
Upon victory, most of the leave campaign’s promises were swiftly abandoned. Sky News reported that they had not expected to win and therefore had no plan. As the consequences from Brexit piled on, Nigel Farage decided to resign as leader of UKIP. Austrian actor Christoph Waltz took the opportunity during a promotional interview for his new film Tarzan to describe Farage’s actions as akin to a “head-rat” jumping from a sinking ship.
If the economic and political consequences of a Brexit were so grave, why did British voters choose to leave? While there is no single factor, as with the U.S. Presidential Election, many Brexit voters demonstrated an anti-establishment sentiment. A 2016 poll asked UK respondents to list 16 professions from most to least trusted. Politicians came last with just 21 percent of Brits trusting them to tell the truth.
The UK’s Equality Trust recently published an article which cited inequality as a major reason why a majority of UK voters sided with leave. In both the US and UK, the political systems are empirically failing large swathes of society.
UK non-partisan think-tank The Resolution Foundation undertook analysis of Office of National Statics data (above) which found that areas of the UK with lower wages were more likely to vote leave. Figures from 2015 show that the bottom fifth of the UK population has eight percent of the total wealth while the top fifth have 40 percent. On a global level, the 62 richest people in the world hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion.
This staggering inequality is the result of three decades of neoliberal policies that have seen wages stagnate, debts balloon and costs of living surge. Meanwhile, the world’s wealthiest often stash their fortune in secret offshore trusts to avoid taxes. The Panama papers were an insight into the duplicity of leaders like David Cameron who denounced tax avoidance but had personally profited from his father’s offshore trust in 2010.
Against the backdrop of half of working Britain seeing no rise in living standards since the early 2000s, it is surely no surprise that voters rejected the remain voices from the likes of David Cameron. How could UK voters put their faith in a man who had proven himself a monumental hypocrite?
In addition to economic anxieties, many people in the UK and Europe are concerned about the rapid waves of immigration. In 2015, a Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Europeans want to see immigration decrease. Politicians who ignore what many people in the public perceive as unfettered immigration, have already been shown to pay a heavy political price. Immigration and multi-culturalism are inevitable by-products of globalisation, but integration takes time and sustained government oversight. In the present period of economic uncertainty, the EU’s policy, permitting citizens to travel or work freely across any member state has come under scrutiny. Some British critics argued this policy led to disproportionate amounts of people shifting from poorer to richer EU members states.
In a world where the pace of change is ever-increasing and many people feel let down or left-behind by their leaders, polemic politicians are capitalizing on this resentment.
In a world where the pace of change is ever-increasing and many people feel let down or left-behind by their leaders, polemic politicians are capitalizing on this resentment. Right-wing populists in Europe and the US promote nationalism, and attempt to place society’s problems at the feet of immigrants or “others”. If EU leaders neglect to quell these concerns, other European nations may close their borders and the European Union’s house of cards may all come tumbling down. The popularity of non-conventional politicians on the left: Jeremy Corbyn (UK), Bernie Sanders (US) and the right: Donald Trump (US) are testament to the fact that many voters are dissatisfied with this status-quo.
The aims of the European Union should be — in the words of former Greek finance minister Janis Varoufakis: “A broad pan-union, democratic movement for preventing the post-modern 1930s hitting us and future generations.”
For all its faults — the EU was founded on principles of cooperation between nations. Europe ripped itself apart multiple times in the 20th century. Part of the reason for creating a union in the first place was European leaders believed that fostering increased economic interdependence and trade between their states would decrease the chance of another devastating war. In the current era, while there may be no immediate threat of a European conflict, pressing global issues like inequality and climate change demand global cooperation.
While one cannot discount the influence of the UK press or bigoted people upon the result, the Brexit vote had it roots in economic dissatisfaction. Until the current system is profoundly reformed so that it is more fair, equitable and delivers for all sectors of society, rather than primarily for the ultra-wealthy, we will continue to see widespread dissatisfaction and political upheaval across the EU and that’s good for no one.
Author Bio: Feilidh (Faylee) is a 28-year-old dual New Zealand and UK passport holder living in Hamburg, Germany. He is currently writing his thesis for the Mundus Journalism master’s about alternative, participatory media on YouTube and was formerly an online breaking news journalist in NZ.
This is the second article in a Mundus Collective series where our global network of alumni and post-grad journalism students share their perspectives on the implications of Brexit. All opinions are reflective of authors only and are written independently of any institutional affiliation. Image by Chloe Fill