Last Thursday, the people of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. John Wooding, a native of England and a professor of political science at UMass Lowell for many years, shared on Facebook his thoughts on the Brexit vote outcome. John, who has contributed a number of articles to this blog (including his experience of becoming an American citizen in 2013), agreed to my request to repost his Brexit essay here.
I Read The News Today, Oh Boy – By John Wooding
Brexit. I know, sounds like a breakfast cereal. But the news this morning is not the best way to start the day. The UK is to leave the European Union. As Marx once said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. I, for one, am not laughing. The consequences of yesterday’s referendum are already having a wide and devastating impact but the real effects and ones that will echo down the next decades. And they are not good. They play out on a number of levels.
First, the context: There was always a strong “Little Englander” sentiment in Britain. The narrow, pinched and petty ideas of self-important nationalists who think that Britain is best off in splendid isolation, that the rest of the world doesn’t really deserve to be blessed by an open internationalist Britain. This sentiment has been around a long time: from the insularity of the much married and manic Henry VIII, through the Victorians and the glory of Empire (even as they embraced liberalism – the first time), to the pathetic Oswald Mosley and his fascist pals in the thirties, to Enoch Powell, the racist demagogue railing against immigration in the sixties. It continued like the cancer it was in the right wing of the post-war Tories, popping up again in the thinking of Keith Joseph and, of course, of Margaret Thatcher. But the disease is not just in the old Tory heartland or in the lymph nodes of the brash, young brokerage class that Thatcher’s policies brought into the world like a tender and deranged midwife. It has lain dormant in the body politic, coming to the surface in the working class as they seek explanations for getting screwed. It shows up on the football terraces and in the schools and in racism in the inner cities. You know how this is, there’s a version of this walking the streets of America.
So – what does leaving in the EU mean given this context? There are immediate, mid-term and long-term effects. None of them is cause for optimism. For now it is clear what devastation this can cause. As I write the DOW is down some 500+ points (it is worse in the European markets), the punters in $5,000 suits are lining up outside the doors of the tawdry casino that used to be the global financial system, and placing their bets. The British pound has fallen to a low against the dollar we haven’t seen since 1985 – and yes, this will make British exports cheaper but will be a killer for the costs of imports and that burden will fall hard on the poor. And, as in America, those poor are getting poorer by the minute. Banks are going to find it harder to lend money, credit will get tighter, and the rich (because they always can) will abandon the pound and take their money elsewhere.
Politics. Cameron is gone. A new Tory leader will get elected, opening up the door for the right in the Tory party and, god forbid, the rise of Boris Johnson – an oddly popular former Mayor of London who is a version of Trump with more smarts, better education and from good breeding stock. The leader of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, has problems too. Like most of his party he supported the “Remains” but a lot of the vote to leave came from strong Labour constituencies, raising questions about his ability to lead when so many Labour supporters (probably very much the white, disenfranchised working class) wanted to get Britain out of Europe. And up North, in Scotland, it is very likely that they will push for another referendum for Scottish independence (they are not happy about being dragged out of the EU by the pissed-off Sassenachs). This time they might get and will happily apply to join the Europeans because the Scots are smart enough to know that being of Europe is better for them. The whole question of what happens to Northern Ireland is unknown. Apparently, the northern Irish vote was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Britain in (there are lots of euros that have come to the North, even more to their brothers and sisters in the Irish Republic). Brexit may mean some serious reconsideration of the relationship of the North to the rest of Britain. These are just a few of the short and mid-term consequences of this morning’s news.
The long-term worries me more. Yes, the financial markets will come out of a tizzy eventually and the pound may regain some of its value. The Tories may have a breakdown and call a general election. Perhaps Labour will get it together enough to win next time and come up with a recipe other than the draconian austerity budgets of Cameron and his pals, blaming the poor and making them poorer. The Scots may well become their own nation and join the EU. Good luck to them. They know which side their bread is buttered and I’m sure they will be happy to sit in Parisian cafes trying to persuade the French that haggis is actually food. The Northern Irish? Who knows, this may lead to more strife and more horror.
But in the long-term? This decision and the politics of the last few decades are setting the stage for a farce with catastrophic consequences: more nationalism, more inadequate and misguided responses to globalization (and yes, something has to be done for all those displaced and disenfranchised), more xenophobia as folks are told by demagogues that some Muslim, or some Mexican, or some Syrian kids fleeing horrors we can only imagine, are taking their jobs, ruining their neighborhoods, sucking off their welfare system or blowing up their shopping malls.
The conservative leadership in both the UK and the US are the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, conjuring up forces they thought they could control, to build an agenda for their benefit, and a set of ideas that pointed the finger at foreigners, gays, environmentalists, government or whomever the devil of the day may be. They did this to keep the natives quiet and explain for them why their jobs have disappeared, their neighborhoods have gone to hell, and why they are much poorer than their parents. This is now out of control: capital and the elite do not want the UK out of the EU, they do not want Trump in the White House, they do not want walls or tariffs, they do not want restrictions on sending their money across the globe hunting down interest rate deals the way the rest of us wait for a sale at Walmart. But they might get all of this now. The rest of us might end up in an intolerant, petty, authoritarian society scarred with deep class divides whose once open arms are locked around the necks of the “other,” squeezing the life out of them while fear and hatred become the new international currency….. maybe this goes too far but today’s news has made me realize how dangerous the times are and how, in the US and the UK, we have unleashed forces we do not know how to control. Would that this was only a day in a life.