Equipo Nizkor
        Bookshop | Donate
Derechos | Equipo Nizkor       


Brexit' Opens Uncertain Chapter in Britain's Storied History

Asked to vote in or out, Britain has chosen decisively to cast off its 43-year-old membership in the European Union, leaving it to face a more complex question: What kind of nation will it be now?

Will Britain be the outward-looking, entrepreneurial, confident country that makes its independent way in the world, as the leaders of the "Leave" campaign insisted it could be?

Or will it retreat to become a Little England, nationalist and a touch xenophobic, responding to the voters that drove it to quit the European Union?

Even more important: Will it even hold together? With Scotland deeply pro-Europe, pressure will increase for another independence referendum that could bring an end to the United Kingdom.

Britain, a nation whose storied history has encompassed the birth of constitutional government, global empire, royal pageantry and heroic defense against fascism, is entering unknown territory.

The questions about its new path could remain unresolved for years. On Friday morning, at least, Britain remained a member of the European Union in full standing, just as it was 24 hours earlier.

But the impact of this plebiscite is likely to be profound and long-lasting, well beyond the immediate tumult in the financial markets, and the questions about Britain's future will be answered against the backdrop of potential political, legal and economic upheaval.

A Conservative government with its first majority since 1992 has ripped itself apart on a global stage and is badly damaged. Prime Minister David Cameron promptly announced that he would step aside once his party settled on a successor, setting up a potentially bare-knuckle leadership battle. An early general election is not out of the question.

Once Britain begins the formal process of withdrawing from the European Union by exercising Article 50 of the treaty that governs membership in the bloc — a step Mr. Cameron said he would leave to the next prime minister — it will set off a two-year clock on negotiations, a period in which Britain (including millions of European citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the European Union) will be in limbo.

And if the British Treasury, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are to be believed, the British economy is in for a severe shock. The Treasury estimates that the British gross domestic product, representing the size of the economy, will fall by 3.5 percent, clobbering tax receipts; that half a million people will lose their jobs; and that housing prices (and thus personal wealth of homeowners) will fall by 10 percent.

Those estimates were criticized by the Leave campaign, including senior members of government, as unfounded fear mongering. Now Britain will find out how accurate they are.

This vote was a severe shock to Britain's political class from voters who are angry, confused and deeply distrustful of elites.

The Labour Party joined Mr. Cameron in campaigning to stay in Europe, as did nearly all the other parties represented in Parliament, with the exception of the Democratic Unionists and the U.K. Independence Party, which was founded on a platform of leaving the European Union. Yet despite that solid wall of establishment voices — or perhaps because of them — Britain voted for a fundamental change in direction.

"The British political class should pay attention," said Tony Travers, professor of government at the London School of Economics.

"There is a lot of disaffection with both main parties," he said. In 1955, the Conservatives and Labour won 97.5 percent of the vote, but in last two elections, the two won only about 66 percent of the vote, he said.

"Into that vacuum something else has to move, but what?" Mr. Travers asked. "The political class has to wonder how to appeal to those who increasingly feel left out of the system, how to stop large numbers of voters feeling cut out of economic change and success."

The Conservative Party is already split between traditional establishment figures like Mr. Cameron and others who embraced the anti-elite, anti-immigration posture of the Leave campaign, most prominently the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and one of Mr. Cameron's senior cabinet members, Michael Gove.

Mr. Cameron also had more centrist views than many in his party's grass roots, having pushed the Conservatives to back social issues like same-sex marriage and adopt unifying themes like "one-nation Conservatism."

He is likely to be replaced by someone more to the right and more anti-European, like Theresa May, the home secretary, or Mr. Johnson, who also thinks of himself as a "one-nation Tory," but in the Churchillian mode, and has made no secret of his ambition.

And the Labour Party must find a way to embrace those working-class voters who are clearly unhappy about the effects of globalization and immigration on their lives and found themselves swayed by the Leave campaign. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was somewhat halfhearted in his support for the "Remain" camp, reflecting his ambivalence about whether staying in Europe would be the right focus when it comes to helping working people.

This referendum has also displayed a major fissure between Britain's metropolitan elite and the rest of the country, essentially pitting rich versus poor across the normal party divide.

"Two nations, in short, are staring at each other across a political chasm," wrote John Harris in the left-leaning Guardian, which supported Remain, but James Bartholomew made the same point in the Spectator magazine, which supported Leave.

Those with a university degree supported Remain in large numbers, according to pre-referendum polls; those with little higher education supported Leave in equally large numbers. Major cities, multicultural and replete with immigrants, tended to support Remain, while the countryside and poorer areas along with eastern coast were strongly for Leave.

People over 45, and especially retirees, strongly supported Leave, while younger Britons strongly supported Remain.

Those with cosmopolitan lives and money were afraid to lose it; those whose lives are bounded by England and are struggling with the pressures of globalization and immigration looked for a return to a calmer, more homogeneous past.

So the divisions are just as much cultural as economic, and they raise serious questions about Britain's political coherence and unity, and about how long it may take to heal the wounds made or reopened in this noisy, often vicious campaign.

The referendum also sharply exacerbated tensions within the four countries of the United Kingdom and gave a jolt to English nationalism, already on the rise since the Scottish independence referendum failed in 2014.

In addition to intensifying demands for another referendum on independence for Scotland, the outcome of the European Union vote may also increase demands in England, which makes up 85 percent of the British population, for its own devolved Parliament to vote on laws concerning only England, just as Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do now for their regions.

Amid the overwhelming confusion about the next few years, it will take more than a few reassuring words about a festival of democracy to begin to bring Britain back together.

As Mr. Harris warned, "We are in a terrible mess, and it is probably going to take decades to even begin to put things right."

[Source: By Steven Erlanger, International New York Times, London, 24Jun16]

Bookshop Donate Radio Nizkor

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
small logoThis document has been published on 27Jun16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.