Brexit and the Return of the Nation State

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By Christopher J.V. Loughlin (June 26, 2016)

On 23rd June 2016 the United Kingdom voted by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union (EU); the electorate spoke and a British exit from the EU is the result, or ‘Brexit’. This has caused shockwaves, politically and economically, in a result few predicted. Within hours of the result, the British Prime Minister David Cameron stated his intention to step down in October. The pound has taken a battering on currency markets: at 10.30pm (GMT) on the 23rd June it was strong against other currencies, but by 10am(GMT) on Friday 24th June it was taking a hammering and recovered slightly by the end of trading. Further, British stocks and shares were hit hard on Friday as well, forcing the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, to step in stating, ‘the Bank will not hesitate to take additional measures as required as those markets adjust and the UK economy moves forward.’ Across Europe neo-liberal elites have responded to the British result with dismay and derision. This decision will have an impact regionally, on the continent and globally for years to come and Britain will, more than likely, experience a recession as a result. But after over 40 years of membership of the EU and its forerunner (the European Economic Community, which Britain joined in 1973), why did Britain vote to leave? Is this the triumph of the hard-right as many have claimed? Or, alternatively, is it the return of the nation-state in an era of globalisation?

The referendum result was exceptionally close, just 1,269,501 votes separated the two sides (or, to view it another way, less than the entire population of Northern Ireland was the difference between Brexit and continued EU membership). Further, there are a number of clear demarcation lines on how people voted: first, a regional and urban-rural split; second, class and socio-economic division; third, a generational divide. The regions of the UK state voted differently. For example, east, west, north and south of England and Wales all endorsed leaving the EU, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland both backed remain. This regional difference was also expressed in an urban-rural split: the cities of England, London, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester and Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire all voted to remain. It seems that those who felt they had gained from the EU or had something to gain, voted remain; whereas those that felt little benefit from it voted to leave. This division, between haves and have-nots, reflects the harsh class divisions felt across the UK. For example, socio-economic indicators were a reliable indication of how an area would vote: areas with higher numbers of degree-level inhabitants voted remain, whilst areas with a lower socio-economic status were much more likely to vote leave. This feeling of having lost out, in the past, present or on future prospects, helps to explain why so-called “experts” were consistently ignored by the electorate (a position of some justification when the “experts” spectacularly failed and called a remain victory on Thursday evening, shortly after polling closed). The vote for Brexit represents, to some extent, the return of working-class people into British political debate, no longer will it be possible to treat the people with contempt á la Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and other neo-liberal elites. Last, there was a clear generational divide in voting patterns. The higher the median age, the more likely an area was to vote leave. According to a YouGov poll, nearly ¾’s of young people backed remain and there has been a heartfelt despair expressed by many young people at the result. It seems that it was amongst the youngest that the claim that the EU delivered benefits to the people was given the most credence. But what are the ramifications of this result?

The Brexit referendum was rancorous, bitter, bad-tempered and, unfortunately, contributed to the murder of a Labour MP, Jo Cox. Her death was certainly contributed to by the vicious and hyperbolic campaign waged by both remain and leave during the referendum. Verbal abuse, physical attack, scape-goating and denunciation were all common-currency. Speaking personally, it took all my self-discipline to actually go and vote on the 23rd June. I felt so disgusted at the actions of each side in the referendum. The future of the British state, British politics and the European project now hang in the balance. Within the Labour Party, for example, there is a renewed Blairite offensive on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The Blairite’s are blaming Corbyn for the refusal of English and Welsh working-class people to endorse the EU. Referenda could now occur which threaten to break up the UK state itself, specifically in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, which narrowly voted to remain a part of the UK state in 2014, the Scottish National Party leader, Nichola Sturgeon, has already clearly stated she will press for a new referendum in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, a referendum could also now be held on the reunification of the island with the Republic of Ireland. Yet the political situation is exceptionally fluid. Just like in Northern Ireland a few months ago, across Britain now to the Janus Gates have opened. This is tied to the return of the nation-state form in an era of globalisation. What we need now is a bold, audacious and vibrant New Left across these islands. There are clear dangers in the situation, such as how the media is portraying the vote as a victory for the hard right, but also opportunities. Given the explicit class divides opened by the vote, there is a clear necessity for a Labour government on a socialist programme. The time for clear socialist struggle is here and the revolt of the masses in Britain has begun.

Originally Published at Red Notes from the North.

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