Britain’s referendum

Exactly how a people could vote in favour of inflicting damage on themselves must seem perplexing at first glance. In fact it is not so, given that those in Britain who voted to leave the European Union in Thursday’s referendum were hardly reticent about the reasons for their choice. In very general terms, the major urban centres led by Edinburgh and London, and including Manchester, Liverpool and, surprisingly, Newcastle-on-Tyne (but not Birmingham, the UK’s second city) elected to remain in Europe, while the more rural areas tended to vote with the Brexit camp. Geographically speaking, in addition to Greater London, Scotland voted unambiguously to stay, with not a single council area in that country opting to leave; while Northern Ireland, which did not have a clean sweep, nevertheless also followed suit in terms of the overall result.

It was the old industrial heartland of England in the north-east and Midlands which showed some of the biggest support for Brexit, something which surprised no one, since many of these areas have become depressed since the UK moved away from heavy industry. In addition, it was clear that young people chose to remain, while the older generation, perhaps harking back to a Britain which is no more and will never come again, correspondingly wanted to leave. On the morning after the disaster, various news outlets reported young people as saying in so many words that it was pensioners who had already lived their lives who had now blighted the future of the younger generation.

Of course it might be remarked that although young people turned out in larger numbers for the referendum than they did for the general election last year, had more of them taken themselves into the polling booth, the UK would still be in the EU and life would have returned somewhat to normal.  Tellingly, areas of the country where the levels of education were higher, the vote tended to be in favour of remain. More than one commentator drew attention to the rank appeals to nationalism and the irresponsible reporting of the tabloids, which were firmly on the Brexit side, while their crude chauvinism on the morning of the referendum might have pushed undecided voters into the leave camp, in the view of one analyst. Be that as it may, one young interviewee perceptively remarked that unlike younger people who tended to do their own research on issues, older people had a habit of depending on the pre-digested views of the tabloids.

But in circumstances where all the parliamentary leaders supported Remain, some of them too have to accept responsibility for the outcome, not least Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party. He came across as less than overwhelmingly supportive of the campaign to stay, more particularly after he told one reporter when asked about the level of his commitment, that he was 70% committed. It was an absurd response in a context where there were only two choices – stay or go. It might be observed too, that it was in some of Labour’s heartland areas (London excluded), that support for Brexit was strongest. Prime Minister David Cameron was himself an unimaginative and uninspired leader of Remain, but the charge against him is of altogether a more fundamental nature, to which we will return.

On the leave side there was the popular, flamboyant former London mayor, Boris Johnson, who did not declare his position until February following a meeting with the Prime Minister, who wanted him to join the Remain camp. In his case, of course, the suspicion lingers that what drove his decision was ambition, since now that Britain is to go, he has hopes of succeeding David Cameron as prime minister. This would not have happened if he had supported Remain. Apart from his capacity for showmanship, he is nevertheless recognized as a mainstream politician, and therefore brought some respectability to the Brexit campaign, in circumstances where its most prominent protagonist was the odious demagogue from the UKIP party, Nigel Farage.

The motivation of those who wanted Britain to leave holds lessons not just for that nation’s politicians, but those everywhere, including Guyana. From the interviews which have been reported, many voters in the north-east particularly, who have experienced a real decline in their standard of living over the years, were angry at the far-removed politicians in London, who never addressed their concerns, as well as those in Brussels, whom they felt were making decisions for the country. It was, in other words, a vote against those whom they saw as distant elites.

The reversion to petty nationalism has already been referred to above in connection with the tabloids, and by implication in the complaints about foreigners making all the decisions for Britain, but it also found expression in the debate about immigration. This was an unhealthy campaign theme which was tinged with xenophobia, if not an undercurrent of racism, and the Prime Minister’s side never really addressed it systematically in an attempt to counter the myths.  The irony was that it was the Remain areas which had the highest immigration, not the Brexit ones, although those living there were the most exercised about immigrants ‘taking’ their jobs.

It might be claimed, perhaps, that it would not have mattered what rational arguments had been brought to bear, the easy emotional appeals of small-minded nationalism might have won through in any case. As it is, we shall never know.  What can be said is that whatever the economic consequences in the medium term, the political consequences are likely to be severe. Scotland may well vote to leave the UK in due course, and somewhere down the line she might be followed by Northern Ireland – although if that happens it would be altogether more messy and complicated. Such a development would take what would essentially be little England (and Wales) out of the international political councils of the world, and no doubt the economic ones too, like the G7. It is a high price to pay for short-sightedness and parochialism.

There is no doubt that direct democracy has its limitations and should be resorted to only rarely. Britain, along with the other democracies of the world, has representative democracy, ie, elections are held to select representatives – not delegates – to sit in Parliament and form an administration for the purposes of governing, and given the complexity of modern government it can be no other way. The technology currently exists for direct democracy to be given expression, but for an electorate to vote on every government decision would not only be impractical, it would result in anarchy.

While there appears to be a greater taste for direct democracy in the form of referenda nowadays, there are some matters which should never be put to a nation in that form, and whether to remain in or leave the EU was one of them. The issues were complicated, many faceted and in terms of the economic questions, difficult for many ordinary persons to fully grasp. As it was, the level of argument ‒ particularly on the Brexit side, although the Remain camp was also guilty of this in a different way ‒ was often designed to have an easy emotional appeal. In other words, as said earlier, quite a lot of voters did not make an informed decision.  Now had there been a groundswell of public opinion to hold a referendum Mr Cameron would have had a better case, but there wasn’t. There were UKIP and Mr Farage’s endless bleatings and there was a rebel right wing within the Conservative Party which wanted Brexit – that’s all.

Mr Cameron, therefore, did not have his hand forced by the electorate; he sought to quiet down his right wing with a referendum which presumably he assumed he would win. The least that can be said about it is that it was grossly irresponsible for a man in his position.  He will now go down in the history books as the prime minister who made the greatest political miscalculation of any British head of government – at least since Neville Chamberlain.