I don’t think I realised quite how much was at stake re: the referendum until the day itself. I hate the EU, even if I did vote Remain (reluctantly, weeks ago, by post). But the worst thing about what’ll happen now has very little to do with the practicalities of us leaving it.
The referendum has always been a sort of elite civil war – a split in the neoliberal governing class that’s been smothering us all for nigh-on forty years. Some see the EU as an excellent way of furthering the usual majority-squashing hyper-exploitative objectives of rampant corporate capitalism. Some see it as an obstacle.
Cameron and Osborne have been trying to turn Britain into a rights-less poverty wage-paying Indonesia of a country for half a decade. That’s been bad enough. Now, though, they’re sunk. They emphatically tied their colours to the Remain mast – and now they’re near-inevitably going to be replaced with people who are even worse.
They didn’t even want a referendum. They promised one to see off the threat posed by UKIP, and quieten down Eurosceptics in their own party – thinking, crucially, that they might never have to actually go through with it. The all-important get-out-clause that always lurked behind the Tories’ referendum pledge was that they’d deliver one if they formed a majority government – which, pre-May last year, it was near-universally assumed they wouldn’t for a very long time. Then they did.
Now, they’ve fought to stay in and lost. David Cameron has resigned – Osborne will probably go with him. And the people that will replace them, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Iain Duncan Smith and others, will probably make for an even more radically and unpleasantly right-wing government than the one we’ve got at the moment.
The referendum campaign, in addition to being a colossal waste of time and money, has been a despicable affair filled with dog-whistle racism, blatant scaremongering, and almost no factual content at all. It proved something that many have long suspected – that it’s now impossible to have a civilised debate about anything concerning the EU or immigration, because millions and millions of people have been brainwashed into using them as their go-to scapegoats for practically every social and economic problem they face.
I’ve argued that Remainers were far too scornful and flippant about people who wanted to Leave – particularly on the Left, there are lots of people who wanted out for extremely valid, thought-through reasons. But there’s no doubt that, on the whole, what we’ve seen is a stunning victory for colossal, system-breaking stupidity. No amount of reasoned argument or factual evidence could dissuade the most fanatical Brexiters from voting Out. For them, it was an emotional fixation, nearly a religious belief, not an intellectual position that could be questioned or changed.
As is now horrifically common, the poorest and most vulnerable people in society were those clamouring most noisily for a kind of politics that goes directly against their own interests – in a few decades’ time, maybe they’ll call it Trumpism. For forty years, wages have gone down, prices have gone up, secure jobs and housing have become scarce, and now, thanks to a propagandising corporate media system that’s intentionally misinformed people for decades, those most affected are venting their (extremely justifiable) anger at Brussels and refugees rather than an untouchable elite that’s rigged the economy in its favour. On immigration, benefits, government spending, and the economy and politics more generally, the public has been led so far away from objective, verifiable reality that I don’t think democracy’s even possible any more.
I’m going to end with an anecdote – I’ve told it before, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few days. The most interesting and insightful thing I ever learned from my three-year history degree came from a few weeks studying seventeenth century witchcraft. Back then, pre-science, pre-Enlightenment, the only explanations ordinary people had for why the world worked the way it did were supernatural. God, spirits, ghosts, magic, etc. People didn’t understand the complexities of physics and biology, that the universe was chaotic and random and largely meaningless. They tended to see intent, evil or otherwise, on the part of someone or something behind the sort of everyday happenings that modern people would just put down to luck, or scientific cause and effect.
Now, imagine you’re living in that baffled, hyper-local, inward-looking world – and something terrible happens. Not just one thing, but several – your spouse drops dead, your child’s born with a club foot, your crops fail. You’re completely devastated – going through the same chemical changes in your brain, the same emotions, as every human has ever felt in those sorts of circumstances. Hurt and confused, you flail around, desperately looking for some sort of explanation for your misfortune. But you don’t know about medical science – that people can have conditions that cause sudden death, or that crops can get diseases, and so on. You just know that you’re angry, you’re anguished, and that the old woman who lives opposite you has always looked at you funny. Egged on by a culture that explains everything in supernatural terms, you reach a conclusion – that old woman is a witch. She’s cursed you. And if you burn her, you might just make the pain go away.
Swap the early modern misfortunes with twenty-first century ones, and the culture replete with paranoia about the supernatural with one dominated by the views and interests of a borderline-sociopathic neoliberal elite… and you see what I’m getting at. That witchcraft paper told me all I’ve ever needed to know about scapegoat politics – and why directing people’s anger at the marginalised and vulnerable is such an excellent strategy for marauding elites to repeatedly screw us all over and keep getting away with it.