As the dust settles after last week’s UK referendum in which England and to a lesser extent Wales voted the UK out of the European Union, some things are becoming clearer.
The first is that the Leave campaign had no real blueprint for how Brexit would be effected. It is hard to imagine another context in which voting for an option so vaguely and inadequately outlined would even have been countenanced. It is as if most of the leaders of the Leave campaign only began to believe that they might win in the dying days of the campaign. Certainly we are hearing in the media that numbers of those who voted Leave did so thinking their vote would not count, and “Regrexit” has now been coined to cover those who repent of their vote to leave.
This itself brings into sharper focus the reality of why people voted as they did in the referendum. The two main motives for the mass of Brexiteers appear now to have been (1) expressing a profound dissatisfaction with the two major parties who are said to have been totally out of touch with the electorate at large, and (2) concerns about immigration. This latter topic was crudely exploited by Nigel Farage in his infamous campaign poster; crudely but effectively it seems. The higher-brow Brexit leaders avoided the topic, preferring to speak of the less toxic issue of sovereignty.
This failure to address the agenda of the disaffected, politically-disconnected masses rather confirms the first motive. By failing to address directly the issue of immigration the political leaders proved how out of touch they are with the masses. Both sides missed a vital opportunity to nip in the bud the incipient tide of racial discontent that has been manifesting itself more openly in the days after the referendum. Perhaps there was a fear of being seen to be racist. Ironically racists are now feeling empowered by Brexit to graffiti Polish community centres and pass xenophobic notes through immigrants’ letterboxes.
The politicians on both sides failed miserably to neuter this disturbing trend. By failing to address openly and directly the concerns about immigration they proved how out of touch they were, and how much closer to the mood of the people was the objectionable Mr Farage. What was needed was a clear exposition of the positive role immigrants play in the economic and social life of the country, and a demonstration that such immigrants are mostly temporary and mostly take jobs the British seem unwilling to do themselves, especially in agriculture. The current low unemployment rate of 5% is ample evidence of this fact. If they had faced up to this electoral time-bomb they might have defused it.
So now, as Yeats put it, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The United Kingdom itself is in danger of fragmenting as Scotland seeks to stay in the EU and Northern Ireland seeks to preserve its newly forged and healthy links with the Irish Republic. Both Labour and the Tories are set for bloody leadership contests. Spain is eyeing Gibraltar. London is toying with its own independence from Britain. The dormant and small pimple of racism has now been inflamed. The far right in several EU countries are seizing on Brexit to force referenda of their own causing the whole European edifice to wobble. The economic outlook for Britain has suddenly turned from sunny to darkly cloudy, and the grand promises about NHS funding are being quietly shelved.
By refusing to address directly the issue of immigration, by demonising reasoned and consistent warnings about Brexit’s likely consequences as a campaign of fear, by failing to have even a semblance of a blueprint for effecting Brexit in an orderly way, the politicians have shown themselves to be truly disconnected not only from the masses, but from reality.