The unspeakable cause of Brexit

Posted on June 24, 2016



I am going to bed to the news that the UK has just voted to leave the European Union. Lots of factors have contributed to this outcome, of which the EU itself – for all its flaws – was one of the least important. Among these are growing geographical imbalances and cultural divisions in the UK, between regions, generations and social classes. These are complex, long-term and worrying trends.

But for me the most important factor – the one that cuts across all of the others – is the stranglehold that an extremist ideology has had over British politics for the last 30 years. During this time successive governments have pursued a shared agenda that has not only alienated large parts of the population, but deprived them of a language to resist or even make sense of what has been happening.

The extremists advocate selling off income-generating state assets like housing, transport and utilities, telling us these will be more efficiently run by the private sector. Once privatised the prices of these basic necessities soar and become unaffordable for many (not to mention far more expensive for government to the extent that it decides to subsidise access). The need for the state to continually reduce its spending becomes both self-fulfilling and incompatible with ensuring the basic needs of the population are met.

The extremists believe that nothing – not trade unions, labour laws, minimum wages or social security – should ensure that incomes are sufficient for the majority of the population to live on, lest they allow workers too much bargaining power. The determination to ensure sky high corporate profits makes a truly living wage impossible except for a small few (at least when factoring in housing costs) and exerts a continual downward pressure on working conditions.

The extremists argue that the banking system should not be interfered with even after its greed and stupidity brought the economy to the brink of collapse. Instead it tells the public the crisis was their own fault, for demanding adequate schools and hospitals and for plugging the growing gaps in their household budgets with cheaply offered credit. The punishment has been almost a decade of drastically repressed wages and even more hollowing out of public services.

This doctrine has failed time and again to meet the fundamental needs of ordinary people, but the broad consensus behind it at the top of British politics has robbed us of any way of imagining anything different. With no other way to articulate an opposition to this, many have had their anger redirected towards the EU – a body that shares many ideas with our home-grown extremists, but which is not responsible for them, and which they can survive quite happily without.

After listening to Cameron and Osborne spend the last 8 years diverting attention from the real problems we face and justifying austerity with lies and attacks on the poor, disabled and immigrants, a part of me is pleased to see their downfall. It may be one of the few times in my lifetime that politicians have got exactly what they deserved.

But then I look at who is there ready to replace them. And I remember that this was a phoney war, a false choice. None of the fundamental issues that have brought us to this point will be solved by this decision, and in fact it may make things significantly worse.

Worst of all, we are further than ever before from being able to talk about why any of this has happened.

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