In the aftermath of the EU Referendum, most of us woke up to a Brexit shock. It was an exercise of direct democracy, with just over half the electorate deciding to untie four decades of institution building and partnership in the European Union. This initial shock, greater than the Credit Crunch, sent the value of the Pound and financial markets tumbling. It wasn’t until the Governor of the Bank of England’s message of stability and liquidity of the financial markets that the Pound and FTSE100 recovered slightly.
This referendum has brought into sharp focus many disparities within British society. The older generation’s apparent fears of having lost control and sense of losing an old Brit identity stand in sharp contrast to the younger generations’ apparent hope in a global urban class. Then there is the contrast of embracing multi-cultural cosmopolitanism in academia-dominated cities like Cambridge, Oxford, London, Bristol and Manchester versus the more provincial in-ward looking white working class areas, where immigrants from Europe (and also further afield) are seen as unfairly getting ahead with school places, benefits, housing and jobs. There is also the contrast of pro-Europeanism in Scotland verses, what is now evident, a rampant euro-scepticism driven by xenophobic leaders like Nigel Farage in England.
Efforts to discount the symbolism of little England that Brexit inevitably brings are already under way. Within a day of the Brexit vote, universities like Imperial College reiterated their European and internationalist identity. Even Boris Johnson, who sheepishly got onto the podium to give his not so victory-like speech, offered the most astonishing of self-contradiction.
“Young people who may feel that this decision in some way involves pulling out a draw bridge or any kind of isolationism because I think the very opposite is true. We cannot turn our backs on Europe. We are part of Europe. Our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future as Europeans travelling to the continent, understanding our languages and cultures that make up our common European civilization, continue interacting together in a way that is open and friendly and outward looking.”
It was hardly the stuff of euphoria of a referendum win. Rather, it had all the hallmarks of a surprise win, something which Boris’s sister hinted at, and also of great anxiety about the uncertainties ahead.
As uncertainties go, it actually doesn’t get any bigger, spanning economic, constitutional, social and legal; all of which will continue to unfold as time goes on. Credit rating agencies have been quite swift to downgrade the UK. At some point this will make the cost of national borrowing higher. Something which may well add to the sense of missing out if, as expected, it leads to less investment and welfare cuts that will hit working-class voters most. Ironically, these are the very people who fear losing an old Brit identity and the impact of the EU’s freedom of movement. And then there is the matter of the UK’s ongoing current account deficit. Somehow, with banks having passed their stress tests and becoming liquid, everyone’s forgotten about this huge deficit.
Politically, we’ve seen David Cameron resign and a deadline set for October by when a new leader of the Conservative Party must take the office of Prime Minister. Whoever it is – whether Boris, Gove or May, they will face the dilemma of calling for an early General Election. And if so, it will likely once again throw open the Brexit decision, as Tim Farron has already announced that the Lib Dems will pledge to return to the EU.
As for Labour, Jeremy Corbyn is now under immense pressure; a mutiny now well underway. Corbyn is widely seen to have had a lacklustre campaign. It doesn’t help that he actually voted against the UK’s EU membership in 1975. There is of course a big rift, which has been simmering for months, between the Labour Party membership for whom Corbyn remains popular and the Parliamentary Labour Party who he has failed to unite behind him. The decent man of politics appears too leftist and devoid of the muscular leadership that parliamentary politics, and indeed the office of Prime Minister, requires.
North of the border, IndyRef2 is now back on the cards. Nicola Sturgeon seems more intent than ever to fight for the interests of Scotland. She’s already hinted at holding immediate direct discussions with the EU and may well prove to be a formidable thorn to the Brexiters as the legal process commences.
The EU too faces uncertainties. Though at this stage, talk of the beginning of the end of the EU seems quite exaggerated, and perhaps reflects English-centrism. There is little sympathy from across the continent either, as leading EU foreign ministers have already started putting pressure on the UK to swiftly invoke Article 50 in order to officially start exit proceedings. It’s very likely that the new legal frameworks will turn out to be a cut and paste job of EU law, at least initially. And, whatever trade deals are done with the EU, whether in an EEA framework or something else, it will most likely have some level of freedom for people to move around. After all, how do you trade without giving people the freedom to move around and settle?
For many the uncertainty of the referendum lies in legitimised xenophobia and giving an open ticket to racists in Britain First and Pegida. That such an important decision was made by many on the back of mostly a xenophobic Leave campaign, outright lies about £350m a week EU contributions being reallocated to the NHS and taking back control is seriously worrying. This will be worrying as much for the millions of European expats and ethnic minorities in the UK as the 1.3 million British expats who live and work in the EU.
All of this is unprecedented stuff. No one really knows where this will all land. But one thing is for sure, divorce is never sweet and we’re in for turbulent waters. The ship has well and truly sailed without rudders.