Brexit: reflections from UK-based politics lecturer raised in Brussels

If only the debate had really been about how the EU functions, what it does, why, how the UK works within it, what does need changing and how best to do this together. You cannot say political scientists, economists, legal scholars and other experts didn’t see this coming and warn of the consequences. Yet Brexit won. There are many reasons why, but there are also many ways to respond to the root causes. Politics is often complicated, and there are many different aspects to consider to get a better understanding of what happened. The below are my tentative thoughts on this. It’s a longer than average read, but I want to try to do justice to the many complexities, and I have provided numerous links to further info and related arguments (I am grateful to many facebook friends for posting interesting stuff on these – and other – issues.). I hope it can contribute to the unfolding debate, and I genuinely hope to hear from you to refine or revise the tentative analysis.

Let’s start with a reminder of some of the damage (so far):

  1. the sterling is down and will be volatile for a while to come (the same applies, though probably less acute, for the euro), with numerous economic consequences, including higher inflation, more debt and economic pain, a very uncertain future for national institutions like the NHS (both because it relies so much on immigration, and because of the public views on it by leading Leave campaigners including Farage, Johnson and Gove), major employers moving out of the UK (starting with banks), the possibility of higher interest rates or recession or both, and so on;
  2. Moody’s revised its rating for the UK economy to ‘negative’, which will make the UK’s continuing deficit and debt more expensive to service;
  3. stock markets across the world have reacted with turmoil and volatility of their own (and for all you might feel little sympathy for the financial market, remember they’re also holding your pension);
  4. Britain faces a major constitutional crisis on several fronts with Scotland quite clearly on a pretty firm road to independence, the fragile Northern Irish Peace process in jeopardy, and uncertainties about the status of Gibraltar [see also this];
  5. the divided Conservatives will be electing a new PM soon after a major miscalculation by the PM and Chancellor, and the Labour leadership continues tear itself apart;
  6. there is political uncertainty all across Europe, and considerable anger (hence the demand for a quick divorce);
  7. populist politicians across the world are gloating (even Trump is celebrating, in Scotland of all places!);
  8. Britain is deeply divided (52:48 is a pretty even division, not a broad agreement) across party lines, many Remainers feel quite angry not without reason [see also this and this], and many Brexit voters seem to be having second thoughts already (not least as some of the lies that tricked them are now being admitted), with an official petition asking for a second vote gaining millions of signatures;
  9. parts of the UK which have benefited very considerably from EU membership are pleading for continued special support post-Brexit (even if some actually voted for Brexit despite clearly gaining hugely from the EU [see also this]);
  10. British xenophobes have been feeling liberated from ‘political correctness’ and are much less hesitantly publicly abusing foreigners [see also this, this, this, this and this], so there is no denying some toxic forces have been invigorated.

We’re in for a long and hairy national and international political and economic rollercoaster.

Much will be said about it and we do need to talk and listen to each other about all the pertinent issues. These clearly include immigration (within the EU, but also from refugees fleeing death and persecution), the EU and its institutions, the gap between elites and the people (and the anti-establishment ‘protest’ vote), post-2008 economic policy (austerity and its alternatives), better designs for democratic structures from local to international levels, and more.

Here, I want to offer some perplexed and frustrated thoughts including on those issues, and some concrete proposals too. I feel drawn to write this because I have what I think is a very peculiar location in British and indeed European society. But I’m also genuinely interested in conversation and debate, so if some of you feel like reading and reacting (constructively), then great.

I think I ought to start by explaining a bit about where I come from on all this, because this is both relevant and more transparent – but skip that part if you’re really not interested. Then I want to make a few remarks about the broader British and European context this is all happening in, because this is relevant in order to understand the Brexit outcome. The third section finally turns to various reflections on the referendum result. In the final bit, I make (or rather echo) some concrete suggestions for European politicians and citizens to ponder and discuss.

I. My topical location

I am uncomfortable talking about private life, but it’s relevant here. Why? I come from the EU. I have lived, studied and worked in the UK for 18 years now. I was not allowed to vote (whereas some of those born here after I migrated soon will, and ironically I’ll be teaching some of them if they’re starting a politics course in Loughborough in September). I pay taxes here and take part in political life in many different ways. My two-year old son with my French wife (who I met in Kent) is British and French, and I just did the British thing of hopping onto the ‘property ladder’ (possibly a mistake now). I live in Leicester, a multicultural city even Europeans have now heard of (champioooones!) at the heart of a Brexit-dominated East Midlands.

But I’m a ‘foreigner’, an ‘expat’, a ‘migrant’. My mum is French, my dad was Greek, and I grew up in Brussels, in the very centre of the EU beast. I even went to a European School and got a European Baccalaureate. I’ve never lived in France or Greece, the places I’m supposed to be ‘from’ – I only ever lived in Brussels and England. Not surprising therefore that international politics has long intrigued me, as have the EU and attitudes towards it from across Europe. I studied and later taught EU politics and economics, and now work at a respected university as senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations.

So I have an awkward perspective on all this, one that leads me to want to make a number of reflections you might care to hear about. And by ‘you’, I mean Britons of both sides, students, workers, travellers, migrants from the EU and beyond, EU technocrats, politicians, commentators and others. Reactions of Europeans living in Britain have already been reported, but I want to try to combine academic reflections with those of a child of Brussels living in Britain.

Of course that does not mean I’m right. The study of politics involves a lot of nuances and confusions and speculations, but these can still be approached with careful analysis. And I am genuinely keen to learn more from your responses to these tentative reflections. I really mean to have a conversation with you. Please comment (constructively) and let’s talk about all this.

I’ll give you a spoiler: I think we need to pause the divorce, seriously listen to each other’s concerns (on immigration, on economic deprivation and more) and consider some fairly straightforward policy options which could actually make it a better journey for us all. And ‘Europe’ is far from the only urgent priority.

II. The UK and Europe today

File:UK location in the EU 2016.svgNo event of such magnitude can be analysed outside its context. Britain today is largely a welcoming society, with people from all sorts of cultures (including different British cultures) living side by side, engaging with each other with considerable respect, tolerance and equality (backed up by selectively progressive ‘equality’ legislation compared to other parts of the globe). My experience (in Kent and in the East Midlands) of the many Brits I have met, worked with, eaten and drunk and sang with is of a truly welcoming, witty and friendly bunch – across class, profession, newspaper-readership, gender preference or ethnic background. I have met many EU (and other) migrants here too who have felt welcome here and who make an undeniably positive contribution to British society and its economy, including helping run the NHS (which would simply not cope without immigrant labour). The UK is not a racist society, though as everywhere you do have some racists and xenophobes (it seems racism is ironically one of the characteristic that all nations share).

Class’ is a big thing here. It frames identities (far more than in France, for example). You talk about it a lot. And it does matter, though class in the socio-economic sense (e.g. what you do for a living) is actually quite different from class in an anthropological sense, in terms of how people imagine their identity. This is important on Brexit because some genuine ‘class’ (economic) inequalities that do need dealing with were framed and exploited as ‘class’ divides in a more identitarian sense for rather calculated electoral reasons. But then class matters quite independently of the EU anyway, and we do need to reflect on whether an elite class has been waging a war on the disenfranchised whilst simultaneously happily relying on them to extract legitimacy for their policies.

The EU has faced increasing scepticism since the early 1990s. More recently it’s been blamed (not without good reason) for constitutionalising neoliberal economic policies, but it’s also a political framework with shared democratic structures (the European Parliament for one), shared ‘rights’ or ‘civil liberties’ (I think Brits prefer the latter term on the whole), and yes a common market too. It has many flaws, which need addressing. The EU leadership (which means in large part the democratically elected heads of government that make up the European Council) has been poor at addressing these flaws with real intent. It has also now associated itself with very painful and unnecessary austerity even though a root cause of what led Greece to such debt is the EU’s poor design [see also this]. It does play a role in reinforcing and institutionalising neoliberal economic policies and the left-wing strand of eruoscepticism does have important criticisms to make about this [see for instance this and this].

But the EU is also the Erasmus programme, fairly free travel, cultural exchanges and a recognition of our proximity with a will to work together on common challenges. It invests in poorer regions, in science and in programmes to help the needy outside the EU. The EU ‘does’ a lot of ‘things for us’ (see also this). It was an ambitious project (and yes for some, from the start, it was a political project with ambition for further and deeper integration), but it has stalled partly through expansion and compromises. Many even close to its core do not expect a much ‘closer’ Europe anymore. And frankly some of it definitely needs thorough redesigning.

There is no doubt that those who have benefited from the European project have not always ensured those with fewer opportunities enjoyed as much the benefits of the EU. In the Brussels bubble I grew up in, for example, we were priding ourselves in being very tolerant and understanding of different cultures, not noticing we shared more with each other than with many of our nominal ‘compatriots’. We were different and tolerant of each other alright, but of similar and comfortable socio-economic backgrounds.

For many, the EU is this bureaucracy far away that comes up with silly policies (actually often in part to ensure fair competition in a single market) and is too inflexible on free movement of EU workers (actually because without free movement of labour you have distortions hindering the full functioning of a single market). National politicians don’t help when they portray the good stuff agreed in Brussels as theirs but the bad stuff as from ‘Brussels’ (as if ‘Brussels’ wasn’t in good part those same democratically-elected politicians, and indeed the elected European Parliament). But yes, the EU has had something like Brexit coming. And yes, the wealthier have enjoyed more of the EU – though others have too.

There has of course been a very significant Eurosceptic strand in UK politics for a while [see also this and this]. Europe famously divided the Tories in the early 1990s. It divided the left way before that too, for partly different reasons. And the UK Independence Party has been making steady gains especially in European elections, even getting 3.9m votes in last year’s general election (though under the UK’s electoral system, only one MP was elected to translate that electoral weight into parliamentary weight). But Eurosceptic Tories have been pressing hard for a referendum in recent years, and Cameron and Osborne decided to try to placate that wing of their party by negotiating a (pretty weak) ‘new’ settlement with EU partners early in this parliament and putting it to the vote. Internal party divisions would be settled by a national vote. They clearly miscalculated. It’s worth noting that focus groups in the run-up to the referendum showed the British public considered the EU pretty low on a list of primary concerns, far lower that immigration, a top concern. How surprising then was it that the campaign focused so much on immigration rather than the EU?

Finally on context, the 2008 crisis must be mentioned, as must the broader context of neoliberal economic globalisation (to use the language of its critics). Greek citizens are being submitted to the kind of austerity we were meant to have learnt from the 1930s was suicidal, counter-productive and frankly dangerous. Irish, Spanish, Portuguese and other residents too. In the UK the coalition government actually imposed austerity largely for ideological reasons (this particular kind of economic policy, with so many victims, is just not necessary and in fact profoundly discredited). All this ostensibly because the financial system crashed. It was caused by a system encouraging fat cats to become fatter, a system the EU had little to do with directly. That said, economic injustices predate the 2008 crisis, and significant chunks of British and Western society have been disenfranchised for at least as far back as 1980s and the Washington consensus. The Brexit vote is in part a response to longer-term globalisation.

III. Brexit

So on Thursday 23 June ‘the UK voted for Brexit’. We need to pay attention to the demographics. First, it’s undeniable that Britons are pretty much split in half on the one expression of binary political preference they were given: 17.4m voted for Brexit, but 16.1m did vote against it, and the latter are angry and agitated by the result.

In England, Brexit got a majority of votes every region except London – the capital, a major centre of global finance, one of the most multicultural and globalised metropolis on the planet, and now a pro-EU island in a Brexit-preferring England. And of course Scotland and Northern Ireland (and Gibraltar) went the other way. Yet each set of voters contained different kinds of voters with different concerns and priorities.

We also know the younger and better educated tended to vote for Remain. Ironically, the (generally well educated) political elites are the people who now have to put together a Brexit reality, and the younger generations those who will have to live in it (quite right, then, that many feel angry).

Class did play a role, inevitably. Those earning more did tend to side with the 16.3m – not just because they stand to lose a good deal, but also because some actually believe in the worth of the EU. At the other end, those who have been worse off for many years now tended to vote for Brexit. Some clearly wanted to register a protest against the elite in Westminster, in the City and in Europe. If only they focused on the economic policies that had a bigger role in causing their misery! But the binary choice they were given was only between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ in the EU. Many were led to see Brexit as the choice that expressed (justifiable) discontent with the status quo and its establishment, and with the UK’s management of immigration as they have been led to perceive it [see also this, this and this]. Much Brexit support came from towns and regions that have been run down for decades (not just since 2008) [see also this and this], with many there clearly going for Brexit in part because they felt they have noting left to lose. This is surely a tragic cry we need to recognise and respond to – how long can we really go on ignoring communities that have nothing left to lose and pretending our current economic policies is the best that can be offered to them? Do we really want to let xenophobic and opportunistic populists become their self-appointed spokespersons? In any case, to quote Penny, if this was a working class revolt, “it’s not a working class victory” [see also this]. They will suffer considerably if Brexit does go on unfolding as it has started. And anyway, for all the above, the working-class remained overall less likely to have voted in the referendum at all.

Some are accusing all Leavers of racism, but of course not all 17.4m Brexiters are racist. However, those voters who are racist (a small but real minority) did all side with the 17.4m [UPDATE: as per first comment below, I should rephrase to: “a clear majority” of racists, not “all”]. I’m not sure all UKIP voters are racist, but at least quite a few are, and 96% of the 3.9m who voted UKIP in the 2015 general election folded into the 17.4m Brexiters (interestingly, 4% of UKIP voters actually voted Remain). We know a considerable chunk of the 11.3m who voted Conservative will have gone that way too (58% apparently). But clearly some of the 9.3m who voted Labour must have contributed to the total (one estimate is 37%), and indeed some who didn’t bother voting in 2015 (didn’t see the point?) did here see this protest vote as worth using to make a point (the turnout in 2015 was 66.4%, and 72.2% in last week’s referendum).

But there is little denying that the campaign was dominated by immigration (with much misinformation on it) [see also this]. This matters. You see, those who have studied scientifically how the media influence politics have realised it’s just not as simple as people voting as told by their paper. What does happen though (and this is just one of the ways the media do influence electoral outcomes) is that what themes dominate a campaign skews results (it’s called agenda-setting theory). If, say, in a general election campaign the issues that dominate are around crime and security, this tends to benefit right-wing parties because they’re seen as more competent on those issues. If the dominant issues are around social justice, health-care and so on, the converse happens with left-wing parties. So, if the media let immigration dominate the news during the EU referendum campaign, even if they grant both sides religiously equal time talking about it, the effect will be to benefit the side looking like it has a plan to deal with this. This is despite a pretty conclusive set of studies showing immigration leads to a net economic gain, except perhaps for some of the very worse off (and this does matter of course).

(Incidentally, we really need to all learn more about how the media influences politics. We need to learn about that at school to be better able to see through the ways some interests have become good at spinning things and shaping ‘democratic’ preferences. Just relying on legislation about equal time for candidates simply won’t prevent those interests influencing elections.)

A popular slogan and hashtag proved to be ‘take back control’. Many thought the UK would ‘take control back’ of its borders. One might ask whether the British demos really does now ‘control’ unfolding events any better now, let alone the further economic pain to come. If you want real ‘control’, you need to get involved in parties, in political activism, in local to international organisations. Giving Farage and Gove and Johnson (and Le Pen and Wilders) a grin isn’t magically granting you or us much real ‘control’. Decisions will still be taken far away – just from Westminster more than Brussels (though to be honest Westminster still took far more decisions). By the way, there’s also the argument that the real power is not in Westminster but in the clusters of capital, in the City and in the lobby HQs of global corporations and rich interest groups – that the democratic spectacle is effectively a distraction, that whoever wins the show will still comply with the structural constraints that push for a richer and thinner 1%. To ‘take back control’ in this context means more than just voting for Brexit.

And if you want real control you need something close to what the EU (among others) refers to as ‘subsidiarity, but also with real democratic accountability at each level (including powers of recall, a functioning sphere of knowledgeable debate and information, and bottom-up channels of political engagement and empowerment). Anarchists actually have many useful warnings to heed about parliamentary democracy, about political organisation, about economic interests left to take control of politics – but I’d say that given my research interests, and it’s a different debate, here for another day.

Then there are the Lexiters (of which Corbyn might almost secretly be one). To the extent that the EU has indeed constitutionalised neoliberal economics, breaking from it and (crucially) going on to set up a different set of economic policies could help achieve left-wing ambitions. But that’s to forget who will probably be in power in October, and the forces that are doing great off the whole evolving context. To take TTIP for instance, it is dangerous indeed, but I’m not sure an independent UK will resist it better than within the EU [see also this]. Brexit today would also very likely threaten many gains in terms of employment law which many Leavers have clearly earmarked for culling. And before any left-leaning readers celebrate banks moving staff out of the UK, bear in mind that quite apart from this being a major employer shedding jobs, the UK economy has simply not been reconfigured enough yet to depend less on financial services, which means another hit to that sector will also hit the public purse even further.

Right-wing eurosceptics have some arguments worth hearing too. I’m not convinced ‘sovereignty’ is actually something real anymore that can be ‘held’ in national political institutions, but immigration is indeed a concern for some, and much as I personally do not like borders [on that, see this], it’s true that it takes time for big and long waves of immigration to be absorbed. That said, it ‘only’ takes proper public planning, such as the (employment-generating) building of schools and infrastructure, and a willingness to discover each other (this cultural bit probably takes the most time). If the US could grow to its current population, then to describe the UK as ‘full’ is nearly as myopic as calling the whole of Australia as ‘full’ (as some do). In other words, infrastructure tends to follow population once there’s proper planning. Still, people need to know that immigrants are not ‘stealing’ their jobs (or rather local employers willingly underpaying them with even more exploited labour), and immigrations takes some smart policies in dialogue with all concerned to be managed well.

So to sum up, the Brexit demographics tends to include in particular older voters, the most disenfranchised, the xenophobes, those intending to protest against the elite, and the less educated. It brought together ‘shire Tories’ with ‘industrial heartlands’ (to quote Bell) and indeed frustrated xenophobes. Many of those were fooled by a disingenuous campaign which left the impression that voting Brexit meant voting against the establishment (which, given Johnson’s background and Farage’s wealth, is bitterly ironic), against excessive immigration, and for more ‘control’. Few people are denying today that the campaign was corrupted by lies, misinformation (we now live in an age of ‘data’ rather than ‘facts’, in the words of sociologists), and lack of genuine information and debate on the EU [see also this, this, this, this, and this]. Even the Sun is facing some backlash from readers unimpressed by the campaign misinformation it is now coming to admit.

Brexit, though, is a mistake. It re-energises some truly dangerous ghosts of the past (xenophobia, nationalism, populism and the politics of division) [see this]. It’s unfair on the younger generation. Even many who voted Brexit seem to be regretting it [see also this]. By the way, it’s almost amusing how Farage can (so quickly!) say the NHS funding pledge was ‘a mistake’ (a pledge Johnson, possibly the next PM, was happy to stand by), and Hannan can say the pretty dominant claim that Brexit will help reduce migration was misleading [see also this], but we still describe the outcome as ‘the will of the people’, rather than then also call that too a ‘mistake’ which equally needs to be revisited now the lies of the Leave camp are being admitted to. Even the Leave camp seems to realise it has landed itself in a very difficult position and needs to move carefully and slowly on this – some of its rich backers will be pressing it not to press the button. Besides, Cameron’s manoeuvres anyway mean for now that Article 50 looks unlikely to be invoked before October, by which time it might be that Brexit will look unlikely in the end, and a second referendum might be on the way. Either way, voters were heavily misinformed and misled, hence the outcome very arguably not that legitimate.

Do remember who the Leave camp included. Johnson was hesitant for a long while and weighed on the Leave side most probably to boost his chances of being anointed as the next PM. Gove was always against the EU, as was Duncan Smith. Gove and Hilton uttered some pretty worrying and dark anti-intellectualism – a particularly sinister populist tactic to muster the vote of the disenfranchised and the racist, and this despite ‘experts’ being far more trusted than politicians or journalists (though Brexit could indeed trigger a ‘brain drain’ – including worried British brains by the way [see also this]). Farage and UKIP have uttered some clearly racist and crypto-racist things (don’t ever forget that poster and its parallels) for many years. And did you know that Brexit backers (and voters) are far more likely to deny the human contribution to causing catastrophic climate change (against the scientists)? Bear this in mind and reflect on it.

Frankly, there’s so much else that matters so much more than the EU. The planet is heating, with massive consequences we can predict, including (by the way) mass migration triggered by ecological disasters and rising sea levels. The global economy is sick, deeply unequal and unstable (we also know the rich gain just like the poor from more equal distributions of wealth). There’s plenty of weapons (from light weapons to WMD) flying about, and plenty of political violence (from ‘terrorism’ to war) that kills and maims as you read this. These issues should be political and economic priorities. The EU is another layer of governance that can help deal with them. It does need reform, but a binary Brexit is not it. It has pretty much stopped getting ‘ever closer’ as a union in any real sense a while ago, but Europeans will anyway remain ‘ever close’ to each other, and there are challenges that can only be met successfully together.

IV. Building Europe and EU+UK Democracy Together

So let’s try to make some concrete suggestions.

First, why don’t the leaders of the EU27 agree to open Council Meetings as Varoufakis has called for, and then ask the UK electorate to vote again now things will be so much more transparent? Why is this so difficult to concede to if their discussions really are clean and democratic and important? If you really do mean to serve the people, why not hold open meetings? See how British voters react then (and yes, I’d expect ministers to behave differently as a consequence, but that’s partly the point).

Perhaps the EU27 (the EU minus the UK) can grant the UK some genuine migration controls too. A complex compromise on this even dealing with the current constitutional challenge is possible, and would address an increasingly toxic public concern. But why not pause the divorce and really make a couple of simple but significant reforms that will change the way the EU is portrayed by the media and by national politicians? (By the way, we need to talk about Fortress Europe too – but some other day.)

Let’s also all push for Cameron to set up a regulator to ensure political advertising is never again as misleading [sign also this], and let’s get this done before the next plebiscite.

If you’re an EU migrant living in the UK, consider expressing solidarity with the ‘general strike’ on 4 July to help expose the UK economy’s dependence on us – though with current UK laws on strikes, a real strike would probably be thoroughly illegal and risky. Perhaps there are more creative ways to do this too – even wearing a badge, or writing an auto-reply, pointing you’re a potentially vulnerable contributor to the UK and you’re happy to chat to people about the whole Brexit fallout or at least your own circumstances and what impact Brexit would have on your input into the UK? Whether EU citizens in the UK or UK citizens in the EU, let’s try to be creative in engaging those living around us in helping all those interested reach a better understanding of where we are and how to go where from here.

Let’s also agree to at least wait a little before invoking Article 50, pause the divorce and consider in all seriousness how the EU27 want to do the EU from now on and how the UK really wants to relate to that, and let’s harness our collective capacity together to shape things for the better. It’s also not illegitimate to reconsider what is portrayed as the ‘will of the British electorate’ (52% of it, that is) when some now regret joining those ranks, and when even Brexit campaigners have now conceded to have peddled some pretty thick lies to swing the vote. Note also that Farage himself said in May that if Remain won by 52:48 this would be “unfinished business”, in other words saying he’d have considered a 52:48 in that direction to need another referendum (surely the same applies the other way?). Maybe Brexit will still happen in the end, but there are surely good reasons to pause and have one last, honest and in-depth chat before the divorce. There is no need to let the demons of populism get a quick and predictably risky win. Let’s use this crisis as an opportunity to improve things (the forces of ‘neoliberal capitalism’ do that so successful – Naomi Klein shows it well in Shock Doctrine – so why shouldn’t the demos too?)

Either way, surely this referendum thunderbolt ought to remind EU and UK Politicians and technocrats to listen more to the people, and less to corporate lobbies and vicious political and economic forces (though if you lobby for financial interests, maybe the time has come to lean on your Tory friends to make the economic consequences of Brexit clear?). And please listen not just to the binary expression of that will, but listen to the causes and put forward some genuine proposals to deal with their concerns.

But Europe is not even among the biggest international challenges facing us all today and tomorrow, though it is one of the political vehicles to meet them. Let’s build ecologically-friendlier houses for all across the planet, starting at home (which in the UK means revisiting some notorious Tory U-turns on green policies that were helping the UK become a leader in an emerging economic market). Let’s get used to sharing this planet across borders (we will soon have to anyway as sea levels rise!). Let’s work on mending socio-economic injustices too. Let’s stop shrinking our economies whilst piling up more debt but instead adopt Keynesian policies of the kind the US adopted in response to the crisis, and let’s then work harder on setting up fairer and more sustainable economic policies in the longer run. Let’s try to work together to face the big challenges for current and future generations together, and let’s build political structures that do this democratically and accountably. Let’s pull together the best of human creativity to discuss visions for a decent and resilient global society by 2060, if only for the sake of today’s parents and their children.

This is all perfectly achievable. A full bottom-up utopia might be some way away, but some simple things can be done to improve our lot. We know a Tobin tax would reduce financial speculation. We could ask that employers (maybe entire states, through legislation) adopt a wage-ratio cap of 20:1, i.e. no one in the organisation can earn more than 20 times the salary of the poorest earner (‘you want to earn even more, raise the basic salary too then’). Perhaps we need to adopt a more proportional voting system so anti-establishment views can feel better represented, as Lucas is suggesting (by the way, the 2011 AV referendum should have been on single-transferable vote, not AV). Let’s all educate ourselves on the mechanics of political marketing and political communication. I’m sure others can come up with other relatively simple and cheap policies to meet the real global challenges. Then we can also discuss the knottier stuff too. As for the referendum, let’s run this again but with serious conversation this time, and a sharper awareness of how the media influences electorates.


I don’t expect you all to agree with all I said. Indeed I am keen to engage in discussion and refine/revise these reflections. Hopefully you found some of it engaging. I’m genuinely interested in your views on any of this, whether you are in the EU bubble, an academic, a Brexit voter, a Sun or Guardian reader, a worker or unemployed, a Green or UKIP voter, a EU politician or a European citizen. Let’s talk about this. Let’s even do that whilst watching the European football. Let’s use the Brexit shockwave to democratise Europe politically and economically.



4 thoughts on “Brexit: reflections from UK-based politics lecturer raised in Brussels

  1. An academic shared this comment with me about the “all racists voted Brexit” bit, which is well put and on which I stand corrected:
    “Alex, there are a lot of things to say about your post. There’s quite a lot of post ref polling that might help clarify some things about leavers’ motivations that might be useful. However, one thing I would query is the remark that whilst not all leavers were racists all racists were leavers (I think Will Self put it like that and you’ve said something similar). Here my contribution is anecdotal but reflects the fact that even strong motivations like racism can be trumped by other factors in a referendum meaning that we need to be cautious about such generalisations: the most overtly racist person I know – as in he is an open fan of pre apartheid South Africa etc voted remain because he wanted to keep his EU farm subsidy; another remainer, on hearing the result said ‘good, now all the immigrants will leave’, another that it was a pity as they liked having white EU immigrants. The point here is that clearly racism, like perceived economic self interest etc do not necessarily function as determinative of which way people voted even if your fundamental point is right, the leave option was clearly more attractive to those who are racists, as the repellent behaviour post ref indicates.”


  2. For someone who is neither a UK nor a EU citizen, I thought I’d be able to look at the results of the referendum from a distance without getting angry at the Leave voters, which was the initial reaction of a lot of Remain voters. And I managed to do it, because it’s not their fault. Rationality in my spectrum of definitions ranges from being a myth to being a luxury, but it definitely does not apply to the masses. Why? Not because I don’t trust in the ‘power of the people’. I am a strong believer in mass movements, grass-root activism, bottom-up changes, and I experienced it first-hand. In 2000 I was part of a peaceful uprising that got rid of Milosevic, so I’ve seen it work. But I’ve also seen it fail over and over again, both in Serbia, and now in the UK. The problem is that the ‘people’ isn’t really struggling enough! Yes, I said it. In spite of the great deal of ‘crises’ (plural) the West is bombarded by in the media, the real crisis is much more subtle and unnoticed. The ‘people’, the demos, the public, society, whichever term you use, is complacent in its own mediocrity, while at the same time always and constantly complaining. Complaining has replaced action. It’s done so because action requires a plan, thinking, knowing, learning. Complaining requires none of that. This referendum was served to the people as their opportunity for action, but they were deceived, as it was nothing than another form of complaining, with no plan, no thinking, no knowing and no learning. Of course, certain individuals were informed, did learn, did think and did plan when casting their vote. But democracy is not about individuals, it’s about the masses, numbers, statistics. This practical incompatibility between individualism and socialism matches the conceptual one. When analysing the outcomes of the referendum, people tend to point fingers, blame and seek some sort of causality in all this. The question of ‘who’ cannot be asked without generalising groups based on some of their individuals. The question of ‘who’ cannot be asked without implying some form of ‘they’, ‘you’ or ‘we’ – identities that are simple enough for the chronical ‘complainers’ to understand and for the eager analysts to operate with. Note here that the complainers are not just limited to the Leave campaign – complainers are on both sides of the debate. And as aforementioned, complainers don’t really think hard enough and prefer simple answers to simple complaints. But as I said, I’m not angry with them. But I am angry.

    I’m angry with the injustice produced by the capitalist, liberalist machine that was set in motion centuries ago and that fuels itself on, in my personal opinion, one of the main traits of human nature – laziness! I often contest the notion of ‘human nature’, with the exception of laziness! Humans are lazy. We only work to survive. Some anthropologists would argue that work is what made humanity evolve, and that humans love labour, as it gives them a sense of purpose, meaning and all that. But I’d argue the contrary – all human development aimed to get rid of work! If we loved work so much, why did we invent machines, robots and computers to do our work for us? Productivity? No, laziness! And this is why capitalism wins, because it alienates the workers from their labour, which takes away even that little ownership or purpose that humans may delude themselves with. As a result, in a capitalist society, you dislike work even more! So, how does the system then make you want to work and not just sit around in this situation? Enter liberalism… You are equal to others, and all of us have the ability to perfect ourselves and be the best we can be. And you should aim to be the best you can be at what you do, because that’s the only way to progress in your career, which (surprise, surprise) will allow you to earn more by doing less. Mmmm, very appealing! And in a competitive capitalist economy, you HAVE to do so in order to survive, so work is nothing to do with appeal, but more with the existential issue of survival. So why am I digressing so much about this? Well, in a capitalist, liberalist and highly individualist society, the individual is taught to focus on him/herself, be very good at one thing and constantly keep working in order to progress. Here lies the real crisis I mentioned earlier, the subtle and unnoticeable one. This environment where everyone is good at one thing and only focuses on themselves allows for all the problems that were mentioned in the above article and that are pointed to in the social and regular media. How can any individual make a decision on a topic as complex as the European Union without being able (having the luxury) of learning and thinking about it. Even EU scholars aren’t able to ‘capture the beast’ that is the EU, so how can we expect the regular Joe to understand it and learn about it, when he or she has more pressing issues on their minds, like getting to work, applying for work, advancing at work, etc. The EU just is ridiculously complex, and any attempt of simplifying it ‘for the masses’ will produce half-truths and catchy buzzwords, such as ‘red tape’, ‘Eurocrats’, etc. I’m just echoing some of the comments of a group of friends of mine that said that this decision shouldn’t have been given to the people. “We voted for the people in government to make such decisions for us” was a common comment. Not that I dislike referenda – they are the true act of direct democracy – but as I’ve seen time and time again, direct democracy produces direct problematic, often illogical and irrational outcomes. Besides the Brexit referendum, I always like to refer to the referendum in Serbia on whether to adopt a new constitution with the preamble stating that Kosovo is a territorial part of Serbia. Besides the controversies surrounding the actual vote (Albanians from Kosovo were excluded from the overall number of eligible voters, the referendum lasted over two days, all to reach the required minimum of 50% voter turnout), the referendum asked a question that was way too complex for the average ‘complainer’. Technically, Kosovo was at the time under a UN protectorate, Serbia’s police or army were not allowed on its territory and Belgrade temporarily gave up sovereignty over Kosovo to the UN under UN Security Council Resolution 1244, while keeping territorial integrity only on paper. In spite of the legal and political complexity of the issue, 53% of the people that voted in favour of this constitution represented 53% of the population of Serbia. I’m no math wizard, but with 53% turnout, and 53% voting in favour of a simple proposition to a complex question, the ‘winning’ vote represented just over a quarter of Serbia’s population (excluding Kosovo, which was the territory the vote was primarily about!!!) Yet, the vote was accepted and the constitution was adopted. Serbia has been since then stuck with this constitution, which states that Kosovo is a territorial part of Serbia, when de facto it clearly isn’t. This constitution is an anchor in many international fora and processes (including EU integration), and it’s been damaging Serbia’s position in international relations but also causing tensions and polarisation within society at home. The same may happen to the UK if both the people and the government aren’t careful with how they deal with this Leave vote.

    To conclude, I don’t usually post lengthy comments on blogs (or anywhere, except perhaps on student coursework), but I felt like venting (which is probably why there is a sharp increase in comments after events like these) some of the anger that I felt. My anger is not directed to any particular group or individuals but to the overall system. It is accompanied by frustration and worry that the systemic change that is necessary can only occur when thing get properly bad, at which point the damage may outweigh the benefits of the ensuing change. Brexit in my view is just another link in an ongoing chain of events that represent the symptoms of the problematic and unsustainable system – a system of liberalism and capitalism, in which thinking, rationality and everything moral, noble and good about humanity becomes a luxury reserved to the few and systematically hidden away from the many, and referenda are used as a tool by individuals that know and benefit from the system well to give the people the illusion of free choice and democracy.


  3. Frances Seller sent me the following comments by email, and agreed for me to share then here (thanks Frances!):

    Hi Alex

    I finally got around to reading your blog. Partly I had avoided reading it because I have been in a state of denial since Friday morning and have found it difficult to face up to the reality of what has happened. I had always thought that the 1975 ‘EEC’ referendum was the first time I voted, but having checked it out, I find that there was an election in October 1974, when I had just turned 18 so would have been eligible to vote in that too. I cannot remember voting in it and don’t know now how I would have voted, if I did. For the 1975 referendum I voted to remain in the EEC. I was young and green and did not really understand the situation at all but would have been influenced by what friends and family told me.

    Now, as then, I cannot pretend to understand the economic advantages and disadvantages of belonging to the EU club. I am not an academic or an economist and have not invested any time understanding these issues. However, I am acutely aware of the cultural and security benefits of belonging to Europe, and of living in a country that is outward and not inward looking. We are now plunged into a crisis where we will probably lose both Scotland and Northern Island from the UK, and we will be a tiny dot of a country which has lost international support and respect. We currently have NO political leaders who can help mend the rifts that have been opened up and I feel we are very vulnerable. The divisions across the country between generations, north and south, class and within political parties are very distressing to witness and I feel like I no longer recognise my country. In addition, the Brexit vote seems to have given bigots and racists the feeling that they have a legitimate voice, that it is OK to say these things out loud at last, and we must all be willing to stand up against this when we see it in our daily lives, now more than ever before. These people were not created by the referendum debate, these feelings were always there bubbling away just under the surface, but all the hard work that has been put in by so many organisations at fighting these opinions (eg in the workplace, on the football field etc) feels very threatened just now. Lets hope this is a temporary phenomenon.

    I am not convinced that using a referendum to make complicated decisions is the best thing to do. I freely admit that I cannot understand all the arguments and I would guess that millions of people feel like me. How can we expect the ordinary man or woman in the street to be able to understand all the different implications? We should not be surprised that so many used this to make a protest vote. And that many are now regretting it.

    I am acutely aware of the benefits that migrants from within and outside the EU bring to our society. My Polish dentist, my Indian doctor, the nurses of many nationalities who look after my mother in law when she visits the hospital. These are caring and professional people. I also understand the challenges that immigration which is too rapid can pose: to schools, NHS and the social infrastructure in general, but these are challenges that can be and are overcome on a daily basis by committed professionals working in these services. I also have lots of friends who are EU citizens and I can understand that they may now feel unwelcome here. I hope they are sanguine enough to realise that not everyone voted Brexit! And that not everyone who voted Brexit is xenophobic.

    I have heard arguments that we will now actually become a MORE outwards looking country, ie towards the rest of the world, and that the EU itself is too inward looking. I also have friends with small businesses who are frustrated and adamant that the EU is bad for their firms. But why does being part of the EU mean that we cannot also look outwards to the rest of the world? And why could we not influence the EU to make conditions for small businesses in this country more favourable?

    So, not being able to really understand it all, in the end you have to go with your gut instinct. When casting my vote to remain I thought about the REAL problems that we face: climate change, terrorism, the refugee crisis. These are global challenges, and far more serious and potentially disastrous and destabilising than immigration, and we can only try to face and solve these together with our friends and allies. When the sea engulfs our island it will not discriminate. When the bomb goes off it will not discriminate. Indeed my general philosophy in life would be that it is always better to work together with friends and neighbours, even when this is difficult and you don’t agree with them. My 93 year old mother-in-law voted to remain because she lived through the war and was convinced that we were ‘better and safer together’. I feel that my parents’ generation has been betrayed because they fought and lost their lives to build a better safer Europe and world. And I feel that my children’s generation have been let down by older voters who just wanted it to ‘be like it used to be’ when we all know the world is a different place now.

    To conclude, I feel very, very sad about what has happened. I have heard many people say that they don’t want to live here any more, that they no longer recognise their country. I feel a bit like that too, but that is just a knee-jerk reaction. I love my country and we can’t just walk away now.

    This really is like your parents divorcing: you think it’s somehow your fault and you just want them to get back together again.

    Thanks for helping me get some of this off my chest!



  4. Karel Thomas kindly then replied to Frances’ email above with the following comments, which she also agreed to let me publish here:

    Thank you, Frances, for sending this link to Alex’s blog. I’m with you on everything you say.

    Alex – you make many good points very eloquently and in a most measured way – thank you.

    I felt bereaved last Friday morning, as if I had suffered the loss of my European identity; that my European friends would stop loving me because my country had rejected a union with their country; and I had been denied the chance to make any more friends and do business in Europe. I wondered how I would be treated this summer when I visit mainland Europe – will I be shunned? That is all irrational, of course, but it’s how I felt in the heat of the moment. Irrationality has been at the heart of this unnecessary exercise. Apparently we Remain supporters are going through the stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) which may be a convenient analogy, but it isn’t really the right one. Nobody has died – there is still life and it is possible to reverse the decision.

    The cruel and hideous irony of this result is that Leave voters thought that their lives would be improved by being outside the EU. That is a failure of communication on the part of the Remain camp, but it is also a cynical exploitation by Farage, Gove and Johnson of the misery that those people feel. I am sure Jeremy [Leaman] will not mind my reproducing his letter to the FT (wasn’t published unfortunately)

    Michael Gove’s apology for the pointed comparison of academic economists supporting EU membership to scientists in the pay of the Nazi regime is not very convincing. Following on from the statement about the people of Britain having “had enough of experts”, the Nazi slur was arguably a logical move in the Brexit propaganda strategy of anti-intellectual denunciation of an out-of-touch elite. However, this strategy is itself grimly reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s remarks on the psychology of propaganda in Mein Kampf (1941 edition, p.198):
    “It is wrong to give propaganda the many-sidedness of, for example, scientific instruction. The receptiveness of the great mass of the people is only very limited, the powers of understanding small and the level of forgetfulness is high. With these facts as the point of departure, every effective propaganda has to limit itself to just a few points and to deploy these as slogans for as long as it takes for the last person to be able to understand what is intended by such a word”.
    The remoteness of Brexit-propaganda from even semi-refined scientific discourse, its deliberate reduction to the empty rhetoric of sovereignty, control, power and its narrow appeal to anti-migrant sentiment clearly conforms to Adolf’s very shrewd but cynical template. The Brexit campaign bears a huge responsibility for the brutalising and infantilising of political debate in this country, whatever the outcome of this unnecessary referendum.

    The huge efforts to sort out this mess will be to the [financial] benefit of lawyers and accountants, many of whom will have voted to Remain, not to the disaffected who believe that immigrants have stolen their jobs and ruined the UK. The experts, those people Gove said the British people had had enough of, will have the last laugh and the biggest economic benefit from this nonsense – unless maybe those experts start employing servants and gardeners again?

    There is much to do to connect and communicate with people who feel left out and left behind. How many of us know who our MEPs are, for example? Why do we only hear trivial and bad news from Brussels, never the positive? (I could treat you to a rant about how universities fail to communicate their value too, but that’s for another day).

    To quote the great Claudio, “Dilly ding, dilly dong” – it’s time to wake up and stop the nightmare getting any worse.



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