We’re out. That such an outcome with so complex and far-reaching consequences could be decided on the basis of a binary Yes/No referendum is patently absurd, but then this was effectively the result of the David/Boris personal war played out on an international scale, and to which Nigel Farage has affixed himself like a hormonal toad compelled by nature to hump any writhing mass of oily flesh. As Sam Kriss points out, this referendum was in reality No/No: Brexiteers knew first what they didn’t want (the EU, the status quo, the political elite, the Other), while liberals, progressives and reluctant radical leftists knew also what they didn’t want (a triumphant far right). What we wanted could never be achieved through this referendum alone, but so much was at stake. Now, with trillions wiped off of global stocks and further falls likely when the markets open tomorrow, Cameron’s gambling of economic stability against the electorate’s social conservatism has failed disastrously. On the BBC’s Look East, reporter Gareth George asked Leave voters whether they feared job losses. “We’ll muddle through”, one woman told him; this was a secondary concern to that of immigration. Ash Sarkar said it best:
Yo, people voted #Brexit knowing it’d trigger economic meltdown. Know what that means? The racists hate us more than they like themselves.
— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) 24 de juny de 2016
This desperate No/No choice is partly what contributed to the mobilisational capacity of both camps, of which Leave ultimately commanded the greater. This meant many were voting for the first time ever, because after years of general elections in which no identikit party won their vote, they finally felt empowered to reject something. Voters on both sides now assert that a decision has been made democratically and that the people have spoken, but an all-or-nothing setup and systematic elision and obfuscation of the details served only to reify the eventual result while utterly undermining its integrity. It was democracy, but so is kicking people out of a plane without parachutes and asking them to vote on whether Coke or Pepsi is best. It was an election by proxy, and now it has become untenable for anyone on the losing side to head up the government.
Nigel Farage and UKIP have changed the political conversation, but they did not appear in a vacuum and when they spoke, the political elite rejected them with one hand and co-opted their appeal with the other. Underfunding of public services, precarious job security and wage deflation compounded with the language of austerity to feed parochial xenophobia. We must live within our means; we’re stretched to breaking point; we have limited resources and they should be going to us, not them. Farage only reinforced this when he claimed that Brexit was a victory for ordinary people, for decent people – and by implication a loss for those who are indecent, who do not believe in Britain or want it to prosper, who wish this country harm (in the words of Thomas Mair, “traitors”). Johnson and Gove (now conspicuous by their absence as they seek to avoid the tumult of the outcome for which they campaigned) are not anti-system politicians, and perhaps neither is Farage insofar as he does not propose a radically altered mode of governance, but a neo-Powellist acceleration of the current system’s worst traits. But this became an anti-system vote without an alternate system proposed, and no one is taking responsibility for clearing up the mess.
Labour shadow cabinet members, both known Corbyn-skeptics and those until recently supportive, have resigned in an attempt to renounce responsibility for a uniformly uninspiring and timid campaign and trigger a new leadership contest. The Lib Dems are shouting in the din from the back of the crowd that they’ll contest any upcoming general election on a pro-EU platform. Brexit politicians and commentators assure us that markets will stabilise and as civil servants embark upon byzantine trade negotiations over an indeterminate period, we won’t notice that much has changed, but in doing so they betray themselves as members of the same metropolitan political elite that they so decried throughout this referendum campaign. It is true that the privileged among us may see few material repercussions in their lives. For them, Brexit may not have changed their lives or the circles in which they move. But for people who woke up feeling for the first time unwelcome in Britain, or who feel it now more than ever, this is less a matter of whether the numbers on the screen are green or red, but whether their parents, their children, their relatives and their friends will face verbal and physical violence in the towns and cities that are their homes. More than 17 million people in this country voted for a political platform that emboldens the far right, and the left is faced with something of a conundrum in deciphering why.
Corbyn is being panned by centrists for his weak leadership in Labour’s In campaign, during which he shared no platforms with pro-Remain Conservative politicians and enjoyed a comparatively low profile that is perhaps as much by his own design as it is a symptom of his scant favour with sensationalist media. But genuine opposition to Leave – for this is what was needed, not necessarily pro-EU status quo sentiment – entailed a fundamental shift in the conversation from the neoliberal dream of borderless trade and legitimising people’s concerns about immigration to exposing the populist tub-thumping of the Leave campaign. If indeed he failed to do this, Corbyn was not the only one.
The left must not excuse or explain away racist scapegoating qua Leave votes as an incidental side effect of poverty, disenfranchisement or manipulation by a mediatised political clique, because the inverse – that the affluent or university educated metropoles are exclusively anti-racist by dint of their enlightened financial and intellectual independence – is simply untrue. Worse, it is both patronising and wilfully dismissive of those for whom this racism, be it in violent rhetoric or violent action, is not a contested academic proposition but a source of fear on their doorstep. It also articulates an idealised narrative that de-classes black and brown people in these former industrial areas, discursively separating them from the still-redeemable vanguard in much the same way that white supremacists would prefer. The working classes are not all white, and they did not all vote for Brexit, but we still rush to whitewash them because we still think this is a conversation about how we let ourselves down, not our neighbours. And if the conversation carries on this way, we will have learned precious little.