What the F just happened? For my US friends, a long attempt to Brexplain

map of votes

Map of the votes from the BBC, comparing the 1975 and 2016 referendum results.

The vice provost dropped by again this morning. He asked how I was feeling. “Imagine how you are going to feel if Trump wins in November” I replied. “That’s how I’m feeling.”

Yesterday I wrote on this blog that I didn’t understand what was happening. But last night as I sat at home watching the results come in and drinking most of a bottle of cheap wine, I tried to figure it out.  I have a better answer now to the question my US friends keep asking me.

Bear with me. This is going to be long and personal.

When I was a kid, my mother was a conservative. A strident one, the kind who would go leafleting and campaigning.

Or at least, she sent us off leafletting, her pre-teen children, to the new-fake-suburb-estate not far from the ex-council-house-estate where we lived in Essex. Trudging up and down the self-consciously curved roads, pushing John Major’s grey grin through identikit front doors, all the while casting half an eye out for somewhere to dump the whole stack so I could run off to play instead.

It was in her family (unlike my Dad, who was living in France at the time and considered all politicians to be equally crooked liars). My mother’s sister sponsored Conservative Party fundraisers and was friends with MP’s wives. (Including one who was in a wheelchair following an IRA bomb, and who my aunt famously claimed was such a snob she’d go to Harrods to buy a single potato.)

And on the night of the 1992 election, my mother turned the TV in the living room to the news and parked my older brother in front of it, with instructions to come downstairs to the kitchen and get her when results came in. I played next to him, too young to be trusted with this job myself but aware that something exciting was happening (beyond even Mum inexplicably letting us watch TV!)

So yes—my mother was definitely a conservative. A brought-her-own-council-house, Telegraph- reading, private-school-and-fox-hunting supporting Conservative through and through.

These days, however, she gets a look of fire and damnation in her eye when politics is mentioned. She will swear, and curse, and launch into angry tirades against the current Conservative Party leaders. “Evil. Pure evil,” she’ll mutter. “Those bastards.” In the 2015 election she was truly torn. An Englishwoman living in Scotland, she was, I think, furious that she felt herself with no choice but to vote SNP.

My mother’s politics haven’t really changed. She still reads the same newspapers, believes in the same principals, and holds the same nostalgic view of Britishness. Her conservatism has always been the kind that associates itself with values like decency and honor and high-culture. Above all, a belief in the idea that true Britishness is about ‘doing the right thing.’

So it’s not her and her like who have changed. But rather that the Conservative Party today is a completely different beast than that of the 1990s. As such, it’s important to remember that while those of us on the Left feel angry about what has happened this week, so too do many who we might consider to be our opponents. So too do many Conservatives and old fashioned Brits. It’s not just that the Right has won, but that the whole shape of British politics, Left and Right, has changed in the last few decades.

To really understand what has happened last night, we need to reach back further, and out wider, than just the last few years or just the UK. We need to understand how each iteration of neoliberalism has warped British people’s ability to live their lives and imagine their future—but also how we can’t just keep blaming neoliberalism on Thatcher.

  ***

Let’s jump forward from my forced labor as a leaflet-stuffer to the early 2000s, when I first got involved in politics on my own terms. I came of age politically in the era of Tony Blair’s New Labour, and specifically with the massive protests against both the Iraq War and the introduction of University Tuition Fees.

It’s perhaps hard from the US to appreciate how significant these two issues were. To realize that the feeling in the UK at the time was so overwhelmingly critical, the protest marches and demonstrations so loud and large, that it really did feel like this was a countrywide popular revolt. The opposition to the invasion of Iraq and to abandoning the idea of free education was enormous, vocal, and organized.

But it didn’t matter. The bombs still fell, and university is no longer free.

At a distance of ten years, I firmly believe that my cohort of UK citizens have been defined by that moment in the early 2000s. The realization, just as we were entering young adulthood and voting for the first time, that terrible and destructive things could be pushed forward by our government despite massive popular opposition, and there was nothing we could do about it.

The disillusionment and disgust with the democratic system that was brought about by New Labour is key to what happened next.

 ***

By the way, the “New” in New Labour is an important term here. The UK political system used to be based on two parties: the Liberals (later the Liberal Democrats) and the Conservatives (also known as the Tories), both representing middle and upper class positions. The Labour Party was born in the 1900s. With strong connections to the Union movements, Labour represented the newly enfranchised working class. By the 1980s the Liberals had imploded, so that we once again had a two party system but this time between Labour and the Conservatives.

In the 1990s something happened in the UK that will be familiar to those of you in the US, but also actually to people in many different parts of the world. The party that was meant to be on the left started to shift towards the center, but so did the party on the right. Eventually it was difficult to tell the difference between the two, as each adopted a slick, ‘common sense’ image that seemed more and more divorced from the traditional Left and Right arguments of the past. Labour rebranded itself at this time as “New Labour,” explicitly adopting the “Third Way” politics of the center which we know to be pure neoliberalism.

But less obviously, the Conservatives moved towards this position too. Away from the kind of values my mother used to campaign for, and towards a naked embrace of free market driven inequaliity from the other side.

Given all this, I (like others my age) gave up in disgust at the whole lot of them. I was pretty vocal in my opinion that there was no difference between New Labour and the Conservatives, that a vote for one was a vote for them all.

I wish this had been the case.

 ***

In 2009 I was living in Chile. I’m sure I was aware of the 2008 crash the year before. But while the economy was tanking I was deep into my fieldwork preparations, tired and fed up of life in the US, and going through my own personal emigrant existential crisis because it had slowly dawned on me that I was actually living in a foreign country I knew nothing about. And I was stuck there.

(Although I moved to the US in 2005, up until about 2009 I had made a point of engaging with my surroundings as little as possible. I was happy to know next to nothing about US politics. This was just somewhere crazy I had to endure for a while before I got to go home. Realizing I was probably going to be stuck here for the long haul was a moment of quite profound crisis—I did not want to live here. Eventually I anthropologized my way out by reading as many ethnographies of the US as I could. It worked. I feel better now. Knowledge is power is comfort for this nerd.)

But in 2008 I still knew too little about the US economy and life here to really appreciate what was happening, and then in 2009 I was living in South America, where there was no talk about the crash at all. The next year, 2010, I came back to Chicago for a few months before returning to Chile. When I then returned to Santiago (yeah, 2010 was a year with lots of traveling), all my conversations went like this:

“How was your trip back to Chicago?”

“Weird! Things are really fucked up there right now. The financial crash has hit the country really bad. I think this depression will last a long time.”

“What crash?”

They literally had no idea what I was talking about. These were smart, politically-engaged academics, and they had no inkling at all that the UK and US was in the grip of a massive economic disaster.

So much for the “Global.”

Things were even worse, however, when I went back to the UK for a visit near the end of 2010.

It was a strange and disconcerting trip. Up until I left for Chile, I’d gone home for a couple of weeks every year, but I hadn’t been able to afford the time or the ticket while I was doing my 2009 fieldwork. I arrived back to visit my family, and found an atmosphere I didn’t recognize.

Some of that was personal. A beloved family member had recently passed away, and many of my relatives and friends were grieving deeply. But beyond that, there was a sense of wider and more pervasive despair. The mood had switched in the entire country. The term ‘depression’ suddenly made sense: this wasn’t just an economic term, everywhere I went I encountered a sense of resignation and fear.

It caught me by surprise because I wasn’t expecting it. It’s one thing to hear your parents complain on skype each week, while you sit on the other side of the world. Another to be immersed in a country-wide sense of anxiety and gloom.

For the first time since I’d left home, I felt like the UK had shifted and become something I didn’t quite remember or recognize. I’d been able to see the effects of the economic crash on the US because I’d been actively reading and studying it, in an attempt to understand a foreign culture. But the fact that the UK had been plunged into an equally profound depression didn’t occur to me, until I noticed the change in people I knew and loved. Till I registered the shift in how they talked about such day to day things as the cost of the weekly food shop.

It was at that point I realized I had been profoundly mistaken in my oft-repeated claim that there was no real difference between New Labour and the Conservatives. Because when in 2010 Labour did finally lose power after the economic crash and the Conservatives came in: that’s when the shit really hit the fan.

 ***

Have you ever read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctine? It’s worth it. It describes the political strategy of purposely waiting for moments of dramatic crisis (whether a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, an economic crisis like 2008, or a war/terror attack like 9/11) to put in place highly unpopular neoliberal reforms.

That’s pretty much what happened in the UK after the economy crashed and the country slipped into depression. New Labour had been bad. But the Conservatives grabbed the opportunity to implement a scorched earth austerity policy.

Enormous cuts to social services, particularly those supporting people with disabilities. An incredibly hostile attack on the unemployed. An end to legal aid. The dismantling of employment protections and the growth of ‘no hours contracts.’

And, most frustratingly, all the worst failed ideas from the US that those of you over here are in the process of trying to repeal? They’ve all been trumpeted by these idiots and rammed through as if they were marvelous and new solutions. Charter schools are rolling out as ‘Academies.’ University Tuition Fees have been raised to astronomical levels. The NHS is being privatized bit by bit. Even the BBC is under attack, with the aim of opening more of the market to Murdock’s Fox.

This is not old Conservatism. This is not even the blindly ideological Neoliberalism of Thatcher. I have nothing good to say about Thatcher, but you get the sense she was driven by zealotry, not greed. She was wrong, but she really did believe that Milton Friedman had discovered the path to economic and cultural salvation. That’s what propelled her.

By the time we get to the 2000s and even late 1990s, it’s pretty darn obvious that Friedman was just plain wrong. ‘Trickle down economics’ just doesn’t work. We know that. I mean, shit: even the IMF knows it. Chile, Argentina, the US even: plenty of examples of dramatic failure abound, if you think that purely free market economics leads to greater prosperity for everyone. But it’s also pretty obvious that, if it doesn’t achieve Thatcher’s aim of making a whole country more prosperous, if does have the nice side effect of concentrating ever more wealth into the hands of the upper class.

And this is where we find our current Conservative leaders. These are not the idealistic but mistaken sons and daughters of greengrocers, but the already grotesquely wealthy heirs of Lords, Ladies, and Stockbrokers.

In the last six or seven years, most British people have seen their quality of life plummet at the same time as the upper class have got dramatically richer. Not unsurprisingly, alongside this policy of aggressive and savage neoliberalization, the Conservatives have advanced an equally punitive and xenophobic immigration policy, that explicitly or implicitly implied that if it wasn’t lazy poor people who were to blame, it was probably those thieving foreigners.

 ***

And here is where we need to pull back for a moment, because we are getting closer to the issue at hand. To understand the Conservative’s attitude towards Europe and Immigration, we need to go back again to the 1990s.

The Conservative Party has always had its anti-European wing. From the outside, they mostly came across as middle-class nationalists. The casual racism of your uncle who lives in a small town suburb and still uses the term ‘colored people.’ Who probably collects Second World War model airplanes and commemorative Royal Wedding plates. This is the slightly barmy, always just about to dive off the deep end into actual racism/sexism, verging on clownish xenophobia of Nigel Farage.

(Nigel Farage: the self-proclaimed leader of UKIP [UK Independence Party—a single issue party formed just to campaign to leave the EU] who is most often compared to Trump. Got himself elected as one of the British Members of the European Parliament precisely so he could disrupt its daily workings. So like a Tea Party Republican, basically. But there’s only one of him and he just sits there being a lonely embarrassing arsehole while everyone around him carries on trying to do their jobs.)

This kind of basically-we-just-hate-foreigners, bring-back-the-good-old-days-of-Empire Conservative has always been around. But there are also the Conservatives who recognize that the one thing that has stopped the most aggressive deregulation and neoliberalism of the British economy in the last decade—the only brake on the UK’s slide into the same lack of working rights and social security as the US—is the EU.

Put the two together, and you get a sizable part of the Conservative Party who are anti-Europe and want to leave. With the increasingly popularity of UKIP in the last few elections, and specifically the fact they were stealing votes from the Conservatives, this anti-EU contingent became large enough that it threaten to split the party in two.

The Conservatives got to a point in the last election (2015) where it was obvious they were going to have to make a choice one way or the other. David Cameron (who was pro-EU) was facing a lot of pressure. In order to win the last few elections and secure his place as leader, he needed to keep the anti-EU MPs on his side. Pretty much everyone agrees that if he had faced the issue in his own party and brought it to a head, he would have lost the support of the anti-EU MPs, which would have meant him being pushed out as leader of the Conservatives and as Prime Minster.

Note that in the UK we elect a party, not an individual. The Prime Minister is the leader of whichever party wins the election, but a party can change its leader while it is in power without triggering a new election. So Cameron could be deposed as Prime Minister without the Conservative Party losing power. Elections are not called on a schedule, like every 4 years, but when it is understood that the party in power has lost the confidence of the House of Parliament. So if Cameron hadn’t had the backing of all the Conservative MPs, including the anti-EU ones, he probably wouldn’t have won the last election.

So rather than risk losing the last election, Cameron made a deal to pacify the anti-EU members of the Conservative Party. Rather than figure it out within his own party, rather than have a serious debate within the House of Parliament, he agreed to put the question of EU membership to the popular vote.

This was, of course, a disastrously stupid idea.

***

Look, there are reasons why working class people in the UK are angry and hate foreigners. And, just like in the US, all of these are the direct result of the Conservative’s own policies. Namely their policies of a) massive austerity that has led to most people’s quality of life falling, but in particular the decimation of the working class, and b) falsely blaming everything on immigrants rather than the rich.

And also, to be brutally honest, the EU has made serious and very public mistakes in recent years. Most obviously the way it crushed Greece. The difference is that, unlike Greece, UK politics is so retrograde at the moment and the Left so neutered/disenchanted (see above under New Labour) that the EU has actually been protecting us from the insatiable greed of our own political class. In other countries that have a stronger tradition of Leftist politics, the EU has gone against that. And, yes, its attitude towards Greece was profoundly anti-democratic and very disturbing.

Which just goes to show how bad things in the UK could be, that we are to situated to the Right of the European Bank.

Cameron should have known this would happen. He should have known the kind of despair and hatred his years in power have whipped up. He should have known that he was risking our entire economic and political system, just so he personally could stay in power.

I think he did know this, and decided to do it anyway.

***

So where are we now and what happens next? We don’t know. What’s certain is that Cameron is over—he has already resigned. And the most rabid members of his own party will now take control. The little racists, like Farage, and the rich plunderers, like Boris Johnson.

And by the way, my American friends, both the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have been compared to Donald Trump, but the two should not by any account be lumped together. Farage is a foolish little twat who will soon do something inane and squander his own victory. Johnson is a ruthlessly astute politician from a highly privileged upper-class background, who realized very early on that he could disarm criticism and suspicion be playing the clown. For Johnson the better comparison is not Trump, but Bush: call him names all you like, but he’ll get the last laugh when he becomes Prime Minister next week.

Meanwhile, my family back home in the UK are likely to get poorer. And my lovely French step-mother who has lived in the UK for decades is worried. And I’m wondering if there is going to be enough room in Scotland for all the English refugees who will want to move there, if there is, as seems likely, a second referendum.

These are sad times. It might get worse. I hope that you don’t find out what this feels like in November.

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8 comments

  1. Jenny

    I’m astonished to hear that your mother was a campaigning member of the Conservative party – I read her Facebook posts on politics and they seem quite left wing to me – I guess that is pretty telling. The world has changed and not in a good way. Commiserations from across the Atlantic j x

    Liked by 1 person

    • M

      Right! I do think it’s not her that’s changed, rather the party she stood for.
      So how are things up there in Scotland? Do you think people will push for a second referendum to try and stay in the UK? I may be off the mark, but I got the feeling in the first independence vote that people partly wanted to leave because of a desire to escape Cameron and chums, not necessarily the UK itself. I’m interested in whether this will really change that.

      Like

  2. Monkeycat

    It’s utterly depressing over here. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the areas of Britain that voted most for leaving the EU are the areas that a: have the least immigration and b: receive the most funding and support from the EU they claim to dispise. I also think Cameron had tried one too many times to do the fear vote. It worked in 2015 (by 909 votes) to get him a majority, but failed in the disgusting mayoral election in London. He should have realised you can only cry wolf so many times. The whole campaign was relentlessly negative.

    Liked by 2 people

    • M

      It’s easy to stoke up fear and hatred of the unknown, hard to convince someone that their friend/colleague/neighbour is the problem.

      Like

  3. Hannah Knowles

    We’re in a really strange place now where it feels like democracy has failed whichever way you turn: one one hand the people have voted, and we’re all supposed to respect that. On the other, the vote only happened because one man attempted to pass the buck on containing a handful of backbench rebels and quash growing support for a party (UKIP) that then imploded to irrelevance during the campaigning anyway, and now we’re looking at kidnapping two countries, one of which I live in, out of the EU against their democratic will. All for a result that we can confidently anticipate to cause huge damage. I think another referendum on Scottish independence is inevitable, and from a selfish perspective I can’t bear the idea of another campaign as savage and lie-filled as the last (as bad on both counts as the EU one). I have little confidence that we will win it this time, and I’m not even certain we should any more (I was vehement before). Throughout the EU ref I could never understand why people weren’t being told more loudly that they were also voting for the continuing existence of the Union and the EU, with or without us – I believe it’s unlikely either will survive if Article 50 is triggered.

    Like

  4. therveysheffieldacuk

    The other thing to add is the media. The way that the media was allowed to denigrate expertise. That has direct implications for those of us in education, as well as those on the progressive left (or whatever we can now call it).

    Like

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