The ‘seismic’ event of Brexit has overtaken the European Union and heralds the disintegration of both the supra-national project and the UK itself. The former is a triumph for the much maligned UKIP party that has only one MP at Westminster – (“You did it!” cried one UKIP party member as she embraced Farage). Nigel was aided by Cameron who gambled successfully by offering a referendum in order to win his party an absolute majority in the general election a year ago. The gamble has now backfired disastrously, for at least the Remain campaigners, and initiated a dis-United Kingdom and an EU collapse.
The issues that faced the voters are the proverbial ‘can of worms’ that were hidden under a simple yes/no vote. Clearly the voters had their own simplifications as this Leave voter in Manchester told a Guardian reporter – “If you’ve got money, you vote in,” she said, with a bracing certainty. “If you haven’t got money, you vote out.” The reporter added – “Not for the first time, the atmosphere around the referendum had the sulphurous whiff not just of inequality, but a kind of misshapen class war.” He also referred to the Labour Party as we know it as ‘a walking ghost’ that had lost its constituency’s heart. Resentment of the political elite has been a constant theme in explaining the vote and of course, resentment not just the EU but also the UK holders of wealth and power. Here is what one of my friends wrote:
We are collectively witnessing a car-crash, the two major parties engaging in barely disguised civil wars and Scotland gearing up for a second independence referendum, which would have to be negotiated with a UK government clearly in disarray. Any practical moves to exit the EU are on hold for a few months until we have a new prime minister, and meanwhile there are further uncertainties about how the Remain dominated parliament will respond to the result and whether indeed this is the end of the matter, with 2.8 million already signing a petition for a repeat of the EU referendum.
The most important thing I discern in this is the extent of grievance felt by those who’ve been marginalised and left behind the last 30-40 years. This has to be addressed for all our sakes. The EU is only partly to blame for that (and it is a Europe-wide problem) but the political class have ignored ordinary people – both in the old industrial heartlands and declining rural areas – and these people have had enough. Similarly the fracture between London (where the English are a dwindling minority) and the rest of England has been laid bare. The entire system has been run for the benefit of the rich, mobile and well educated. Those of my friends who fit into that category are bewildered and outraged; they are not used to this sort of setback. Leavers are accused of being racist but why is there so much contempt for the poor? Equally they (and especially the elderly) are condemned for being nostalgic, but why must we be so enamoured with change for change’s sake?
He ends with a glimmer of hope: I think it’s important we take the long view. The country will survive, and if it’s no longer the UK, does that matter? We will still have a functioning economy, and should we be concerned if the global corporations and banks who’ve held the country to hostage decide to relocate some of their operations to the EU? The Tories may still be in power for now but is it impossible to hope that a radical and more humanistic alternative might yet emerge? Maybe people will start to take democracy more seriously now that everyone realises that voting can really change things.
My British friends voted on both sides but few of them probably expected the outcome. Even fewer probably saw the disintegration outcome as a symptom of the much larger collapse of the globalised world created by humans. The globalised ‘neo-liberal’ pressures that this 10000 year-old economic, social, political and cultural “machine” have exerted on the Natural World provide a perspective against which the Brexit phenomenon can be placed (at least when thinking at the Spaceship Earth or planetary scale). The Brexit debate has on all sides taken for granted the desirability of economic growth as the means of maintaining the notion of the good society despite the increasingly evident planetary limits to growth.
Population growth itself underlies the flood of immigrants from war zones and areas of crushing poverty. The desire for wealth has driven into the UK a million or so Poles, thus fuelling the resentment of so many Leave voters. The gross inequalities of power, wealth and region clearly are prime factors in the vote and one hopes that greater distributive justice may now emerge from the turbulence and uncertainty that has sent shock waves around the world. But even greater fairness in societies cannot remove the imperative of having humans live within the capacity of the natural world to sustain the basic needs of all people. Such considerations have been absent from this cataclysmic event.
I wonder whether it is reasonable to speculate that Brexit is yet another distraction from global collapse. 2030 is suggested by the famous Club of Rome Limits to Growth model as the likely start of serious collapse of global systems. Collapse will be due to the denial by most humans of exponential progression of population (now 7.4 billion of whom 60 million are seeking refuge), technology (both deadly and benign) and grossly mal-distributed affluence and the hegemony of the ideology of power and greed and human anthropocentrism that ignores the ecological dependence of our species upon nature’s bounty. Hans Blix the 89 year-old nuclear inspector of Iraq fame suggests that human species suicide can be rapid (as in a nuclear war) or gradual as in global warming (that he believes nuclear energy can delay). But Brexit and its aftermath will ignore these biggest of human issues.
We live in a complex age of multi-level realities in which democracy is arguably the least-worst way of organising society. While global corporate capital seems detached from democratic citizenship it seems unlikely that thinking ecologically at the planetary level will catch up with the greedy rush to disaster of the global economy. Exits from supra-national unions may well become a more frequent distraction from planetary concerns in the years ahead.