The curious thing leading up to Britain’s decision to exit the EU was the distinct lack of real choice, despite the vastly opposing consequences of the two options on the ballot paper. One side told us to reject the established norms of globalisation, to take back control of our country, to stick two fingers up at Brussels, to turn our backs on immigration, and in doing so to protect our future. The other side told us to stick together, to embrace globalisation, to tolerate immigration, to try not to think about Brussels, and in doing so to protect our future.
But at the heart of the debate was two opposing views of British conservatism; decades of tensions within the Conservative Party finally erupting in polling stations and reverberating across the continent. It was a battle between the establishment and the anti-establishment, except it seems that the anti-establishment is just the establishment on steroids.
In this context, immigration became the accepted cause of all our problems. Lack of jobs: immigration. Weak economy: immigration. Pressure on public services: immigration. The answer to this, depending on your view, was to be found in the connection between the UK and the rest of Europe (or lack of it). At no point did either side attempt to challenge the illogic of this argument. If the UK’s problems simply boil down to an issue of population size, then we should be both worried about the future (when our population naturally rises with people who can’t be ‘shipped home’) and curious about our past (when poverty and inequality were no less rampant than they are today).
Britain is in unchartered territory, and quickly descending into political chaos. The challenge now is for the rest of us to pick up the pieces. There is only one way to achieve this: by challenging the economic orthodoxy which has failed so many people in the UK, by building a new and democratic Europe which works for all her citizens, and by rejecting the argument that immigration is a cause rather than a consequence of these issues. The hope, then, must be that a real anti-establishment rises from the ashes of Britain’s seismic decision.
Admittedly, it’s not looking good. The Labour party is in full revolt mode as it seeks to dispose a leader who was deemed unable to lead by his critics before he’d even spoken a word. The Conservative Party is dousing itself in a blood bath where even those on the same side aren’t, it turns out, on the same side. Our next Prime Minister is likely to be someone who has led the charge in anti-immigrant rhetoric over the past five years. Or perhaps, if we’re lucky, it will be a man who sent hundreds of thousands of teachers into revolt and whose main selling point (according to his wife) is that he can court the favour of Rupert Murdoch. Not very anti-establishment.
Rightly or wrongly, Britain has made a monumental decision and the global elite would do well to heed the lessons of discontent. But the real work hasn’t even begun. In decades to come we will surely be judged by how we respond to this decision, and by how successful we are in uniting Europe behind a new system which embraces all its citizens.