It is by far the most emotive and divisive issue of a generation: Brexit has split families, ended relationships, derailed political careers and divided a country. But was the outcome of the EU referendum on the 23rd of June 2016 a rash, knee-jerk decision, or had anti-EU feeling been building for many years?
If Brexit was a long time in the making, we ask: Who were the real grandparents of Brexit?
Strong opinions are never loosely held when it comes to debating, read: arguing, Brexit. But the entrenched positions on remain and leave don’t ever give the space necessary to discuss the context around why so many voted to leave, and why they are so destained by those who wanted to stay.
Joining us to work out that context is the lecturer in international relations at Queen Mary’s University, Dr Lee Jones, and Dr Lisa Mackenzie who is a lecturer in practical sociology at Middlesex University.
Pinning their colours to the mast before we get started: Dr Jones disclosed that he voted to leave the EU. Dr Mckenzie abstained in a political protest vote.
“I ruined my ballot paper,” she said.
This Brexit vote is often seen as a snapshot, June 2016 everyone made a decision. Is it the case that that just simply isn’t the case and actually this was a long time coming. What is the context on Brexit?
Dr Jones told Renegade Inc. that it depends how far you want to go back, but if you go back just a couple of years the majority of people either favour leaving the EU, or curtailing its powers.
“I think, actually, Brexit was decades in the making, because the real root causes of the Brexit vote go back to the crisis of capitalism and the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s,” he says.
Brexit started in 1991
Jones says the 1991 Trade Union Congress was actually the start of Brexit, and that actually June 16 2016 was merely a symptom of a bigger cause.
“If you’re going to pinpoint one date as a symbolic moment it would have to be I think 1991, Trade Union Congress which was addressed by the then president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors and it marked the moment that the Labor movement converted itself to the cause of European integration, threw its lot in with the single market,” he says.
“That moment symbolises the defeat, really, of the left, which had happened all the way through the 1980s: The capitulation to neoliberal capitalism and the Third Way.
“Basically, the Labor movement thought: ‘we’ve lost domestically. We’re being screwed by Thatcher week in, week out. Why don’t we try and hope that the EU will defend some kind of social provision for us, and some kind of labour rights.’ So they really threw their lot in with the EU, whereas in the past there has always been a strong left movement against European integration. The last time we had a referendum in ‘75, The Labor party was completely split on this. At the Labor Party Congress of that year, two thirds of the participants wanted to reject European integration, but that was the moment it flipped, and I think many working people felt abandoned by that.”
Clause 4 – of the Labor Party platform that promised to stand together with trade unions against private property and private ownership – was formally abandoned in 1993 under Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
“Clause 4 for the trade unions was a real Watergate moment,” Dr Mckenzie Tells Renegade Inc., because the Labour Party’s prime goal was to fight capitalism, fight the fat cats. They got rid of Clause 4. They got rid of that part of The Labour movement. That was a massive blow for the trade unions.”
The decision to abandon Clause 4 was a rational action taken by a party that needed to expand its base if it were to retain power.
“I don’t think it was a cry for help, from the Labor Party, no,” she says. “I think that was about rational action theory. I think it was the Labor Party going: ‘well, we need that middle class vote. We need to expand our vote.’ They were seeking power, and the way that they did that is they were looking towards Europe for power, aligning with different governments. But also, at the same time, is making that sort of play in that movement, for the British aspirational during that sort of late 1980s, early 1990s time. So I’m not sure that it was a cry for help. I think it was part of a rational process of creating a very very bourgeois, not left but Centre Party, modelled on the American Democrats.”
Brexit: it’s a class thing
When you see these people who did vote leave so maligned and derided by those who wanted to remain, just give us a snapshot from your point of view of who these people are and what their economic prospects have been like prior to, and now after, the Brexit referendum.
“Brexit was the most strongly class correlated vote in recent decades,” says Dr Jones. “So now the class basis of the two main political parties is almost totally broken down. Traditionally, Labor was the party of the working class, and the Tories the party of the propertied. And now that correlation has almost totally evaporated.”
Was that the property owning democracy that came in? Was that a sort of moment where everybody then became this amorphous middle class as Tony Blair?
“Well I don’t think that they did actually become middle class, but I think, as Lisa says, the Labour party shifted rightwards and triangulated towards the middle class. And what essentially happened was the working classes were to a large extent left behind.”
Says Dr Mckenzie: “Or left out.”
“They feel, I think, largely unrepresented by the political class. They feel our political class has become homogenous. Identikit political parties with no real differences between them. And working class interests are no longer being represented in the political system,” says Dr Jones.
“And that’s shown in all kinds of polls. It’s shown in the very low turnout for working class communities and Brexit was different in that people who had abandoned voting for a long time, or maybe had never voted, voted for the first time, because they saw a unique opportunity to make change in their lives. This promised a rupture in the system, and an attempt to discipline the political class, and make it listen to them, and represent their interests in politics once more.”
That rupture and that action. Has it made the political class sit up and listen?
“I think it has forced them to listen to the people when they haven’t for a long time,” he says. “The last general election both Labor and the Conservatives ran on a platform of implementing Brexit. However, because of the hung Parliament we now have many people trying to overturn the referendum result. So there are certain factions in Parliament that still refuse to accept the will of the people. The will of the majority of the people.”
What does that say about our political class?
“It says that the politics of representative government have broken down and really Brexit is the kind of end point of this long term crisis. The withdrawal of both parties from their traditional bases and their move into interiorly policy networking at the EU level. They retreat from the accountability to their own voters. They’re more accountable to other governments at the European level, where they lock in neoliberal policies. And they did that for a long time. And that is a real crisis in which right wing populism can fill that void and can flourish as we see across the continent.
“I see Brexit as a possibility of of saying to the political establishment you have actually to be accountable back to the voters again. There’s an opportunity here to restore representative government and avert the crisis that populism injects into European politics.”
A democratic moment but not a democratic movement
Does Lee paint a realistic picture?
Dr Mckenzie says there has definitely some sort of void that’s been left for the last, properly 30 years. “I can give you a date: The 9th of March 1984. For me that’s when Brexit became on the horizon. That was my 16th birthday. It was the day that my dad came back from the pit that he worked at, and wouldn’t cross a picket line in Nottinghamshire. And then he was on strike for a year.
“The consequences of that strike was that the miners lost. It was a fight that was pitted against the working class. And actually, the working class lost in 1985. And that opened the gates really for all organised trade unions, organised working class solidarity, to be smashed.
“Thirty five -40 years later, working class people’s living conditions, housing conditions, working conditions, pay, their social status, their community status, their social lives, their children’s education.
“Every part of their lives has been absolutely smashed to bits.
“For me, I think that’s where you trace Brexit back. You cannot keep smashing the same people over and over and over again, and expect them to do nothing. I personally think that the elites, the politicians, they got away very lightly with Brexit.”
“Brexit was a Democratic moment but not a democratic movement, says Dr Jones.
“There was a kind of working class revolt against the political establishment. But they have no organisations, they have no leadership. The people who led the Leave campaign: they just abandoned them immediately after the vote. They had no vision of how to transform society or take it forward. It’s left to a bunch of Remainers, basically, to implement Brexit.
“There is still a very dangerous moment politically where there’s still this seething anger resulting from the trends that you discuss where they’re still not being represented fully in the democratic system.”
If then logically these people aren’t being listened to again. What’s the logical progression of that?
“The real risk is that the current inoculation against right wing populism is reversed,” says Dr Jones. “A lot of people think Brexit is about populism and I think that’s completely wrong. It’s completely wrong to bracket Brexit and Trump. Populism is about saying the political establishment is bankrupt. The political parties are screwed, they’re not ever going to represent you. Elect me as the tribune of the people and I will smash the system, drain the swamp, and I will directly represent your interests.
“Often, populist leaders when they get into power do not in fact do that. Right. But that’s their claim.
“Whereas, I think Brexit is about saying actually we want represent government back. Come and listen to us. Again.
“It’s not about electing a populist leader. There is no populist leader that emerges from the Brexit vote. People want the political parties to start representing them again, and the collapse in UKIP support shows you that it is a protest vote, a demand for representation.”
“At the moment, the UK is the country that is least affected by right wing populism. Collapse of the BNP years ago. Now collapse of UKIP. These were protest votes. In the EU, by contrast, right wing populism is absolutely rampant. So now you have a basically a right wing populist government in Italy, for example, which is doing horrible things on migration.
“Brexit is racist. This is nonsense.
“The risk if Brexit is either overturned or diluted, so you get Brexit in name only, is that it gives a lifeline to UKIP, or some successor, to come back and say: ‘look you know you thought that voting made a difference. You gave it a go. Forget it. It doesn’t make a difference.’ And I think you will start to see the rise of extra Parliamentary politics because people will say: ‘yeah we tried. We gave it our all and now we know for sure that the political establishment will not be disciplined. They will not listen to us.’ And then I think there will be populist ructions across the country and very dangerous for society.”
The left is on the wrong side of Brexit
“One of the biggest contradictions of the Brexit debate is that left generally has been pro-EU, which means that they are aligned with the major capitalist establishment.”
Richard Dawkins recently tweeted: “Yes of course there are people who voted leave for reasons other than xenophobia bigotry. A fading imperial jingoism. I’ve met at least four but it felt good to be marching through London with the hundred thousand yesterday and to be reminded of the decent half of Britain.”
Says Dr McKenzie:”That whole tweet is full of class prejudices isn’t it? This is actually really important because this is the class prejudice mask slipping off,” she says.
“For a working class woman like me that has grown up in this class ridden, class prejudiced country, one of the things that we’ve always been told is there is no class prejudice. And especially you know sort of growing up in 90s, where you’d got this aspirational Blairism, this aspirational Labour Party. Things can only get better.
“And also, to move away from your working class roots was actually about social mobility. This was the rhetoric. And actually, what Brexit has done is that the middle class mask has slipped.
“There’s lots of talk about Brexit has allowed the right wing to be brave.
“Brexit has also allowed the middle class to be prejudice against working class people.
“They can now revert to how they have always thought about us which is animalistic, stupid, xenophobic, racist and uncivilised.”
Dr Jones says the middle class is always happier looking at the working classes as an ‘object of governance’, rather than a political subject.
“So as long as you can patronise and speak down to the working class and see them as people who need to be helped by the welfare state, or managed in some way, then the middle class mask stays in place. But the moment that the workers actually rediscover a sense of their own political subjectivity, that they are people who can take control of their lives and make decisions and that they have that political equality to middle class, educated people, then the mask slips. You can see that in the response to, say, Grenfell Tower.”
The role of corporates
There is one group of people who have got away scot free with this, and it’s the corporate types. If we’re talking about middle class, that’s how we can frame it. The CEO’s, the C-suite, as they’re called, and shareholders. If we take your average Polish plasterer who came to the UK 15 years ago and undercut the wages of a Brit who was doing the same job. Fundamentally, the gap in him or her undercutting those wages goes into share values, it goes into salaries, and it goes into the bonus structure, fundamentally.
Why hasn’t anybody said ‘do you know what? Big business has got a problem here, they’ve exploited these workers from Europe coming in, low wages, suppressed wages. They’ve undermined natives of this country, because you’ve had to move your wage level to that market. Why is no one talking about that?”
“Can I just say I think we have to be a bit careful,” says Dr Jones. “Because I don’t think there’s any evidence that Eastern European immigrants have undercut wages. I think there is evidence that they have suppressed wage growth. According to recent revelations the Bank of England governor deliberately pushed freedom of movement in order to curb wage inflation. That was a deliberate policy, but there is no real evidence that they’ve undercut wages per se.
“In terms of nobody saying it, I had a very interesting conversation recently with a community organizer in south London and he works with a lot of working class people who work alongside EU migrants, and they talk about it. They don’t talk about migrants as being a threat to ‘natives’, and I think you have to be careful with that kind of language as well. What they say is they can see that these people are being forced to move here as a factor of production, rather than as people. Because the market is here and also because of the creation of a single market for capital goods, services and labor in the EU.”
So the CEOs at the C-suite and the shareholders have absolutely no blood on their hands when it comes to wages.
“That’s not my point at all. I’m saying that working, its working class leave voters in South London, because some people in London did vote leave, 40%. They voted leave not because they hated EU migrants, but because they could see how they were being exploited and they have the remnants of class solidarity. So they were talking about it. But their voice and their way of thinking about it does not find its way into the mainstream discussion.”
Right so let me put a different question then: Why has the media not focused on Fortune 100 companies who have engaged that type of worker that have suppressed wages which has fundamentally torn at the fabric of the working class?
“This is a question that we can ask of from 20 or 30 years ago in the miners strike,” says Dr McKenzie. “Why are the money makers in the middle? Why are they never held to account? Well you know that’s the way that the class system works. The most powerless people are always at the bottom. So how do you hold those people to account? Also and this is another thing that’s happened in the last 40 years. We’ve had this obsession with entrepreneurialism. The ‘wealth makers’. So we’ve got these mythical people in the middle, actually now risen to the top, in the city and in finance and ‘wealth creators’ and these are mythical people.
“They are almost sorcerers, you know they are sorcerers. Because none of us know what they do. I don’t know what they do. And so for me I think you know the mythical figure, the sorcerers around the city, around money. It’s not held to account and I think it’s because very few people know what they actually do.”
Is it any coincidence that since the Big Bang we’ve had this entrepreneurship and tech start-up, that people create unicorns and other mythical thing because the workers don’t understand what’s going on in the city, they don’t understand what’s going on in tech, for instance?
“In terms of understanding I mean I think you don’t necessarily have to understand how a financial company works in order to have a critique of the way that it operates and what it’s doing,” says Dr Jones. “But the question is who provides the frameworks through which ordinary, working class people can understand the world. This goes back to the only discussion we were having about the left abandoning the working classes.
“In the 1970s workers didn’t necessarily understand the internal mechanics of companies and so on. But they understood the basic structures of capitalism and that the boss was their enemy and so on, because the labour movement provided them with those tools to make sense of the world. Nowadays because the left has abandoned those communities, they’re left without those framing devices. So they know that they’re hurting. They know that they are facing low wages, crap jobs, poor housing, competition for public services, long queues at the doctors and so on. And they don’t have any framework to make sense of that. But the right offers them a framework to understand that.
“And that is why those grievances I think get expressed in the form of anti immigration sentiment. Not necessarily anti-immigrant, because I think the racism that used to affect this country, very strongly until the late 1980s, is on a long term secular decline. This is not about anti-immigrant sentiment. The majority of leave voters for example want EU citizens who are already here to stay.”
Let me ask you about academia. Is there this, let’s say – warfare – between the Remainers and those who voted to leave? And is there a McCarthyism? Is there a witch hunt? Is that way too strong?
“It’s not warfare because one side has already won,” says Dr Jones.
“And also the academic world is very middle class, very elite and very Remainer,” says Dr McKenzie. “So there is not actually ‘a war’, but there is sort of like a underground movement. I would say there’s an underground movement of people who, like Lee, are left-wing, fair minded, clever individuals that are making the case for Brexit, but the screaming that is coming from the middle class is quite overwhelming.”
Must have been quite lonely.
“Oh it’s extremely lonely and there’s just a small group of us that have put our necks up and, we get a lot of abuse. Enabling fascism,” says Dr Jones. “You must be racist, dog whistling, anti Muslim, just ridiculous accusations just for daring to stand with the majority of the public. “One of the things that really motivated me to form this group and to actually take a public stand is I’m sick of seeing the majority of people, the majority of working people maligned in that way, as if they’re all racist dupes who were fooled by stuff on the side of a bus.
“So we wanted to stand up with the people who voted Leave, but also I think the majority of the country does not want a second referendum. The polls all show that. The majority understand that in a democracy sometimes you lose, and to uphold democracy means that you enact the referendum result. And they understand the consequences if you don’t.
“It’s only a tiny minority of people that are determined to overturn the referendum result and they are the ones that shout the loudest. They’re the members of the political class, the members the media establishment and they’re entrenched in academia.
“The Tory party is tearing itself apart, but so is the Labor Party. This is a fundamental political rupture and there hasn’t been a fundamental reorientation of the political system yet. And I think that’s why they’re kind of hoping that maybe we can just have a close association with the EU and things can go back to the way that they were, because we just don’t know what to do about this.”
But they are constantly working in the national interest. What does that mean?
“The national interest is a myth,” says Dr Jones.
“It’s whatever the ruling party of the day says is the national interest. But the notion that there’s some kind of interest beyond the party, beyond your political career, that somehow you’re trying to do something for posterity. I think that’s evaporated in the minds of many policy elites.
“As we can see from the Leave campaign in particular, they were the worst. They led the country in a particular direction, and then the moment that they won, they just abandoned the stage. Oh great. Now we’ll have Brexit. Haven’t told you what that means. Haven’t laid out a vision for society to move forward. And we’re not going to be in charge of implementing it. We’re just going to you know retire, or leave government, or stab each other in the back so you can’t actually get into government. Just remarkable dissolution of what used to be, particularly with the Tory Party, the traditional, establishment, ruling class, solid – totally fragmented.
“Theresa May is really the Prime Minister that expresses all that. Totally ineffectual. Utterly incompetent. Unable to lead the country towards anything. So this is the malaise right that’s at the heart of the post Brexit situation, it’s that there’s been a massive protest, a democratic moment but no democratic movement.
“There’s no one to take the political will that was expressed in the referendum and represent it into a new form of politics, and a new form of economic management”.
We have to leave an audience with some kind of hope because it’s been dystopian at times. Solution?
“I mean, it’s difficult to find hope in the deindustrialised areas to be honest,” Dr McKenzie says. “People don’t feel that hopeful, but I think if there is any hope it is in the fact that people have found a voice and they, to some extent, know that they’ve been heard and coming from those communities I know for the last 30 years they’ve not only not been heard, their voices were absolutely squashed and they were irrelevant to the whole political, social debate in Britain.
“So, it’s about building that class solidarity again. I think that’s the only way forward for working class people in this country, is building up those class solidarity lines, but also perhaps not in the ways that we did it in the past. And this is where I think that Jeremy Corbyn and the new New Labor people have got this wrong. They are rose-tintedly looking to the 19th century and that’s not where we are.
“The old trade unions of the past can’t tackle the zero-hour contracts and Deliveroo and Amazon warehouse workers, and actually the movement of people that have come from Europe. So I think what we can do now is we can start to build up more autonomous movements. Movements that are not connected to political parties.”
Thinking in a more top-down way, Dr Jones has formed a group called ‘The Full Brexit’.
“We’re calling for a clean break from the European Union, meaning get out the single market, get out of the Customs Union, and fundamentally rethink the way that Britain is governed,” he says.
“Politically, bringing back representative government to bring those forgotten, sidelined voices back into the conversation. And economically we need a complete break with the way that the economy is being run.
“We need to address really fundamental issues like low wage growth, very low productivity, very low value added. There’s a need to bring back manufacturing to this country. There’s a need to have strong industrial policy. Massive infrastructure investment. Investment in skills and upgrading, to bring hope back to those communities so they’re not just working in a Sports Direct warehouse, but they can actually be in the middle-skilled area that’s been progressively hollowed out over the last 30 years.
“All of these things about kind of re nationalising public utilities like the railways, like having a strong interventionist industrial policy, not just aimed at the top-end, this high skilled end like biotech and so on but about really fundamentally rethinking ‘what do these areas exist to do?’. How can we revive the economies in those areas and give back hope and dignity to ordinary working people? That should be the platform for any future Labour government.
“Corbyn as you rightly say is far too rose-tinted. Looking back to the golden era of social democracy that is finished. So he really has to develop much more future oriented policy if the country is going to make a success of Brexit.”