Brexit: Musings from a progressive non-expert…

BrexitThe decision of the majority of the population to leave the European Union – or the so-called ‘Brexit’ – has sent shockwaves around the world.


It seems that very few people expected this to actually happen: even the leaders of the ‘leave’ campaign felt that they did not expect to win.


Many people have written about what it means and the likely economic, social and political consequences. We have already seen the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, resign. Many in the extreme right across Europe have started celebrating as they see this as the demise of the European Union with the rise of ultra nationalism emerging – something that allows right wing parties to flourish.

I am not qualified to write about why this happened or about the consequences: European politics is not my area of research.


What I am interested in is to talk about the lessons that those who support progressive politics in Australian should take from this event. That is, I am interested in know what we should take away from this and how should we respond.


I see three key issues that have emerged and three questions that follow.


The first is that the politics of fear accompanied by lies and disinformation is the favoured strategy of the extreme right and difficult to combat.


One of the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign, Nigel Farage, had little problem in using fear and anti-immigration to make a point that the European Union was at fault for the mass movement of migrants. He proudly unveiled a poster which showed a queue of mostly non-white migrants and refugees with the slogan “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.”


It was as if he alone could turn back the migrants – but this was not only racist, but an outright lie. Within 24 hours of the referendum, Leave campaigners started backtracking. As the Guardian reported:

Tory (MP) Daniel Hannan said free movement could result in similar levels of immigration after Brexit…. Hannan said: “Frankly, if people watching think that they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed.”


Farage himself, whose campaigners said that the money they saved from being part of the EU could now direct this money to the National Health Service, has distanced himself from such promised.


The Independent neatly outlined the lies: see here…


So what do we do about lying in politics? What can be done to ensure that such statements should not be made and if they are, those that make them are held legally responsible for them?


The second lesson is that the majority of the voting public are so frustrated with the political process, that they have lost interest. Survey after survey across Western democracies show that the voting public do not see value in democracy and are increasingly turning off.


The Lowy Institute’s annual poll shows that the majority of Australians are, at best, ambivalent towards democracy.


Just how ambivalent were the Brits leading up to the vote? The day after the referendum, Google reported that the second most searched term in England was ‘what is the EU?’


The question then, is how do we move to re-engage people (and particularly young people) in politics?


The third lesson is that if we want people to support something, we should explain it to them.


If the EU is really such a magnificent beast, then why has it not done a better job at explaining why it is so wonderful? It seems that for decades the supra-national body has assumed that the benefits it offers are obvious. But are they?


It seems to me the choice came down to a right wing anti-immigration and ultra nationalist agenda against a cosmopolitan neoliberalism that has some positive legal benefits but leaves many workers vulnerable and disillusioned. How has the EU protected them?


The question that follows then, is in a world where neoliberal policies have made the working and middle class so vulnerable, what can they be offered? Further, how do we convince people the benefits of bodies such as the EU, United Nations and other organisations that are meant to represent the upside of globalisation?


I do not know the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that the inability to answer these meant that the ultra-right had a field day. Further, unless we can answer these, this kind of disintegration is only the beginning.

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3 Responses to Brexit: Musings from a progressive non-expert…

  1. Sholto says:

    Hey James – nice to read some local commentary. What do you think about Brexit’s role in highlighting the lack of democratic representation?
    It was a common complaint against the EU by Leavers, but given the reported levels of poverty in the UK, democracy must be in a pretty poor state there too.
    UK media picked Remain to win.
    Pollsters picked Remain to win.

    Must be a huge disconnect with how the media and politicians (and pollsters) operate. Do you think the same is true in AU? Are the media and politicians similarly disconnected from the reality of life?
    Feels like we need a lot more grassroots representation, many more voices in the mix than professional commentators and journalists (like me! :-))

  2. Steve Kokkinis says:

    I might not agree with the philosophy of Nigel Farage and UKIP or their methods but how is raising a concern or even the conversation about immigration Racist?

  3. Alistair McCulloch says:

    I think a not insignificant element of the vote was a disillusion on the part of a large section of the electorate with politicians who are seen to be in it for themselves. There really is no longer a party in the UK which speaks the same language as those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Labour because the party of Blair and technocrats like Peter Mandelson who started as the party’s spin doctor, became an MP for a run-down North East of England constituency called Hartlepool (which not unrelatedly in my opinion recorded one of the largest ‘out’ votes in the referendum) and then became EU Trade Commissioner.

    Prior to this Mandelson had resigned from a Cabinet post because he’d not declared a c$600,000 interest free loan from a fellow Labour Cabinet Minister and millionaire to enable him to buy a house in London’s booming property market. He’d also resigned from a second cabinet post given him a little later following allegations of using his influence to procure a passport for an Indian businessman. He later became very close to a Russian oligarch and holidayed on his yacht. The oligarch was one whose business would have benefitted from Mandelson’s decisions while at the EU.

    I write at length and use Mandelson as a case study as he was just one of many in the ‘professional Labour’ class whose behaviour was seen to be self-serving. (Blair was another.) Both Tory and Labour MPs were rorting the parliamentary expenses system big-time (as were Liberal Democrats). The outcome of all this has been a complete breakdown in trust in the political class amongst those who are struggling and who have seen their communities blighted since Margaret Thatcher began a war on the notion of the public sector, public (or common) ownership and ‘society’ (about which she famously said ‘there is no such thing’).

    It is this breakdown and blight that Australia must above all guard against because once they set in, the two can give rise to a monster that is very hard to control and, as with Brexit, the results can be very ugly. The Australian political class has already done many things that mirror what has gone on in the UK. The issue needs to be addressed both seriously and quickly and in an ongoing manner.

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