By Robert A. Vella
Describing the U.K. referendum decision to leave the European Union as “shocking” might be an understatement. This election result is destined to have far-reaching consequences for many years to come. To see it as nothing more than a quixotic political aberration, a spontaneous overreaction to regional immigration concerns, as many western establishment leaders would like the public to believe, is a profoundly ignorant perception. What happened yesterday in the U.K. is just a symptom of a much bigger societal problem that’s been building for several decades inside Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere.
Like the U.S., the U.K. has become increasingly polarized and divided along sharp cultural, political, and regional lines as evidenced by the referendum outcome. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and urban London all voted to remain in the E.U. England and Wales voted to leave. The ethnic breakdown of the vote also reflects similarly to the U.S., as the ideologies of whites and minority groups are moving away from each other. This social turmoil is exerting great pressure on politicians who are reacting with dismay and desperation in addition to creating openings for political opportunists.
From The Washington Post – Britain’s shock vote brings swift consequences as leader resigns, markets plunge:
With Britain still absorbing the dawn news that the country had voted by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent to withdraw from the E.U., an emotional Prime Minister David Cameron appeared in front of 10 Downing Street on Friday and said he would step down after championing a failed campaign.
He promised to remain as a caretaker through the summer, but said he wanted Britain to have a new prime minister by early October.
Within hours, it became clear that whoever does will have to fight to keep the United Kingdom from falling apart. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader in pro-E.U. Scotland, said she would push for a new independence referendum.
A 2014 vote failed, but Sturgeon said a rerun of that contest was “highly likely” in order to protect Scotland’s place in Europe after English and Welsh voters overrode Scottish objections and opted for “out.”
Nationalists in Northern Ireland — another area that favored remaining in the E.U. — echoed those calls, demanding a vote on Irish reunification.
Cameron’s decision to step down set off an instant contest to replace him. Former London mayor Boris Johnson — a leading campaigner for the anti-E.U. cause — was considered the odds-on favorite.
Johnson was mobbed outside his house in north London early Friday, with some cheering but far more jeering a man whom many pro-E.U. Londoners blame for the outcome of Thursday’s referendum. “Shame on you!” some yelled.
As to the larger issue reflected by the U.K. referendum, here’s how Peter S. Goodman described it (along with some excellent economic analysis) yesterday in The New York Times – Turbulence and Uncertainty for the Market After ‘Brexit’:
Most broadly, the vote is likely to resonate as a sign that major democracies are increasingly vulnerable to the influence of populist political movements that curry favor by demonizing immigrants and external forces such as officials in Brussels and Washington, low-wage workers in China and Mexico.
The noisy and acrimonious campaign over leaving the bloc played on inchoate fears in Europe and much of the developed world: dismay over globalization at a time of intensified competition for jobs, and angst over immigration as it refashions conceptions of national identity. Those sentiments will surely find additional avenues for expression, challenging trade arrangements, reinvigorating existential questions about the shared euro currency and sowing uncertainty throughout the financial realm.
Economists and political analysts have been watching the campaign as a gauge of the potency of anti-immigrant sentiments far beyond Britain. The success of the movement to leave the bloc is likely to resonate in financial markets as cause to assume a higher probability that Donald J. Trump will be elected president of the United States, riding his pledges to bar Muslim immigrants and erect a wall along the Mexican border.
But, Richard Eskow put it better (my opinion) in an editorial from the Campaign for America’s Future – Brexit and the New Global Rebellion:
Things are changing. A major crack has appeared in the edifice of globalization, and the neoliberal order that has dominated the world’s economy since the end of World War II is now in danger.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by any means. But poisonous weeds are just as likely as green shoots to grow up through those cracks. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Those who make constructive evolution impossible may be making destructive devolution inevitable.
We now know that Great Britain, itself an amalgam of older nations, is divided. England and Wales voted to leave Europe, while Scotland, Northern Ireland, and ethnically diverse London voted to remain.
This vote was a stunning rejection of Great Britain’s political establishment. “Leave” prevailed despite opposition from all three major political parties. Prime Minister David Cameron, who will now step down, called on voters to “Remain.” So did socialist Jeremy Corbin, the most left-wing Labor leader in a generation. Barack Obama crossed the Atlantic to stand beside Cameron and offer his support.
Voters rejected all of them.
The uprising has begun. The question now is, who will lead it going forward?
Globalism’s Shadow Self
The world’s financial and political elites must now face the fact that resistance to their economic order, which has shaped the world since the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, is a major phenomenon. These elites are apparently more out of touch with the citizens of the industrialized world than at any time in modern memory.
Make no mistake: The “Leave” vote was a rejection of globalization, at least as it’s currently structured. This was a revolt of working class Britons who have seen their postwar prosperity erode around them and their social contract eviscerated by the corporate and financial oligarchy.
But it was also the sign of a darker and more sinister worldwide phenomenon: the resurgence of global nativism and xenophobia. This worldwide turn toward fear of the Other is globalization’s shadow self.
Those who don’t understand how fascism arose from the ashes of World War I, and the economic devastation caused by it, are – in the words of philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana – “condemned to repeat it.” Before this frightening situation escalates to that level, the citizens of the world must demand from the ruling establishment that they fundamentally address its root causes. If not, the situation will inevitably escalate so, and the terrible tragedies of World War II will similarly recur.
We have two basic choices. We can modify technological globalization in a fairer way by replacing its socially-stratifying neoliberal policy drivers with a more equitable system; or, we can stop the spread of globalism altogether. It’s our choice.