06.29.2016
  • Europe
  • UK

Who Brexit Benefits

The British Leave vote cannot be reduced to racism — but that is the primary way the outcome will be experienced.

The racists have successfully articulated a broad antiestablishment sentiment — originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc. — along bigoted, national chauvinist lines.

The Leave vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism — but that is the primary way in which it has been organized and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced.

That this was achieved so soon after the fascist murder of a center-left, pro-immigrant member of parliament, is stunning in a way. It says something about the truculence of some of the chauvinism on display. It says something about the profound sense of loss which a reasserted “Britishness” is supposed to compensate for.

There is a lot of finger-wagging on Twitter and elsewhere about how the exit voters have just triggered economic self-destruction. House prices will fall, savings will be diminished, the pound will weaken, jobs will dry up.

Well, that’s all true. Except. Not everyone benefits from the insane property market. Not everyone has savings. Not everyone benefits, as the City of London does, from a strong pound. Manufacturing has suffered from that priority. Large parts of the country have been hemorrhaging jobs for years.

“The economy” is not a neutral terrain experienced by everyone in exactly the same way. And some of the votes, coming in core Labour areas, not necessarily strongly racist areas at first glance, indicate that. So people have voted against an economy that wasn’t working to their benefit. (That doesn’t mean the practical alternative will not be worse. I suspect it will be a great deal worse.)

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn did the best he could in this scenario, offering a conditional, critical defense of Remain. Had he joined in the rah-rah cheerleading for the European Union, had he not prefaced his support with some serious criticisms, Labour would be looking at a bleak scenario in these mid-to-north England areas which have gone Brexit. By at least sounding critical, and above all keeping his distance from the Tories, he has probably avoided a Scottish outcome for the party in these areas.

But Corbyn was also not the dynamic factor in this referendum. The racists were. The chauvinists were. And the culture wars now afoot were signaled by UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who greeted the victory with what can only have been a calculated dog whistle: Leave had “done it,” he said, “without a single bullet being fired.”