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Gary Younge

‘Britain is no more sovereign today than it was yesterday. We have left the EU but we remain within the neoliberal system.’
Photograph: Hannah Mckay/EPA
After this vote the UK is diminished, our politics poisoned

In the end those who placed their faith in the “experts” were always going to be disappointed. The pollsters were wrong; the currency traders were wrong; the pundits were confounded. People who did not feel they had been heard have not just spoken. Given a one-off chance to tell the world what they think of how they are governed they have screamed a piercing cry of alienation and desperation.

Given the choice between the status quo and change (changing something, anything) Britain voted for change. It got its wish. This will change everything. As the pound plummets, stock markets dive, the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, says a new referendum for Scottish independence is “highly likely” and Sinn Féin revives the question of Irish unity, we enter a period of volatility without precedent or comparison.

Like the dog that chases the car only to amaze itself by catching it, those who campaigned for Brexit own what comes next. There were sound reasons why some people rejected the European Union. Sadly none of them made it to the mainstream. Instead, leave unleashed a range of demons it could not tame and then refused to face them honestly, preferring to wade to the finish line through a toxic swamp of postcolonial nostalgia, xenophobia and general disaffection.

Britain is no more sovereign today than it was yesterday. We will leave the EU but remain within the neoliberal system. Left to the mercy of the markets we are arguably now less capable of directing our affairs than we were. We are not independent. We are simply isolated.

We are also diminished. Our politics are poisoned, our discourse is fragile, our leaders are discredited. Facts ceased to matter, knowledge ceased to be valued, compassion appeared to evaporate. As large majorities for one side or the other racked up in various parts of the country it became clear that for many of us, beyond our families, we didn’t just disagree with the other side. We literally didn’t know them. Britain is not greater for this decision and this campaign but smaller, weaker and more vulnerable.

As such the referendum failed on its own terms. Its sole purpose was to settle divisions within the Tory party and field the challenge from Ukip. David Cameron’s resignation shows those divisions are now wider and deeper than ever before and are not about to heal. But worse than that, rather than inoculating the Conservatives from infighting, it spread it like a virus across the country, exposing and expanding the rifts between town and country, children and parents, Scotland and England.

Referendums are by their very nature crude. “In” or “out”; “yes” or “no”. They take important issues and reduce them to their most basic level and then corral them into uncomfortable alliances. Jeremy Corbyn lines up with the captains of industry and Cameron; George Galloway makes common cause with Nigel Farage.

But if the question was crude the campaigns were vulgar. Sanctimonious, fearmongering and uninspiring, remain was tone-deaf to an insurrectionary mood that suffered fools more gladly than experts. Wheeling out John Major, Tony Blair and Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, they failed to realise that the surrogates they were employing represented the very establishment with which people were disillusioned. They produced budgets that didn’t add up, evoked wars that wouldn’t happen. Taxes would rise, pensions would fall, the sick would go untended.

Moreover, it never made a case for Europe, only for not leaving it on the basis that terrible things would happen. Commissioners nobody had elected and leaders of foreign states threatened us in a gentler tone but with the same purpose as they did the Greeks: “It’s your choice, don’t make the wrong one.”

Meanwhile a section of London-based commentariat anthropologised the British working class as though they were a lesser evolved breed from distant parts, all too often portraying them as bigots who did not know what was good for them. Having assumed themselves cosmopolitan, the more self-aware pundits began to realise just how parochial they were: having experienced much of the world, they discovered they didn’t know their own country as well as they might.

But if the remain campaign was incompetent and patronising, leave was both inflammatory and irresponsible.

It is a banal axiom to insist that “it’s not racist to talk about immigration”. It’s not racist to talk about black people, Jews or Muslims either. The issue is not whether you talk about them but how you talk about them and whether they ever get a chance to talk for themselves. When you dehumanise migrants, using vile imagery and language, scapegoating them for a nation’s ills and targeting them as job-stealing interlopers, you stoke prejudice and foment hatred.

The chutzpah with which the Tory right – the very people who had pioneered austerity, damaging jobs, services and communities – blamed migrants for the lack of resources was breathtaking. The mendacity with which a section of the press fanned those flames was nauseating. The pusillanimity of the remain campaign’s failure to counter these claims was indefensible.

Not everyone, or even most, of the people who voted leave were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.

In this atmosphere of racial animus and class contempt, political dislocation and electoral opportunism, the space for the arguments we need to have about immigration, democracy and austerity simply did not exist. This referendum raised questions it could not answer precisely because it identified problems politicians were not prepared to solve. Our politics failed us. And since it is our politics only we can fix it.

We are leaving the EU and entering a dark and uncertain period. Offered a choice between fear of the unknown or fear of the foreigner, fear inevitably won. Britain lost.

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