Yesterday’s vote to leave the EU is a leap into the unknown. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the winning side hasn’t a clue what happens next. No exit strategy, no negotiating brief. Only a vague perception that “we have taken our country back”, and a lot of noise and fury about immigration; a vote distinguished by its virulent anti-intellectualism and an apparent belief that actually to know about a subject somehow disqualifies one from having a legitimate opinion on it.
What actually happened? What appears to have happened is that those areas hit hardest by nearly a decade of austerity voted by the biggest margins to leave the EU, on a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment; and in doing so they have placed the direction of the Brexit negotiations in the hands of the most enthusiastic proponents of that austerity. The “sovereignty” issue has been expressed in terms of stopping people from coming to the UK to make a contribution to the economy, while handing protection of our working conditions, our environment, our poorest regions to bankers and frackers in Westminster. And, in an uncertain future, perhaps the most crucial political moments will come when people start to realise that the Brexiteers simply cannot deliver what they have promised; that you cannot have access to the European single market without accepting freedom of movement, that the vote will make no difference to immigration, that the money promised to Wales simply won’t materialise and will stay in the hands of a Treasury that, famously, refused to pass on all the funding that the Parliament had voted to it.
And although the tone of this campaign has been appalling – there has been nothing “borderline” about some of the racism expressed by the Brexit camp – its roots lie deep in the political history of the last few years. The Tories and UKIP – and one consequence of this referendum is that the distinction between them is more blurred than ever – have been softening up the electorate for years with their talk of scroungers, of workers and shirkers, of benefit tourism; all of which distract from the economic impacts of austerity. But Labour is far from blameless. We’ve had years of the strivers versus shirkers rhetoric, the talk of hard-working families, the abstention on Osborne’s Benefits Bill on the grounds of economic “realism”, the failure of moral and intellectual courage that has led to acceptance of the austerian mindset (most notably of the lie that Labour overspent in office). We have had the ludicrous claims of Blue Labour, in which middle-class politicians have categorised working-class culture in terms of things like flag and family which have always been used by the powerful to suppress the expression of class solidarity.
Most of all, we have had the refusal to tackle head-on the immigration myths – to challenge the lies that immigration has meant fewer jobs and lower wages and the housing crisis. We have been told time and time again that we should listen to people on immigration and have an open debate – by people who fundamentally lack the moral and intellectual courage to make the honest case; it is not immigration but austerity that has caused real wages to fall. It is not immigration but austerity that has caused pressure on our public services. It was not immigration that crashed the economy in 2007-8. It is not immigration but conscious policy decisions that have caused a housing crisis in which an entire generation has no hope of owning their homes. I have written before that when a Labour politician is calling for an honest debate about immigration they’re all too often trying to avoid an honest debate, and masking a tacit acceptance of the austerity agenda. Yes, we should be listening, but unless we are prepared to challenge these perceptions we’re patronising those electors and letting them down – we’re telling them, in effect, that we think they’re too dim to handle the truth. There is an alternative, and Labour should be proclaiming it loud and proud; if this referendum vote proves anything it is the utter electoral futility of appeasing the Tory/UKIP line in Labour’s electoral heartlands.
A question that has been asked, time and again, has been where has the Labour Party been for the last few weeks? Jeremy Corbyn has been almost invisible. In contrast to what has happened here in Wales, where Carwyn Jones has been indefatigable (and without whose intervention defeat in Wales could so easily have been a rout) the Labour Party have looked like spectators. It’s been too little, too late; the question that one asks time and again is whether the team around Corbyn, drawn as it largely is from veterans of internal Labour Party debate, is really up to the task of articulating a clear political vision that will appeal beyond the faithful. Wasn’t the Corbyn victory all about appealing beyond the traditional political class? The Labour leadership should be asking itself some very serious questions after all this.
Surveying the political landscape in the immediate aftermath of the vote – just a few hours after the counting was over – it’s difficult to avoid that Britain has embraced a particularly nasty form of soft fascism. A soft fascism based on illusions of sovereignty in a complex world, on the symbolism of nationhood that over the decades has served to conceal the realities of political power rather than express them; a soft fascism that has placed ideological constructs like sovereignty above the realities of life for millions, and which repeatedly tells them that they have taken back control when the politicians who have led this campaign have no intention of letting it out of their grasp. A soft fascism that has chosen to make immigrants, the poorer regions of the country, and those who advocate decent rights at work scapegoats for the effects of policies that the rich and powerful have enacted for their own benefit; a soft fascism that has seen those who are rooted in the economic, political and media establishments claim to be heroic opponents of those establishments, setting themselves up as the voice of people that, for the most part, they despise. Above all, the soft fascism of the constant lie, and the denigration of anyone who has the knowledge to challenge those lies as being out of touch with reality; the soft fascism of promoting sentimentality and prejudice above knowledge, and fear of the other above the needs of community; of promoting the simplistic above the complexity of the real world. And none of this is new; it’s been endemic in our mainstream political culture for longer – and across a wider political spectrum – than anyone would care to admit.
My gut feeling is that, once the realities of negotiating our exit kick in, much of the Brexit case will unravel – helped by the near-certainty that Scotland will be looking to secure its independence. It’s just possible that this may – at last – mean our politicians stop submitting to the soft fascism and start confronting the truth. But my fear is that the Brexiteers may have unleashed something that they have no hope of controlling. My fear is that this referendum, born of Cameron’s moral cowardice and appeasement of UKIP, is the first step on the road to England’s Weimar Republic. Will our politicians – and particularly the Labour Party, who remain our best and only hope of stemming this tide – rise to the challenge?