Brexit is at the Heart of UK General Elections
The only issue at the heart of the UK elections is Brexit. Theresa May has made this very clear with her slogan that she is the only “strong and stable” leader to deliver a successful Brexit. At the moment, she appears as the strongest candidate to many voters on the Left and the Right.
Brexit: How did we get here?
It is now an accepted fact that Brexit was the result of a constellation of reasons. The anti-European and xenophobic sentiment that supported Brexit was cultivated and strengthened steadily and consistently by the right-wing press. Brexit was financed by right-wing millionaire Arron Banks, and was voted by a big majority of wealthy old Tories and working-class voters.
According to Jeremy Gilbert, many Tories of the older generation are “honest, decent people who genuinely believe the tale told to them by the Telegraph and the Mail: according to this story, despite decades of globalisation and less than 2% of global manufacturing now taking place in the UK, there is still this thing called ‘national sovereignty’ to which the EU constitutes some kind of threat.”
While for this class of people, Brexit was all about getting their sovereignty back, for another big majority, that of the disenfranchised working class, Brexit was the pharmakon—remedy (but also, from the point of view of Remainers, poison.) For this group of working class people, Brexit was seen as the antidote to their situation and as the restoration of a “world that they have lost – the world of full employment, a strong British manufacturing base and a stable sense of community and national identity. It is no accident that it is overwhelmingly voters old enough to remember the passing of that world who voted in large numbers to bring it back; young working-class people simply hardly voted at all.” Again, an older generation of people, both wealthy Tories and a poor working class majority, believe that the fairy tale of a Hard Brexit will restore national sovereignty, employment opportunities and prosperity in a Britain that will regain the full control of its borders.
As Jeremy Gilbert writes, “one of the strongest indicators of how any citizen outside the Tory shires was likely to vote in the referendum was whether they had been to university, or even had A-levels: almost everyone who had voted Remain.” But, this isn’t of course meant to denigrate those people who didn’t have the opportunity for education, but to highlight the fact that the British public was seduced by a barrage of “deliberate misinformation” that was immediately accepted by many voters as reasonable, feeding into their fears and hopelessness about a future within the cold technocratic world of the EU and European elites. In addition, the inability to offer alternative narratives to the Brexiteers’ propaganda, made Labour and the Remainers appear weak and ineffectual.
Who is to blame: Financial capital and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the European Union (EU)?
Gilbert points out that it was the 1976 IMF crisis that has been responsible for the UK’s economic problems. In 1976, Prime Minister James Callaghan and Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey were forced to borrow $3.9bn from the IMF as pressure on the pound was increasing. The Bank of England withdrew temporarily from the foreign exchange market. At the time, many investors believed that the pound would lose its value because of inflation. The pound was devalued against the US dollar in June 1976. After the agreement with the IMF, the economic and financial situation in the UK improved, interest rates were reduced and the pound was appreciated in value. But the IMF crisis forced a move away from full employment and social welfare towards control of inflation and expenditure. The loan’s terms involved “massive cuts to public spending and taxation – successive UK governments have served the interests of finance capital rather than serving the interests of the people. That is why the factories have gone, the wages have declined, and the public services don’t work any more.”
For Gilbert, these “forty years of failure” are not the EU’s fault but of the City of London, the IMF and the UK governments’ policies that have been serving financial interests. However, the EU has been represented as the great evil responsible for all the economic troubles in the UK.
Why Brexiteers blamed the EU?
Gilbert points out that it isn’t a coincidence that the UK joined the EU (known as the European Economic Community at the time) in the early 1970s and its membership was approved by a referendum in 1975. The period that the UK became an EU member coincides with the period of Britain’s de-industrialisation and the establishment of neoliberal policies. According to David Harvey, neoliberalism sees individual liberty and freedom as “the high point of civilization and then goes on to argue that individual liberty and freedom can best be protected and achieved by an institutional structure, made up of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade: a world in which individual initiative can flourish. The implication of that is that the state should not be involved in the economy too much, but it should use its power to preserve private property rights and the institutions of the market and promote those on the global stage if necessary.” During neoliberalism in the UK, the welfare state disappeared, while the period between 1979-81 saw the Tories experimenting with some de-nationalisation, whereas by 1982 and until 1986, privatisation became the guiding force of the marketplace: the government at this period sold off Jaguar, British Telecom, the remainder of Cable & Wireless and British Aerospace, Britoil and British Gas.
From the 1980s, the press began blaming immigrants, refugees and, of course, “that mysterious abode of unaccountable bureaucrats, the European Union.” Gilbert’s point is that EU membership coincided with the IMF crisis, and that it’s easy to see that people can be persuaded to believe that leaving the EU will terminate a period of economic disintegration.
It is clear then why the story, that all this is the EU’s fault, is easily consumed by those people who have been suffering for the last 40 years. Within this context, Brexit makes sense, because all our economic troubles can be traced back to the UK’s membership to the EU in the 1970s.
But the inability of Labour to offer an alternative story that can equally persuade people, lies in its persistence in using the narrative of “austerity.” Austerity, which has a more recent history, and has impacted on the younger generations’ lives, doesn’t offer a coherent and satisfactory explanation for the older generations. According to Gilbert, a more effective narrative should take into consideration the 40 years of failure that the story of “austerity” simply doesn’t.
As it stands, Theresa May appears to be the desired winner of the upcoming general election, not just for the Tories, but for many voters in the Labour party, too. Her Brexit story would continue to be the dominant narrative for moving forward, unless Labour stops wasting time and opportunities.