The British referendum campaign to decide whether Britain should leave or remain within the European Union has been in some ways a strange and rather depressing experience, not helped by our weather during June: monsoon-style rainfall and flash flooding in many places. Opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the vote on 23rd June wavered between a slight lead for Remain to a slight lead for Leave. There was then a truly tragic event: the murder of Jo Cox, the member of parliament for Batley & Spen in West Yorkshire. She was shot and stabbed by a man who reportedly called out “Britain First”, the name of an extremist right wing party. Jo Cox had been an MP for only one year but she had already made a mark across party lines with her humanitarian campaign for Syria. She was 41 years old, married, with two young children. By all accounts, she was a kind of secular saint, the kind of politician that any country should cherish in an age when so many people regard their elected representatives with contempt and cynicism. Jo Cox had been a fervent advocate for Remain and her death seems to have coincided with opinion polling showing increasing support for Remain and the tide turning against Leave. It was distasteful to see some of the leaders of the Remain campaign try to suggest that her death was in some way the fault of those who want to leave the EU.
It was also depressing to see both sides trying to scare voters with increasingly apocalyptic pictures of the disasters that would occur if we didn’t vote their way. As an advocate for ending our membership of the EU, I particularly disliked the way in which, instead of making the principled and reasoned case for leaving the EU, many of those politicians campaigning on the Leave side stoked up fears about immigration. The nadir was reached with a poster from the UK Independence Party, which showed a snaking queue of refugees from Syria together with the slogan “Breaking Point”.
Yet there is also something very stirring about what has just happened. I’m writing this on the day that the referendum results have shown, against all the expectations of the London-based commentariat, that Britain has voted to leave the EU. We have listened to the warnings of experts, the pleas of the vast majority of MPs, the threats of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Governor of the Bank of England and the President of the USA; and still a majority of British people have said No to the EU. We’ve done the thing almost everyone with power and influence said that we shouldn’t and have taken a leap into the dark, trusting in our own judgement that the EU was not right for us. We have expressed a vote of no confidence in the establishment. Such independence of spirit, such freedom of thought, is the essence of democracy and it is very stirring.
This is one of the very few ballots I’ve experienced in which my vote has counted for anything; in Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system, my votes over many elections are usually wasted. But in a referendum, every vote has an equal weight, and it is a pleasant change to experience a ballot which is truly democratic. One result of all this will surely be a demand in the future for reforms to Britain’s current electoral system.
The outcome of the referendum has revealed a divided Britain, in which many young people voted Remain and many older people voted Leave; London was pitched against the rest of England and Wales; Scotland was in opposition to England; the prosperous were versus the poor; and the political parties were out of step with their supporters. Does Britain, as a homogeneous society, still exist?
This result will be a salutary shock to London, which voted overwhelmingly for Remain. It is revealed as an arrogant and centralising city state, out of touch with the rest of England. London has for years been like a kind of black hole, sucking in capital and resources that should have been spread much more widely. Brexit will begin to redress the balance.
This result is also a profound shock to the mainstream political parties. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had pledged to call the referendum as a device to unite his Conservative Party against the UK Independence Party just ahead of the 2015 general election, an election which he had not expected to win, was then forced after his party’s surprise victory to implement his pledge. By nailing his colours so firmly to the Remain mast, he has now ensured his own political demise and has announced that he will step down by October this year. The Parliamentary Labour Party too, is showing poor judgment: instead of examining how the party has become so divorced from its core voters, some of its MPs are now planning a coup against their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for being insufficiently enthusiastic about staying in the EU.
There are other questions which will come to the fore in the weeks and months ahead. What will this result mean for Northern Ireland, which voted to Remain, and which has a land border with another EU country, Ireland? It has already led to renewed calls from Sinn Fein for a United Ireland. What will it mean for Gibraltar, which also voted to Remain, and is now likely to come under an increasingly aggressive campaign of harassment and non-co-operation from Spain? Above all, will the Scottish National Party now seek to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence?
But there are perhaps even bigger questions for the European Union itself. When David Cameron came back from the EU after his failed negotiations for meaningful reform, I thought at the time that European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and his colleagues had made a serious misjudgment by treating Cameron with contempt – and so it has proved. The EU has been judged by this referendum and found wanting. Other member-states will now be lining up to tell it so. Fundamentally, this is about the right of people across Europe to elect the people who make key decisions in their lives. Polls have shown between a quarter and third of people across Europe are now deeply hostile to the European project. The economies of southern Europe are immobilised by a straitjacket strapped on to them by Brussels and Frau Merkel.
As I said in my previous post about the EU, it was set up not only to be deliberately anti-democratic but also to be a vehicle for the banks and big multi-national corporations. It is also extremely difficult to reform the EU, because this would require changes to the treaties, which in turn require unanimous agreement from all member-countries. Britain was taken by its leaders into the EU in 1973 on the basis of a deliberate deception and as a result our governing elites are now reaping in the referendum result what Rudolf Steiner called “the karma of untruthfulness”.
I do not want what now follows after Brexit to be business as usual. We need to reassure Europe that we’ll be good neighbours, reassure migrants here that they are welcome, and reassure the 48 per cent who voted for Remain that they are not strangers in their own country. Both Conservative and Labour parties have failed in their own ways and we now need to find new ways and a new story. Future British governments need to be true one-nation governments, working towards a situation in which towns like Sunderland and Swansea no longer feel cut off from the politics of a metropolitan elite.
Internationally, Brexit has given an opportunity to Britain (whether it survives as the United Kingdom or whether it splits into its constituent nations), to start a debate about forming a new organisation of nation states that can offer a more hopeful vision of the future than that provided by the corporate plutocrats of the EU. There is an alternative to corporate domination and the environmental destruction and massive inequality it brings. Real social change begins, like Brexit, with non-cooperation with the existing system. Once we make the choice to stop co-operating with a system we find immoral, we can begin to build an alternative. By discussing these ideas with other countries around the world, we can start to build a new global economy in which every community has food and water security and locally produced renewable energy. This then creates the foundations for a more peaceful world.
Just over a week ago, my wife and I paid a visit to Lewes Castle, a Norman castle which stands at the highest point of Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. It was built in around 1069 by William de Warenne, the son-in-law of William the Conqueror. While I was there, it struck me that the Norman domination and ruthless suppression of the Anglo Saxon inhabitants of England and the Celts of Wales has cast a kind of shadow over the British Isles for nearly 1,000 years. In one of the castle rooms, I came across this quotation about the Normans in an exhibition display:
“…and they filled the land full of castles. They cruelly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle works. And when the castles were made they filled them with devils and evil men.”
(Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1137)
This energy of domination, cruelty and adversarial politics has shaped the British nation in the centuries since then and echoes of it still survive today in Westminster. What is Brexit really about, I wonder? Is it possible that it marks the beginning of something that will lead to the decline and fall of this Norman model of dealing with other people and other countries? Could we be about to find our way towards a new and more heart-centred approach to what it means to be British and European citizens of the world? I feel that it really could be so.