A very disunited kingdom

2016-06-27 14:38
Adri Kotzé

Adri Kotzé

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Adri Kotzé

Waking up to a new week in Britain post-Brexit is like stirring with an almighty hangover - self-inflicted after either celebrating to excess or drowning your sorrows.

The driver went missing and you don’t know who has the keys or quite how you got to this point. Friends and family have brawled. Even strangers threw punches. Trying to remember what insults were hurled, you check your social media feed - only to realise there is not only a bloody mess to clean up, but half the world is angry with you.

Not to mention half the country.

Odds are that half the British - about 52% - are jubilant in anticipation of what they see as freedom from being prescribed to by the money-guzzling, bureaucratic overlords of the European Union in Brussels. They are silently high-fiving each other on kicking the establishment in the groin and in the hope that there will be more jobs, school places and housing as - or if - an uncontrolled influx of foreigners is checked. For them the victory of the Leave vote is a triumph of democracy.

It follows that the other half (roughly 48%) are mourning their perceived loss of an inclusive, welcoming Britain that benefits from the skills and multi-cultural contribution of immigrants as well as the ease of travel, influence, economic strength and security it has as a member of the EU. They fear job losses, instability and economic calamity.

(There is of course also a minority with serious remorse - now known as bregret - wondering what they had done.)

So strong are these feelings that marriages have been put under strain, friendships have soured and siblings have stopped talking. And that is all among people I know. When the news of broke early last Friday, those who had voted Leave mostly wore a dazed look of surprise.

Many Remainers could barely contain their anger and despair.

About much more than the EU

Forget about Keep Calm and Carry on: the two main political parties started eating themselves, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and Britain has effectively been left with no government and no opposition. The pound is taking a beating and the blame game is in full swing as it turns out both the Leave and Remain campaigns had been less than honest in their pre-referendum promises and threats.

The vote about the EU has after all been about much more than the EU. It has laid bare the deep schisms in British society, exposing the underlying fear and resentment over immigration, class, regionalism, nationalism and economic opportunity in a country that has become so imbalanced that it is positively teetering.

The vast social divisions and inequality meant voters were poles apart. Those with less education are more likely to have voted Leave, including people aged 65 and older - who are also less likely to have degrees. These divisions are not only between young and old, but also between rich and poor and north and south.

Every single region in England voted Leave apart from London, an island in a sea of Euro-scepticism, and university cities like Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton. (Of course Ireland and Scotland - overwhelmingly - voted Remain. The poorer areas in Wales, who has always felt like an unwanted stepchild, followed England in voting Leave despite all its leaders campaigning for Remain and it being one of the main beneficiaries of EU funding.)

It would be easy to interpret the voting patterns as meaning that older people, who swung the vote towards Remain, are longing for the biscuit-dipping, tea-drinking days gone by where everybody looked the same in their communities. It would also be easy to say they were motivated only by racism and xenophobia. Easy, but lazy.

Huge resentment

There is huge resentment of the faceless Eurocrats imposing often much-maligned rules and regulations from afar. They wanted freedom these EU restrictions, the Leave campaign said, and freedom to rule themselves.

Reality is that in the industrial wastelands, depressed factory heartlands and abandoned seaside towns the vote was probably more against the rulers in Westminster than those in Brussels. For all practical intents and purposes, Westminster is as far removed from reality in these areas as any far-flung European city.

For decades the wealth gap has widened between the metropolitan elite in London and the south, who benefit from globalisation, and the rest of the country.

One only has to visit the abandoned coastal towns to realise there is an England completely disconnected from the rich south. Here many high streets are dead, lined by games arcades, pound shops and charity shops. As if to add insult to injury, the introduction of low-cost flights has lured holidaymakers away to the European sun.

In towns where the steelworks, mines and factories closed, there is a sense of injustice and humiliation as men found themselves out of jobs. Increasingly they have found themselves without a voice. The Conservative Party’s austerity budget was seen as further punishment of the poor while politicians got away with fiddling expenses and wealthy bankers seemed to grow even richer on the back of their misery.

The Labour party, traditionally their party of choice, has lost their support as general distrust of politicians grew and it became more southern.

Immigration has become the bogeyman

When Cameron announced the referendum (he only caved in to the right-wingers to stave off a split in the Tories), the dire warnings came of an economic collapse if Britain were to leave Europe. This seemed to only strengthen the resolve of the poor: having already endured years of deprivation, they had little to lose.

This was not helped by a sneering Remain campaign, during which the working class was labelled racists, bigots and idiots.

For once they could punish Westminster and the elite. Who cared about the wealthy’s European holidays, their children’s gap years, their retirement homes on the Spanish coast?

In the bitter campaign, the working class’s fears have been exploited: immigration has become the bogeyman.

That they found their voice by voting for Leave, a campaign run by Boris Johnson, the poshest of Tories, is ironic. It is even more ironic that they may now well find the country being ruled by Johnson if he succeeds Cameron as Prime Minister.

This was their shot at democracy, a very working class revolt in which they could flip the elite the proverbial middle finger.

Deeper divide

They will not be forgiven easily. Neither will the name-calling be forgotten soon.

Recriminations are flying as the markets destabilised and already incidents of racism and xenophobia have been reported. Many young people deeply resent a decision the older voters had just saddled them with.

Instead of bringing the classes closer together, the Leave Vote may just have entrenched them even deeper.

- Adri Kotzé is a South African journalist living in London.

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Read more on:    uk  |  brexit

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