Whither England – the real Brexit



Three weeks ago I travelled to England for a major international media studies conference at the University of Leceister. My official tasks were to present a paper and develop research links with academic peers.

The unofficial purpose of my visit, for the Daily Blog, was to report on the Brexit aftermath. What explains the referendum result? What happened during the campaign? What did the voting patterns signify? Where now for England?

Apart from talking to Leceister locals (passers by, bar staff, regulars, students, academics) I absorbed Brexit related material from newspaper articles, magazine features and referenda result research.

The constitutional implications of Brexit will not be detailed here; England is my primary focus.

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Referenda results always oversimplify the situation at hand. The clarity and finality of numbers obscures marked differences in voter intentions.

So it was with Brexit.

Remainers were not cut from the same cloth just as there were different kinds of argument for leave. Crucially, however, the leavers presented a united front during the campaign whereas the remainers appeared disorganised and disoriented by unfolding events.

Rafael Behr makes this clear in a recent Guardian article entitled `How remain failed : the inside story of a doomed campaign`. (July 5). The key instigators of the campaign `Stronger in Europe` were also political adversaries. Director Will Straw was a former Labour parliamentarian and chief strategist Ryan Coetzee had run the Liberal democrat 2015 election campaign. They worked alongside three prominent Conservatives; Ameet Gill, director of government strategy at 10 Downing street, Stephen Gilbert, former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and Craig Oliver, David Cameron`s communications chief.

In the Conservative Party itself, exit versus remain debates were interlaced with interpersonal rivalries and competing leadership ambitions. Furthermore, the Tory press promoted either qualified or unqualified versions of leave. The well mannered London Times was accompanied by the virulent Sun and Daily Mirror. Non-Conservative proponents of remain ; the Liberal Democrats , Greens , Scottish Nationalists and most of the parliamentary Labour Party were electoral competitors rather than natural allies.

The `Stronger In` campaign never reached full throttle because Conservative remain strategists were reluctant to vilify prominent leavers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Associating them with the xenophobic sentiments of Nigel Farage was deemed too risky. That would have damaged government authority , a most unwelcome side effect.

The `Stronger In` campaign papered over their cracks and weaknesses through economic fearmongering. Economic security and global influence were equated with EU membership. Brexit would mean insecure jobs, rising prices, fragile mortgages and less funding for your local school or hospital.

Most people I spoke to saw this core message as a campaign disaster. The poorest regions of England had been experiencing poverty and insecurity since the Thatcher era. Threats of an even worse future were hardly likely to boost the remain vote . Conservative remain strategists never understood this because economic fearmongering had won them the 2015 general election. Drawing upon Lynton Crosby`s advice, David Cameron and George Osborne had focused on a simple equation; a return of government means economic security, a new, Labour led government is a gamble on the unknown.

During the Brexit referenda campaign, however, popular feelings of insecurity were trumped by a surge of anger. Alongside anti-immigration resentment leave voters outside of middle and upper middle class enclaves expressed grievances on a range of issues; industrial decline, unemployment, economic neglect from successive governments and general neglect by the Westminster political class. People who had never voted before felt that their place in society had been taken away. The most obvious indicators of voter preference were class ,income, locality and education level.

Comfortably off , University educated Europhile city dwellers and property owners were automatic remainers. The unemployed and underemployed throughout the Midlands , the North East and depressed metropolitan suburbs inhabited a separate world.

In a recent article entitled `Brexit Blues` (London Review of Books July 28) John Lanchester noted that most remainers and leavers mixed only with their own kind. Neither side could be receptive to the others point of view.

Like bishops on opposite colours of a chessboard it seems that two Englands coexist without communication. One of my interviewees co-managed an engineering firm with international contracts , including several in Europe. Leave voters were seen, condescendingly as ill informed bumpkins. I found similar sentiments among post graduate students and musicians with European contacts.

Demographic and regional voting patterns , however, were not always clear cut.

Some city of London financiers were apprehensive about staying in the Eurozone. For them, Brexit will not curtail returns from foreign exchange dealing, derivatives speculation or commissions arising from corporate mergers and acquisitions. Orchestrated tax evasion, of course, will continue as a city of London specialty.

Meanwhile Brexit has divided the left. A qualified remain position has been developed by Green MP Caroline Lucas, shadow Chancellor John McDonell and former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis within a group entitled `Another Europe is Possible`. The aim is to roll back the financial-technocratic power of the European Commission by expanding the EU parliament and strengthening the EU social charter. Leaving the EU, it is argued, legitimises parties of the racist right and leaves the financial technocrats unopposed. Austerity agendas must be challenged by democratising the EU framework from within.

For others this is a pipedream. Richard Tuck argues in `The left case for Brexit` (Dissent Magazine June 6) that EU institutions are unreformable. The European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) combined with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) constitutes an austerity machine. The EU equates with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans- Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). All three arrangements should be resolutely opposed. Tuck insists that the EU`s social democratic rhetoric has no basis in reality;

` in practice the EU subordinates its concerns with workers rights to its own concern to maintain the freedom of companies to shop around within the EU for the weakest regimes of labor protection`.

He also reminds us that United Kingdom social democracy was historically enabled by the British parliament ,independently of Europe. The left Brexit case thus centres upon economic and political sovereignty. Unfortunately, though, immediate restoration of these principles appears unlikely.

The Brexit issue has debilitated the Conservative Party and fractured the Labour Party. John Lanchester states that

`the Tories are a coalition of nationalists who voted out and business interests who voted in; Labour is a coalition of urban liberals who voted in and the working class who voted out`.

Thus, if a

`general election were held tomorrow on the single issue of the referendum,the voter wouldn`t know who to vote for`.

This explains the confused state of English politics. There is no cohesive leadership, no clear plan of policy action and no clear lines of party-political debate to guide the formation of public opinion.

Post Brexit, the Tories will muddle through keeping power for powers sake. The Labour Party has been broken , not by Jeremy Corbyn but by the Blairites who never deviated from the neoliberal route map despite `Cool Britannia` appearances.

From my readings , observations and conversations I came to one firm conclusion. England needs MMP. This would break the Labour Party in two and allow Corbyn to build a UK wide anti-austerity coalition from the ground up. Local, metropolitan and general elections would be vigorously contested on behalf of the working class and poor immigrant communities. A sense of national mission will be needed, akin to that generated by the post-war Atlee government. Such a coalition,of course, would communicate and coalesce with European counterparts. This may be an unlikely scenario but it is preferable to the status quo.

At present, the Westminster system protects a directionless political class, landed`gentry`, corporate elites and the city of London. Meanwhile a dysfunctional EU awaits the next financial crisis as the United Kingdom slowly unravels.

Whither England indeed.


  1. Thanks for these insights, Wayne, it resembles about what I have heard and read, so no surprises. It is a real mess now, what has been left after the “Brexit” vote.

    As for this:
    “At present, the Westminster system protects a directionless political class, landed`gentry`, corporate elites and the city of London. Meanwhile a dysfunctional EU awaits the next financial crisis as the United Kingdom slowly unravels.”

    I wonder whether we cannot apply this to some degree to much of the world, and also to New Zealand.

    We do indeed have technocrats, bureaucrats and a pro business elite run the show, and most have no say in anything, that is in real terms.

    I look at Auckland Council, where a Council made up of Councillors that were voted in by only about 34 to 35 percent of all voters (who bothered to vote in 2013) now make decisions about the future of the city, while most ordinary Aucklanders have stuff all knowledge of what the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan with its many amendments and now also recommendations by a central government appointed, supposedly “independent” hearing panel recommended.

    I look at the Central Government itself, where we have a leader that can do whatever he likes, or fail to do whatever he cannot be bothered with, who is convenient with the truth, and has the support of loyal, but largely incompetent or useless ministers. The public know stuff all about the details what the government does, puts into law, and what it will mean for the future, but because Mr Teflon Nice Guy with his smile and casual appeal is just so “convincing”, most go along with, or at least put up with what the government does.

    There is no effective management of housing policy, immigration policy, an increasingly Dickensian approach to poverty and welfare, and environmental and economic policies that drive us towards a cliff, but as the MSM does not shine enough light on the issues, apart from housing that is, nobody worries or cares all that much.

    They trust the political elite, as most cannot bother reading and informing themselves, let alone bother considering alternatives and actually contributing by constructive, effective discussion and opposition to the madness we see go on.

    The ones that hold the pursestrings, business in collaboration with government, they fund the “research”, “polls” and “agendas” we are told we need, and “develop” everything along corporate and SME business lines.

    Hence we have private enterprise run ever so more, only reinforcing the disowning of the public, the shutting down of informed media and of community involvement, and certainly any potential challengers and critics.

    So we go along with all this, so far that is, in little New Zealand, until the world economy and/or financial sectors may hit a rock again, and we will suddenly have everybody rush around in panic, like headless chickens, then fall for the messenger of one like Donald Trump or so, and demand sudden solutions to the “crisis”.

    That leads to new mistakes being made, to create the mess of the future, so that the whole cycle can begin again, and go through full cycle, until the last trees are chopped down, the last minerals are dug out of the earth, the last fish swims in the ocean, the last bird travels in the air, and the last sun rays shine through ever thicker clouds of pollution destroying the remnants of life on this planet.

    I despair.

    • Nice Black Elk quotation at the end. To be honest, I think if you also inform yourself further, the most likely endgame will be a nuclear MAD ushered in by the Chinese dictatorship over the South Chine Sea issue; this battle on this front in WWII was never really resolved permanently, but reached a premature temporary conclusion with Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So it would probably be a nuclear ash cloud.

      • China has never spoken about using a nuclear bomb.

        The USA have many times and having never been under attack since 1945 when they allowed the Pearl harbour event to happen knowing full well it was under way, they are using the bomb as a threat not a deterrent

        Our “mates” who would not allow the japan surrender till after they had dropped two bombs.

  2. Apply these social disconnects to “No Zealand” and you can quite easily see that this “country” is going to tear itself apart.

    • Yes Castro.

      Thank God Key and the Crosby/Textor advisers here have underestimated the TPPA and TTIP sentiment. It’s easy to see that they have over-estimated the desire for the TPPA-style agreements through their polling. It seems that voters in England misoverestimated (to use a Bush-ism) the desire of their kingdom and workers to hand over their assets, sovereignty and human assets (workers) to corporations.

      “Richard Tuck argues in `The left case for Brexit` (Dissent Magazine June 6) that EU institutions are unreformable. The European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) combined with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) constitutes an austerity machine. The EU equates with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans- Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). All three arrangements should be resolutely opposed. Tuck insists that the EU`s social democratic rhetoric has no basis in reality;

      ` in practice the EU USA subordinates its concerns with workers’ rights to its own concern to maintain the freedom of companies to shop around within the EU TPPA-zone for the weakest regimes of labour protection`”.

      With the sentiment here about TPPA, the sooner Key can get it up and running to show some benefits to New Zealand, the less destructive a TPPAdiktat it will seem before the 2017 election. Labour and Greens (like their British Labour party ‘remain and leave’ factions) need a solid and unified position on TPPA, but as other TDB blogs here have hinted, trojan neoliberals within Labour won’t be able to contain their bilious antipathy towards exit -TPPA in an MOU discussion.

      It is the best of times and the worst of times in NZ politics, but the flag debate here, was a chilling parallel to the BREXIT vote. Money, All Blacks, Chinese Investors, “Opposing Bishops” and a pro-right media didn’t predict the outcome and anti-Key sentiment. Key and Cameron were figureheads for corporatisation.

      The people have had enough. Praise the Lord!

  3. That was quite a balanced and comprehensive view. Well done!

    I think England will muddle on after Brexit without too much hassle. There will be an initial scramble toward realignment.

    I suspect that the Remain campaign lost a lot of credibility when they made outrageous claims about the calamities that await them should Britain leave the EU.

    • Idk. All the EU bonds are held in London so for the EU to lose its secound largest economy and all its finance the EU contract will have to be renogotiated by the time article 50 is negotiated. All in about 2 years. It’s all so over ambitious and super risky.

    • No Andrew, the Exit Campaigners are the one who cause shock and disbelief with their outrageous claim that upon leaving the EU there would be an “extra 350 million pounds re-invested to the National Health Service.

      ref: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/24/nigel-farage-350-million-pledge-to-fund-the-nhs-was-a-mistake/

      In a question to Brexit leader Nigel Farage, whether or not the 350 million pounds would be re-invested in the NHS, Farage replied,

      “No I can’t, I would never have made that claim.

      That was one of the mistakes made by the Leave campaign.”

      So if you want to look at “outrageous claims”, Andrew, you can look at that one first.

      • As usual Frank, you find a straw man and attack it vehemently… To no effect.

        It matters not whose claim was the most outrageous, the result indicates that the Remain camp was the least believed.

        Since none of us can predict the future especially in a complex issue like this, we will just have to wait and see who was correct. Maybe not even then, because we will never know what the alternative history was.

        I would probably have voted Remain if I was there, but I sympathise for the Brexit voters and the reasons why voted to leave. I know people in the North of England who lost their jobs because of ludicrous EU imposed ‘green taxes’.

    • Meanwhile, in Scotland – which voted strongly to Remain, despite the appalling aftermath of Thatcher and that miserable quisling Blair – the boilers are being stoked for another Leave vote.

      The South lied like flat fish about the Good Things that would come to Scotland if they voted ‘Better Together’. Good Things haven’t, and 1320 is not at all forgotten.

      Alba gu brath.

  4. I was in England for a month in May/June (including a few days in the Isle of Man, a tax haven that is not in the EU) and agree with your analysis.

    Elephant in the room is that I can’t see how they will ever move to MMP, or any remotely proportional system; after all we only achieved it as a result of a couple of electioneering mis-statements.

    As for forecasting the future – I still reckon odds-on they will not trigger article 50.

    • The whole world is inn the crapper, and Italy is near default living non borrowed time now, and all these lame duck countries will drag us down soon.

      • Yes Cleangreen, and National has the same ‘crapper’ planned for here – economic Armageddon.

        There’s a ballooning debt mountain the Natz and their coalition of the damned are creating, because there are no longer enough state assets to service and this will eventually lead to a Government default, starting in the public service.

        Austerity Measures in Aotearoa will be imposed, when China has got NZ’s “ ‘economic balls’ debt in their hands”

        Civil servant and contractors, teachers, nurses, super-annuitants won’t be able to be paid because Kiwi assets were hocked off to “mum and dad investors”. Police will still be needed to “maintain lawandorder”. You are right CG, the economic crapper of the South Pacific…

        We’re headed towards being the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) or worse, Iceland of the South Pacific because of the do-nothing-except-chase-lost-luggage National Party.

        When the housing bubble bursts, who will pay? Or the likely scenario by the Natz will be to stall the bubble bursting until after the election 2017. Whoever gets in, will have to CPR the economy and put it on life support for years to come and then institute “austerity measures” for the good of the country.

        What’s coming for NZ, will make global warming look like a fart in the bath. Economic Armageddon, seeded by neolibs in 1984 and brought to its culmination in 2017

  5. Contrast the two means of election of the House of Commons members and the European Parliament members.
    Whereas Britain has allowed an MMP system to elect the latter it still stubbornly refuses to allow a change to the FPP system for the former.
    Two reasons, I think.
    The first is that the Brits don’t see the European parliament as important as their own parliament. This was obviously reinforced by their recent vote to leave the EU. If you don’t think it is very important then why worry about how it is elected?
    The second is something like what happened in New Zealand before we adopted MMP. FPP generally produces a big two-party system which is what the financial establishment feel most comfortable with. Extra parties that can interfere with this are usually unwelcome. Note how many Brits thought the Conservative-Liberal coalition was weak but at the next vote they blamed it all on the Liberals rather than the Conservatives!
    Although the Brexit vote showed that some elements of British society were prepared to vent their anger at the establishment, it is doubtful whether they would do so for their own government elections.
    Conservative and Labour both have a lot of stake in keeping the elections FPP, and will do most anything to keep it that way.
    New Zealand went MMP mostly because when the referendum was held in 1993, both National and Labour were vastly unpopular and people were looking for a way to annoy them, so they did what the two parties advised them not to do – vote for MMP.
    I think a lot more will happen before Britain goes to MMP or any other form of voting. It will take something like a minor revolution in their society.

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