Brexit's Confounding Conservatism Leaves the UK Left Upset and Adrift

In the aftermath of Brexit, 'Bregretters' proliferate. As the promises dissolve the 'leave' campaign doesn't know what exactly it voted for.

In the aftermath of Brexit, ‘Bregretters’ proliferate. As the promises dissolve, the ‘leave’ campaign doesn’t know what exactly it voted for.

Mural on St. John's Church

A mural on St. John’s church, Princes Street. Credit: byronv2/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Huntingdon (England): As with millions of voters in the United Kingdom, the middle-aged lady in Huntingdon town centre was highly distressed at the nation’s decision to leave the European Union. Yet, unlike the massed liberals aghast at the lurch to the right, she had plumped for Brexit.

“I never ever thought we’d leave,” she said, as rain streamed down outside, ruining a July afternoon. “I just voted that way to make a stand”

Similar sentiment around the country was quickly tagged ‘Bregret‘ with social media users mocking those who unwittingly sprung the nation out of the union. For this Huntingdon ‘Bregretter’, Facebook became a crueler place. “They call people who voted out ‘racist’, and that other word they use…the one beginning with ‘x’. But my vote had nothing to do with immigration.”

She now avoids the subject for fear of being vilified as a xenophobe, and pleaded for anonymity when being interviewed. But she was willing to outline her Brexit reasoning: the UK shouldn’t be subject to laws voted for in Brussels. When asked for an example of objectionable EU legislation, she didn’t offer one, instead falling back on the principle at stake.

Such is Britain’s political predicament: a messy whirl of conviction and confusion. Her uncertainty amid bitter recriminations reflects the national mood in the aftermath of a referendum that could fundamentally alter the country – and the continent – in years to come. While the tumult offers promise for an already dominant Conservative party, the UK’s liberal and Left factions have been left frothing and reeling.

There were lots of reasons to vote ‘leave’, and the idea that people were all racists, or all anti immigrant, is wrong. Dislike for a troubled European project, innate conservatism, and misinformation all influenced voters. Geographical and class divisions were at play, making it unwise for well off, city-dwelling ‘remainers’ to exacerbate those rifts by sneering. While economic factors were present, the idea most ‘leave’ voters have been on a downward spiral since deindustrialisation as economies liberalised is an over-simplification.

Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage holds a placard as he launches his party's EU referendum tour bus in London, Britain May 20, 2016. Reuters/Neil Hall/File Photo

Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage holds a placard as he launches his party’s EU referendum tour bus in London, Britain May 20, 2016. Reuters/Neil Hall/File Photo

No more Polish vermin

Huntingdon is the capital of a prosperous district in west Cambridgeshire, a stronghold of the Conservative party, birthplace of 17th century revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, and former parliamentary seat of Prime Minister John Major. Over 54% of the electorate in the area voted for Britain to exit, against the advice of the current member of parliament, Jonathan Djanogly.

The day after the referendum, racist cards were left on doorsteps and windscreens near Huntingdon’s Oxmoor housing estate. ‘Leave the EU. No more Polish vermin’, they read, complete with a dodgy translation into Polish on the reverse. An estimated 850,000 Polish people now live in the UK after being granted working rights in 2011, as a result of the EU’s enshrinement of the rights of capital, goods, services and people to move unimpeded across national borders.

The leafleting was reported nationally, along with racist graffiti scrawled on a Polish cultural centre in the London borough of Hammersmith. Hate crime in the UK rose 42% to more than 3,000 incidents in the week before and after the plebiscite, heightening concerns about resurgent xenophobic nationalism.

Around the Oxmoor, there’s plenty of ‘Brexitism’, but no apparent racism. Robert Bennett, a friendly, slight 51-year-old, munches a lunchtime sandwich on a foldout camping chair on a grassy verge opposite Arch Motors & Manufacturing, where he’s been welding for decades. He voted out so the UK can “run itself”, but says eastern Europeans, who some of his 7 kids grew up playing with, are well integrated. So why the hostile leaflets then?  “Some bloody idiot. I can’t imagine it’s a group.” A workmate nods cautious approval.

The theory that it was an isolated incident is popular on the estate’s fringes, which have short rows of smart terraced houses, well-kempt gardens, some with bird feeders, and plentiful green areas and playgrounds. One fence proudly displays a large red ‘Polska’ flag. There’s no visible litter or graffiti – aside from one symbol for the campaign for nuclear disarmament. While known within the Huntingdon area as run-down and crime-ridden, by global standards, it’s a highly desirable residential area.

 Polish workers are easy to locate on the Oxmoor as they return from shifts on nearby industrial areas at Hilton Food Group, a meat processor, Hotel Chocolat, which makes luxury confectionery, and vacuum-packer Charpak Ltd.  They seem alarmed by Brexit, and perturbed by the leaflets in an area has otherwise always been welcoming. Nobody has been harassed directly, yet Katarzyna Marzewska, 27, senses a shift. “Sometimes people look at you not nice. Before Brexit it was different.” She works a machine at Hilton and hopes to be able to stay as she’s been in the UK for over 5 years. Others are less sanguine. “Lots of Polish people are scared,” she said. “We are thinking about the future.”
A British flag which was washed away by heavy rains the day before lies on the street in London, Britain, June 24, 2016 after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU BREXIT referendum. Reuters/Reinhard Krause

A British flag which was washed away by heavy rains the day before lies on the street in London, Britain, June 24, 2016 after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU BREXIT referendum. Reuters/Reinhard Krause

Generation games

The future impact on the country’s youth was much discussed post-referendum, with a generational divide revealed in the vote. A group of five lads rolling a joint in a nearby park do not buck the trend.  They didn’t get round to voting, but are against the decision to leave by a multi-racial country with a long history of immigration. “They want it to be back to where it was in the old days,” says a 21-year-old with Pakistani heritage about an older generation’s nostalgia for the days when Britain bestrode the world. “And they don’t realise that’s not what young people want.” He also has more prosaic concerns: “It’s going to f*ck up the economy, isn’t it”.

Huntingdon’s MP Djanogly, a former corporate lawyer, holds similar views, although he expressed them somewhat differently on his website a day before the vote: “The overwhelming evidence points to our future trade, prosperity and job creation prospects to be maximised by remaining in the EU”. On the issue of foreigners, he points out half of immigration is non-EU, and British farms and factories need the workers regardless. “They are taking no-one’s jobs,” he wrote about the area’s 4,000 EU migrants, or 3% of the population. “Indeed with local unemployment of only about 0.5%, without our hard working much needed immigrant population our local economy would soon come to a grinding halt.”

Such thinking is de rigueur on the Left, where any concerns about the EU’s current challenges, or its free market foundations, are routinely dwarfed by disgust at the perceived insularity of the decision, and frets about negative political and economic consequences. For others, it’s personal, as they worry for European friends and colleagues living in the UK, stress over disrupted plans to do business in Europe, or bemoan the potential end to hassle-free travel across the union. “We were angry, but overwhelmingly our feelings were of sadness. Our social media feeds were full of similar anger and grief.  Tearful emojis littered posts about people feeling physically ill and shocked by the result,” emoted a cosmopolitan columnist.

Broken services, broken promises

Much of the anger is directed at the right-wing politicians and press that are seen to have led voters astray – and with plenty of justification. In Littleport in northeast Cambridgeshire, it’s again hard to find anybody who voted remain.  The area is popular with migrants who work agricultural jobs on land readied for farming around three centuries ago when marshes were drained. The main feature of its high street is the Polish grocery shop and large number of takeaways offering foreign food, including a traditional fish and chips shop doubling as a Chinese takeaway.

Pre-conceived narratives frame referendum decisions: Wendy Wallace, 49, who’s visiting her recently bereaved father, wants Britain to relocate its ‘backbone’, and saw rejecting the EU as the first blow against national decadence; others hope it will boost manufacturing. If there are common themes to draw, they’re mundane: few people seem aware of how a complex EU worked and any net advantages for the UK it generated.

Immigration-related concerns feature strongly. I’m told in breathless tones that “it’s at breaking point now: they reckon the Muslims are going to take over in the prisons”, while others bought into particular promises, like the ‘leave’ campaign’s discredited claim that £350 million a week would become available to spend on public services. “I voted out but I don’t know if we’ve done the right thing,” said Andy Heaps, 61, an agricultural worker, leaning on his garden gate. “I thought with all this money we were going to save we were going to do hospitals, schools, transport, but now they’ve gone back on it.” He’s a ‘Labour man’, like his railway worker father, and is worried about the lack of road maintenance – he points at some slightly frayed tarmac on the road outside his house – and two-week waits for appointments at the local health clinic.

Perceived under-investment by Conservative-led governments in public services is a key issue in British politics — which perhaps accounts for the rage on swathes of the Left at false Brexit claims: austerity is not a product of the UK’s EU membership fee, but an ideologically driven decision to try and reduce the budget deficit. If Brexit has a negative economic effect, there will be less tax revenue to spend on public services.

Yet if dishonest campaigning from the right contributed to Brexit, leftists critical of globalisation have also used the vote to advance their narratives. The referendum result is analysed as a rejection of the urban elite and its internationalist ways by voters still reeling from deindustrialisation. That’s not really the case in Cambridgeshire – and even in the UK’s industrial heartlands, the shift from manufacturing to services began well over three decades ago, and some efforts at regeneration have been successful. Fervent Euroscepticism among the elite and the masses has existed ever since the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, and has been boosted in recent years by the rise of the UK Independence Party.

Birkbeck College politics professor Eric Kaufmann rejects the argument that Brexit was about economic inequality for white British voters. Instead, data shows the strongest predictive factors were related to personal values regarding, for example, order and diversity.  “Brexit voters, like Trump supporters, are motivated by identity, not economics,” he said. “Age, education, national identity and ethnicity are more important than income or occupation.”

'Immigration strains British infrastructure' Reuters/Files

‘Immigration strains British infrastructure’ Reuters/Files

A progressive alliance?

Uncertainty is now pervasive in the UK, as a nation without a constitution begins to try and fathom an unprecedented international and national constitutional puzzle. For the remodeled Conservative government, there is a possible way forward. There’s little appetite amongst the business and political elite for exiting the EU’s single market in goods and service, which aims to ease trade by eliminating tariffs, while taking a much-mocked forensic approach to achieving regulatory convergence and harmonising product standards.

The presumed option is joining the European Economic Area (EEA), which is a deal between the EU and four countries that grants them single market access. The biggest downside is acceptance of the free movement of people, a leading objection of the ‘leave’ campaign. However, there’s precedent for a deal, as tiny Liechtenstein has exercised the EEA’s ‘safeguard mechanisms’ to enact immigration quotas, and Iceland used the same measure to unilaterally impose capital controls during its banking crisis. Tortuous negotiations beckon. But the possibilities at least allow the Conservatives to pursue a favorable deal that would mean the end of any threat of further political integration, a win for free traders, and a claim to at least be trying to retrieve control of immigration. By only partially severing Britain’s ties with the EU, that type of arrangement would, however, provoke further hostility from the right.

Such compromising solutions were not the focus of the shell-shocked crowd who gathered in front of Cambridge’s Guild Hall five days after the vote to express their displeasure at the result. Wealthy, liberal, highly educated, and outward looking, 74% of the Cambridge electorate voted for the UK to remain in the EU. As the first speaker told the crowd to shake hands with someone next to them in an awkward display of neighbourliness, unconcerned market traders scurried among them packing up their stalls.

While some talked of how to reverse the result, Green party activist Stuart Tuckwood, adopted a more pragmatic stance. Tuckwood’s appeal was to advance the Green Party’s initiative for a ‘progressive alliance‘ of four parties to try and unseat the Conservatives in the next election on an anti-austerity platform, which would also abolish first-past-the-post and introduce proportional representation if elected. The referendum has jilted hundreds of thousands into joining political parties as people shudder at the political trajectory suggested by the referendum result.

Tuckwood is a 26-year-old Scot and by no means a member of the Cambridge political, academic or business elite. He works as a senior nurse at Addenbrooke’s hospital where his salary doesn’t match the city’s sky-high house prices. He sees first hand the problems in the health service as cuts and competition put downward pressure on the quality of care.

He views Brexit as a result of misinformation from anti-regulation ‘media moguls’ exploiting voters who felt they had little left to lose. Rather than railing against the result, he wants the focus on national politics, to try and reverse some of the most corrosive effects of neo-liberalism: the reduced funding for public services and the ‘marketisation’ of their provision.

“If we spend too much time squabbling over what happens next and fighting about the technicalities then a Conservative government will be able to get on with what they want to do, like fully privatising the health service, or slashing corporation tax even further,” he said. “The people wielding the real power will get on with next battle — that’s where we need to be looking.”

William Davison is a British freelance journalist currently based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.