Today is a day in which we must choose our words carefully – something some of those prominent in the referendum campaign seem to have lost sight of. But we also need to try and work out what has happened, and what it means. Here’s a first try.
First, let’s be clear about why this referendum was called. It wasn’t because there was a big national mood for a vote on membership of the EU. It is because the Conservative Party were engaging in one of their periodic in-government feuds over EU membership (remember John Major resigning in 1995 over similar battles) and reckless promises being made about offering such a vote should the government win a majority in 2015 (which they didn’t believe they would). That’s the old history here – but we should remember why the vote happened in the first place.
The ‘remain’ campaign focused on the economic consequences of leaving, with most (but not all) senior government figures making that case. Again, this is odd, in that if the economic consequences of leaving we so catastrophic you’d have thought it was a bad idea for us to be having a referendum. At least some of this seems to coming true as both shares and the pound are falling significantly this morning.
The ‘leave’ campaign found its trump card in immigration. It is easy to dismiss those who voted leave as intolerant, or even worse, racists. Happy, satisfied people don’t blame others for their predicament though. It is very noticeable that many of the areas of the country that have received most EU money ended up voting heavily to leave. Why did that happen?
One explanation is that the major political parties have been battling over the centre ground for so long (a legacy of the 1990s) that they forget about everyone else. And many, many people – at least the two million needed to turn the EU referendum to one voting for remain – haven’t seen their living standards rise for two decades. The major employers in their areas have left, either having been bought out by overseas companies which subsequently left, or having been left behind by an increasingly service-based economy. It is not hard to see why you might, in those circumstances, blame immigrants for your situation. We know that wages have been bid down in some areas of the country because of immigration. We didn’t do enough to help people who have lost their jobs and livelihoods in the last thirty years – all the more tragic as this is likely to this leading to their lives becoming shorter and far less fulfilled. This inequality helps none of us, and is an easy source of discontent onto which must nastier claims about people from other countries can be grafted.
In Scotland discontent has been channelled more positively into nationalism. The BBC map of voting shows Scotland as a sold ‘remain’ voter. The Scottish people seem to blame immigrants less, and have hope in independence, which now has to be back on the cards again as the nation has voted so differently to England. Scotland shows that inequality can be directed into a more positive movement, something from which England needs to think about urgently in terms of devolving national governance.
This morning I feel most sorry for colleagues and friends from Europe who live in the UK and who will be wondering what their future holds. We need to find compassion for those who have lost their livelihoods and standards of living over the last twenty years, and who blame immigrants for this. But we don’t need to put even more people in that position.
As I write this I see the Prime Minister has declared he will step down in mere months. Financial markets are judging our vote result badly. What we must now do, assuming no further vote will follow, is to address the reasons why so many millions feel so disaffected. Blaming others for our problems doesn’t take us very far. We have a lot of problems that are of our own making – right across England and Wales there are millions of people who don’t see much of a future for themselves. Nigel Farage suggests the vote is one against Big Business. That is very much not the case – I fear that those governing the UK will now remove labour rights which originated in the EU, and push us into an even more extreme version of a flexible labour market, with lower pay and less rights, than even before. That won’t address the problems I’ve outlined above. I wonder who those who will lose out will find to blame next time?