Last updateFri, 07 Dec 2018 11am

VIEWPOINT: UK opts out of Europe: The end of tolerance, the rise of demagoguery & a warning to the United States

In a vote of historic proportions, the people of the United Kingdom have decided by a slender margin to jump ship and go it alone, turning their backs on the European Union (EU), a relationship they have maintained, albeit shakily, since 1973.

While supporters of “Brexit” celebrated a victory they have argued will restore the nation’s “sovereignty” and “control of its borders and laws,” millions of British citizens woke up on Friday June 24 to reflect on a future not only of economic uncertainty, but one they fear may become infinitely less tolerant and compassionate, and far more introspective and reactionary. 

It is a decision that most world leaders and economic experts and corporation heads agree will provoke an economic slowdown and relegate the U.K. to a secondary player on the global stage. It also goes against the wishes of Britain’s younger generation, a bloc that voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU and whose futures will most be affected by a legacy that (still) Prime Minister David Cameron says is “irreversible.” 

Leaving Europe will now require the U.K. to renegotiate a slew of trade agreements, not only with the EU but also other nations, including the United States.  This may take years. It also releases the country from any obligations to European court rulings and allows the government to set its own policy regarding levels of European immigration.

The Remain campaign implored voters to consider above all the economic arguments for maintaining the relationship with Europe – the EU is the U.K.’s biggest trading partner by a huge margin – but the referendum was always going to boil down to concerns about escalating immigration and the changing face of Britain’s traditional communities.

But expert analysis and data culled from many nations shows that curbing legal immigration is not a magic bullet that automatically improves the lives of native working people who feel cut adrift by globalization.  The argument that wages in Britain will suddenly rise by cutting the number of Eastern European workers taking unappealing, menial jobs is pure economic fantasy. Far from creating good-paying jobs in post-industrial depressed areas north of London – whose residents voted in great numbers to stay in the EU – a stalled economy/recession provoked by Brexit will only increase unemployment and potentially whip up further social unrest. 

The uncomfortable truth is that apart from some hardliners on the left of the Labour Party and some crackpot ultra nationalists, the Leave campaign was piloted by elitist, pro-business right-wingers who as part of a Conservative government not only implemented massive spending cuts and austerity at the expense of working people, but also toyed with the notion of privatizating  the National Health Service – Britain’s sacred cow. And far from conserving EU laws introduced to protect workers from unscrupulous bosses, these “saviors” are likely strip away such constraints that the European partnership provides.  It’s been largely overlooked amid the constant anti-EU bluster spouted by Brexiters and their media cohorts that domestic government policy  since the Margaret Thatcher years has contributed far more to destroying the hopes and futures of working people in the U.K. than any policies or laws enacted by the EU.    

Unfortunately, intelligent analysis on the nuances of immigration was painfully missing from a campaign punctuated mostly by demagoguery, xenophobia and lies from the jumble of political ideologues representing the Leave campaign, and stream of unsubstantiated economic scaremongering from the Remain side.  Cameron and company failed abjectly to articulate why Britain should be leading the efforts to reshape a flawed but necessary institution into a more cohesive and efficient unit, while tackling one of the most serious humanitarian quandaries of the age – the refugee crisis. Not once did the floundering prime minister or the lukewarm hard-left leader of the Labour opposition give any indication that they actually believed in the collective European vision that has managed to keep the continent free of war for seven decades. Bolstered by years of media derision toward faceless Brussels bureaucrats and their tedious interfering in Britain’s affairs,  coupled with fears of “waves” of immigrants overrunning the country and threatening its identity, the Leave campaign found it relatively easy to exploit the nation’s entrenched ambivalence toward most things European.  

Disturbingly, as suggested by escalating incidents of hate crime – “celebratory racism,” one behavioral expert called it – the aftermath of the referendum looks decidedly toxic. A huge fear is that the  xenophobic undertone of the campaign will now translate into mainstream acceptability – something many Americans fear could also unfold under a Donald Trump presidency. 

There is little doubt that extreme right-wing nationalists – symbolized by the man who killed a rising young female lawmaker campaigning to remain in Europe – will be  emboldened by the exit vote to spread more division and hatred, something that repels many British citizens who cherish the post-imperialist ideal of belonging to an educated, cultured and tolerant society.  

Americans watching events evolve across the Atlantic have noted how much the “Brexit” campaign to a great extent mirrored Trump’s efforts to win the Republican presidential nomination. 

One of the most glaring similarities between the two campaigns has been the brazen telling of lies followed by a refusal to acknowledge them when they are proven to be false.  This terrible consequence of the whirlwind news cycle allows the liars to be unaccountable and – as we have seen throughout the Trump campaign – distorts reality as voters eschew factual analysis and happily accept and embrace untruths as fact.

Also, dissection of Britain’s referendum results shows that the vote was largely decided by an over-60s population coaxed into believing that exiting Europe would somehow turn back the clock to a golden age when everyone was better off and happier.  Close examination of how living standards have improved over the past half century scotches this delusionary way of thinking, both in Britain and the United States.  But Trump has vigorously appealed to this demographic of frustrated Americans by rehashing Reagan’s 1980 slogan to “make America great again,” with the difference being that the nucleus of his strategy relies on the almost-fascist scapegoating of minorities.   

Just where is the evidence that America was better off in any shape or form 30, 40, 50 or 60 years ago? Whichever way you look at it, the United States in 2016 is still by far the most powerful nation on earth, with among the highest per capita income on the planet. Good luck to Americans trying to explain their hardships  to families living in Liberia or Sierra Leone.   

And exactly how were things better in the 1960s?  Does Trump not realize that racism, sexism and homophobia were far more prevalent in those days?  Or, in a warped kind of way, is that the undercurrent of his message?  

It’s human nature to want to be sold a dream of a better future, if not for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren.  But don’t we also want to be better human beings? The fear of many people is that the United Kingdom now has a long and uncertain journey ahead before it can realize both of those dreams. 

The future of the United States won’t be decided once and for all on November 8, but, as in the U.K. on June 23, voters need to be wise to what they might be unleashing by voting one way or another.

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