How Austerity, and a Cowardly Ruling Class, Brought About Brexit

Brexit Britain is an object lesson in how a modern nation fails.
Author:
Publish date:
Updated on
Brexit supporters protest.

Pro-Brexit protesters gather near the Houses of Parliament on January 29th, 2019, in London.

Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
     Someone had blundered.
     Theirs not to make reply,
     Theirs not to reason why,
     Theirs but to do and die.
     Into the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.
"The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

"If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through." —General Melchett, Blackadder

"You do it to yourself, you do / And that's what really hurts." —Radiohead

Ideas Page Break

It's embarrassing, trying to explain Brexit to Americans. It's like trying to explain wildfires to people whose houses are underwater. Given that Americans have their own political horror show to watch through their fingers as their faith in humanity fizzles, they may well wonder why on Earth they ought to pay any attention to the crypto-nationalist omnishambles happening across the Atlantic. Isn't it essentially just the same as the American omnishambles, except on a BBC budget, with more subdued special effects and a lot of squashed-looking posh people pretending to know what they're talking about? Well, no, it's not quite the same, and yes, it's worth your attention. Here's why.

Brexit Britain is an object lesson in how a modern nation fails. It's the last act in a familiar unhappy marriage plot, with ruthless neoliberal economic orthodoxy wedded to the genteel thuggery of old-school conservative entitlement, combining to create something so much weirder, and so much worse, that the result can collapse an entire culture.

So let's remind ourselves what's at stake here. Let's take a hard look at the worst-case, and right now most likely, outcome: a no-deal Brexit. In less than 60 days, Britain has to leave the E.U., and the difference between doing so with a deal and without one is the difference between being kicked out of a plane with and without a parachute. Here's what no-deal Brexit means: it means an immediate and lasting recession. It means massive job losses. It means serious shortages of food and medicines. It means major businesses closing down. It means, ironically, the possible break-up of the United Kingdom, as the Scottish, who didn't vote for Brexit, inevitably demand a second independence referendum. It means new violence along the Irish border. It means Britain losing its cherished place at the top table in the international community after we've definitively demonstrated that just because we once owned a lot of other countries doesn't mean we can be trusted not to trash our own. It means that ordinary people, already reeling from nine years of brutal austerity, will find their lives collapsing, all in service of a rich man's gamble.

David Davis, the minister in charge of delivering Brexit, assured the public early last year that a hard border would not lead to "a Mad Max-style dystopia." He's quit now. So did the guy who replaced him. The government just put 3,500 troops on standby in case of a no-deal Brexit. Saddle up, chaps—we're headed down the Fury Road.

Americans can be forgiven for not understanding what Brexit means and why it hasn't happened yet, because—well, because that's the problem. Nobody knows what Brexit means—not the people who campaigned for it, not the people who voted for it, not the government, not the opposition, not the E.U. Nobody. (The stand-in Tory slogan for two years was "Brexit means Brexit.") There's only one thing we can know for sure, and that's that the British people, like the American people, have been betrayed. We have been swindled and lied to, had our trust abused, our birthright as citizens exploited and our future jeopardized by a bunch self-dealing opportunists who have the gall to use the name of "democracy" when describing the con they pulled.

Like any victims of sustained outrage, the British people do not like to see ourselves as victims. We will, in fact, turn magnificent cartwheels on the edge of plausible deniability in an effort to claim that this is what we wanted all along, that we have some agency here. But the truth is that nobody wanted this. Brexit is a shambles being forced on Britain by a government too spineless to admit how badly it fucked up, not just in the referendum but in all the lying, backstabbing, nation-betraying decisions that led up to it.

Last month, a number of dreadful and confusing and very important things happened in British politics, including the Brexit deal being rejected in Parliament. This doesn't mean that Brexit won't happen. It just means that nobody can agree on how it should happen, which, again, is a little like not being able to agree on the color of parachute you want after you've been kicked out of that airplane. Right now the government is collapsing because nobody knows how to do Brexit, because there was never a plan, because some entitled, invertebrate Tory scumbags screwed the country for nine years and have no idea how to clean up their mess.

There is no easy answer, no dignified way out, because Brexit isn't actually about Britain wanting to leave Europe at all. What it's always been about is Britain wanting to leave the 21st century.

Ideas Page Break

Here's the first thing most Americans don't understand about Brexit: Leaving the E.U. isn't like leaving the United Nations. The E.U. isn't just a symbolic union; it's an intricate system of trade deals, border agreements, treaties, human rights laws, and everything else that helps a small island survive in a global economy. It's obscure enough that most ordinary citizens have no idea how important it is or how it works. In fact, the day Britain voted to leave the E.U., one of the most-Googled questions in Britain was, "What is the E.U.?"

Brexit was all about leaving the Idea of Europe, which nobody cared about before the Brexiteers began casting Europe as the root of all of our gnarliest cultural complexes—including Britain's complex about its new and diminished place in a changing world that it no longer owns most of. The idea of leaving Europe is simple and rather pathetic; the practical process of leaving the E.U. is fiendishly complex. Pulling out without a plan leaves us hemorrhaging political and economic capital, none of which the Brexiteers planned for—because they didn't have a plan at all. There's a chasm of meaning between what Europe symbolizes and what it actually is, and the British ruling class is about to pour its country's future down that chasm because they're too embarrassed to face the facts, their mistakes, and the consequences.

It would hardly be the first time that rich Brits have done this. The most beautiful war poetry in the English language is all about rich old men sending thousands of young people to die pointlessly because their generals were too dim to change course and too arrogant to back down, while the band pounded out the old patriotic lie to "children ardent for some desperate glory," as Wilfred Owen wrote. Dulce et decorum est, indeed. Except there'll be no monument to the millions of people whose lives will now be poorer, harder, meaner, and shorter because of this shambolic act of national self harm.

The Disaster of a No-Deal Brexit

Imagine you're trapped in a burning building with your friends and family while two posh people who hate each other stand in the doorway going, "After you"; "No, after you!" That's what it's like, being British and watching the news right now. We need an exit deal, and nobody can agree on one, and here's why.

Problem one: Within the terms of E.U. membership, you can't legally close your borders to people without also closing them to trade. This means that if Britain decides to stop the free movement of people from the E.U. and to "take control" of our borders—which is what the referendum promised—that's curtains for the economy, especially the financial sector, which has been a major part of Britain's tepid recovery from the 2008 crash.

Problem two: the three million E.U. citizens who are currently living in Britain, many of them for decades, on whose labor Britain relies to keep its public sector running—and the two million Britons living in Europe. None of them know what their status is going to be post-Brexit. Most have been living in anxious limbo for almost three years now. Yes, that's how long it's been.

A pro-Brexit activist (left) addresses an anti-Brexit activist (center) as both sides demonstrate outside of the Houses of Parliament in London on January 29th, 2019.

A pro-Brexit activist (left) addresses an anti-Brexit activist (center) as both sides demonstrate outside of the Houses of Parliament in London on January 29th, 2019.

Problem three, and this one's a doozy: Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in 1998, relied on E.U. law. It's a compromise. Northern Ireland is still part of Britain, but there is currently no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic—because both are part of the E.U. If Britain leaves, however, that hard border will come crashing down, a political disaster that could reignite the Troubles. Nobody wants that, least of all Ireland, and Ireland's representatives have not been shy to say so at talks in Europe. The response of one British negotiator? "The Irish should know their place."

The Irish at least appear to know what century they're living in—a sharp contrast with the staggering lack of self-awareness from the malevolent buffoons who steered Britain toward the precipice. Cartoon racist uncle Nigel Farage and blustering psychopath Boris Johnson, the erstwhile leaders of the Leave campaign, barely mentioned the Irish border during the referendum, when they were promising hope, glory, and white pride on toast. Now it's the major sticking point preventing a deal that would serve up anything but rancid socioeconomic calamity.

The whole of Parliament has to agree on the terms of a deal before it can get to the negotiation stage. So far, they've rejected everything that our trembling, haunted substitute teacher of a prime minister, Theresa May, has suggested. May is only prime minister because her predecessor, David Cameron, resigned after Brexit and nobody else was foolish enough to want the job. The tenor for her leadership can best be summed up by her first speech to her party conference, where she delivered wobbly platitudes in front of a giant sign reading "BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE." As her speech proceeded, various letters on the sign gradually wobbled and fell off, leaving us with: "A CTRY THA ORKS OR REYON."

This was a much better catchphrase for a nation whose entire self-concept is collapsing as millions of real people plummet through the gaps in meaning. It took May two years to settle on a plan that absolutely everyone hates. When she tried to get British lawmakers to agree to it, she suffered the largest parliamentary defeat in five centuries. She now has less than 60 days left to come up with a new one, and then the 27 other E.U. member states also have to agree to that deal. Any deal that will make the swivel-eyed colonial fantasists in the Tory Party happy will inevitably be unacceptable to Europe. Meanwhile, the runaway train of national incompetence keeps on barreling toward the precipice, and we're all screaming to get off. Unless something very, very unexpected happens, we're going over the edge.

We could stop this train if we wanted to. All it would take is for Parliament to turn around and admit that it got it wrong, and face the consequences at the polls. The E.U. will let us stay. The E.U. doesn't want England to leave. Not because the rest of Europe likes us. They don't. Why would they? We've been nothing but trouble, even before we pulled this tantrum. We never fully signed up to the spirit of the E.U., preferring to nurse our crabbed fantasies of the plucky little empire that could. But if Europe lets us leave, member states will feel the knock-on financial effects—and it will set a dangerous precedent that could lead to the break-up of the already fragile European bloc. At which point, the only person who goes home happy is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That's about the size of this seven-dimensional cock-up. Nobody can decide what to do, but just ignoring it and hoping it will go away is the worst idea of all. As E.U. president Donald Tusk wrote on Twitter in January: "Nobody wants no deal, and nobody can agree on a deal—who has the guts to state the obvious option?"

The obvious option, of course, is not doing Brexit. But any politician who says so risks losing their job at the next election. The few who had the fortitude to place the nation's interests ahead of their own were condemned as "traitors," which is Brexitese for "the only actual patriots in the room."

This week, the question isn't whether the British government is going to collapse, but when and how. The deadline by which we have to leave Europe is almost upon us, and nobody knows what happens next. There could be a snap general election, another referendum ... or we could drag this on until we crash out of the E.U. without a deal. Every day brings new chaos to the Parliament, where debates range from the frantic to frankly hallucinogenic. Here's Tory MP and ardent Brexiteer Charles Walker last Tuesday:

Mr. Speaker, we have talked at length about unicorns. And the proudest stallion unicorn of all is the unicorn of perfection, a unicorn that canters across broken fields with unrealizable dreams underfoot—and Mr. Speaker, the unicorn of perfection must be slayed. Sadly.

The frightening thing is that Walker seems to have been sober when he spoke these lines. Regardless, we definitely know the government isn't pumping drugs into the commons chamber—because we can't afford them. Hospitals are already stockpiling medicines, businesses are leaving the country, and, outside Parliament, fascist thugs are harassing journalists and politicians, throwing punches and screaming abuse, telling them that they're traitors for not delivering Brexit already. This is also the unspoken sentiment inside the building among the barmier right-wing Tory politicians, except they have government jobs and tailored suits, whereas the Willy-wavers on the street are wearing yellow vests.

Here's the second thing most Americans don't understand about Brexit: The scale of the catastrophe here is monumentally more enormous than just one bad vote. This ominishambles was many years in the making. This is about austerity.

How Austerity Gave Us Brexit

Let's recap. Cue the music! Dim the lights! Fire up the wobbly screen time-jump effects! The year is 2010 and Britain just had an election. Conservative leader David Cameron, a yogurt-faced old Etonian former public relations man, fails to win the general election but goes into coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrat Party and proceeds to institute a program of economic reforms that nobody voted for, reforms so brutal and devastating that the janky but serviceable state Britain used to have is all but destroyed.

The upshot, under Cameron and now May, has been nine years of austerity. Pointless, vindictive, self-destructive state-slashing policies that nobody voted for, policies that have made life materially worse for practically everyone except the people who came up with them.

The British ruling class, groomed at Eton College and Oxbridge College to be the sort of spoiled, pig-headed homunculi one needs to run an empire, has always had the same contempt for the working poor that it had for its colonial subjects. The lower orders, too, should know their place, and that place is in the servants' quarters, grateful and silent. The idea of social democracy, of every citizen's being entitled to basic health care, education, and support, is abhorrent to the traditional elite, and Cameron's conservatives took power with a mission to stamp out such nonsense among the surplus population. They set about dismantling the welfare state, regardless of the economic and social consequences, with the same combination of malice and stupidity that drove their forefathers to carve up the world for profit a century ago.

It is hard to overestimate how devastating Cameron's austerity plan was, or how fast it happened. Before Tory austerity, almost nobody in Britain had to use food banks. Now two million families rely on them. Around 14 million people—a fifth of the population—now live in poverty, in the world's fifth-largest economy. In Britain's poorest areas, spending by the state has been cut by almost half. Homelessness has doubledHospitals are closing, schools are falling apart, youth services are vanishing, and university fees have tripled. Half our local magistrates courts are gone. Over 500 libraries have closedRubbish isn't being collected, old people are being abandoned in their homes, crime is going up, and life expectancy is going down. The only things we've all got more of are depression, anxiety, and personal debt, all of which are the highest on record. Yes, there were protests—and in the first six months of Cameron's Tory regime, there were outbreaks of rioting by students and inner-city youth, but these were summarily squashed. It felt like there was no way to stop it all happening. We felt powerless.

I cut my teeth as a journalist reporting on this slow skinning of British society: the student protests, the welfare cuts, the disabled people—sorry, "scroungers," to use Tory terminology—who were forced to walk until they fell over in the assessment offices, and who then lost their benefits anyway. After the local shelters closed, young mothers had nowhere to go to escape abusive partners. University graduates in moldy, rat-infested flats were unable to find any job to cover the bills, let alone start paying off their debt. Right-wing protesters were convinced that their children's teachers would have more time for them if it weren't for all these immigrants. All the things that kept the fabric of communities together were slowly confiscated by a Tory consensus more ruthlessly Dickensian than any costume drama: The poor should stop whining and start obeying their betters. Doff your cap and salute the crown. Keep calm and carry on.

"We're All in This Together" was the slogan Tories settled on to placate the public, even though it was blindingly clear that some of us were in it up to our ankles, and others were already sinking under the surface. Meanwhile, national debt has only gone up, life expectancy has gone down, and wages have flat-lined. That's what hurts most: this wasn't just inhuman, it was also terrible economics.

So why did they do it? As economist Raoul Martinez explains in Creating Freedom: The Lottery of Birth, the Illusion of Consent, and the Fight for Our Future:

The simple answer is ideology. It is an article of faith for neoliberals that the state must shrink, welfare and social security must be cut, and everything from health-care to prisons must be privatized. The focus on deficit reduction provided a convenient cover to lay waste to the welfare state.

Late last year, the U.N.'s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights delivered an excoriating verdict on Tory austerity, declaring that the situation in Britain is "not just a disgrace, but a social calamity." "Poverty," he wrote, "Is a political choice."

Nine years. Millions of lives shortened and stunted and stripped of dignity. My entire twenties were spent watching my country get inexorably meaner, sourer, and poorer, as spoiled idiots congratulated each other in the golden banqueting halls of ancestral estates. (Yes, we do still have those, and they are available to rent if you'd like to make another glossy television show about our royal family to distract you from your own 10-car democratic freeway pile-up—because, as England knows all too well, a nation cannot run on fantasies of past grandeur alone, and we really need the cash.)

And Tory politicians, with their tame tabloid propagandists, spent those eight years diverting public anger onto disabled people and immigrants. The same papers that are now condemning the fascist thugs bullying politicians and journalists outside Parliament have spent years being entirely complicit in creating the mood of broiling racist resentment against people coming from overseas to take "our" homes and jobs, which, even if it were true—and it is in no way true—would be a pretty wild complaint coming from the same people who literally tried to rewrite the school history syllabus to make it sound like the British Empire had been a good thing.

Still, Cameron couldn't blame foreigners for everything, so he decided to stake the nation’s future against his own hold on power. To win a second term, he bought the support of some of his madder imperialist-throwback fellows in Parliament by promising them what they'd always wanted and nobody else had: a referendum on E.U. membership. He thought they wouldn't make him call it. What could possibly go wrong?

Calling the E.U. referendum to save his own skin turned out to be the greatest mistake of Cameron's ignominious political career. His second mistake, having called it, was to choose to lead the "Remain" campaign himself, somehow forgetting that his policies had made him one of the most hated men in Britain.

Who Will Save Us?

The referendum nobody wanted quickly mushroomed into a referendum on the status quo. Brexit was a referendum on Cameron, on identity, on nationalism—and, yes, on austerity. The London School of Economics recently confirmed that, without austerity, the referendum would almost certainly have gone the other way. The areas of England and Wales hit worst by the Tories' refined brutality consistently voted Leave.

The "Leave" campaigners promised that Brexit would mean an extra 350 million pounds a week for the National Health Service, and when I say "promised," I mean, "they printed it in huge letters on the side of a bus funded by an anti-democratic billionaire and drove their sputtering lie-machine around the country." But that money isn't coming. In fact, the NHS—the real institutional pride of the nation, beloved by everyone apart from the very wealthiest, and already in tatters after the Tories tried to slice it up to sell it to their friends—will struggle to survive, as more cuts are imposed and thousands of foreign doctors and nurses face deportation or are simply harassed out of the country. Why would anyone want to stay and work for a pittance wiping bottoms and washing wounds in a country that claims to hate you?

Racism and xenophobia run naked and screaming right through the Brexit mood. In the two years since the vote, racists and bigots have only gotten braver, as the referendum result was interpreted as a license to perpetuate prejudice; reported incidents of hate crime have more than doubled, from attacks on mosques to migrant families' letterboxes clanging with missives calling them scum and telling them to go home, when they had previously been under the impression that this was their home. So had many of us non-migrant Britons, who woke up in June of 2016, as Americans did five months later, in a different country from the one we'd always thought we were living in.

I want my country back too, as it happens. But I'm not kidding myself about who stole it. The Tories sold out the British people and then made the mistake of giving them one real chance to make their feelings known—and, well, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like David Cameron's face.

And so the public voted, narrowly, to "take back control." That is, 52 percent of us did. In the intervening years, a critical chunk of us have come to our senses; if the referendum were held again, it would be a different story, even if you don't take into account that the entire thing might well have been stolen.

About that: The Leave Campaign was found guilty of breaking electoral law and fined as a result. We also now know about the involvement of every oligarch's favorite election-swinging tech firm, Cambridge Analytica. It seems that Alexander Nix's company treated Brexit as a dry run for what it proceeded to do in America.

And here's a final thing many Americans don't understand about Brexit: If it's going to be such a disaster, why do so many voters (if not a majority) still want it?

Well, when people realize that they've been hoodwinked into making a horrible mistake, they don't automatically turn around and admit it and thank you for pointing it out. That's not how people work. When people feel angry and betrayed and unsure of themselves, they're just as likely to double down. What may have started out as poor judgment or simple ignorance becomes a point of pride. You know this if you've ever tried to win an argument in a bar, particularly if the argument happens to be about why your friend should stop drinking and go to bed. You know this and I know this because we've all been stupid and stubborn about something, and British people are particularly well-versed in the grand tradition of ploughing on with something catastrophically foolish rather than admitting error—because we'd rather lose everything than run the risk that someone might laugh at us. Pointing out that the world is already laughing at us doesn't help.

What Britons actually wanted wasn't Brexit. What we wanted was dignity, self respect, fuck the other guy, and fuck the government. Brexit, like The Wall, is not a real thing at all. It's a mood. A symbol. A story. A promise about power and pride and sovereignty told by swindlers and thugs to frightened children. What people voted for isn't the messy reality but the idea of "taking back control." In fact, it's our leaders who have lost control—of their senses, of their resources, of the plot. And it's the rest of us who are going to pay.

It turns out the real Brexit was in our hearts all along. It's not about Europe. It's about the British ruling class demonstrating the same rancid scorn for the poor as they did for the nations their grandfathers ransacked, using a working-class revolt as a license to loot the future. It's about just how far we're prepared to fuck ourselves over to prove a point. It's about vicious incompetence swaddled in shabby entitlement. It's about austerity, it's about identity, it's about prejudice, and it's about pride.

And yes, people in Britain have had their pride taken away. Their dignity. Not by the E.U., but by their own government, which has clung to the neoliberal orthodoxy that the state must shrink and the rich be rewarded, forgetting that the one thing the market cannot give people is pride, security, and a story about who they are and where they're going. This is bad. It's going to get worse. Now you know. And hey, Americans, guess who we're trusting to save us when the shit finally, after three centuries of "malign colonial incompetence," eight brutal years of austerity, and 33 months of Brexit chaos, finally hits the fan? Guess who we think is going to come and rescue us?

I'm afraid it's you guys.

ps-ideas-logo-alone

Pacific Standard's Ideas section is your destination for idea-driven features, voracious culture coverage, sharp opinion, and enlightening conversation. Help us shape our ongoing coverage by responding to a short reader survey.

Related