OPINION

Remains of the day



To anyone who visited London in the days running up to the Brexit referendum vote on Thursday, the idea that the country would vote to leave would have been a non-starter. Bright red, white and blue posters of the “Remain” campaign peeked from windows across the capital, and earnest, quietly confident campaigners stood by stations handing out posters, eliciting encouraging nods from passing commuters. Even the market had recovered from its initial jitters, bookies were favouring Remain by a good margin, and the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage had all but acknowledged defeat.



Then came early Friday morning — and the result from Sunderland. The north-eastern town, traditionally one of the fastest to declare election results, is seen as a bellwether of Britain’s voting behaviour. It had always been expected to favour “Leave” but not by the whopping 22 percentage points that it did. Following this, the pound dipped dramatically. Other shockers soon followed, such as the Essex town of Basildon in southern England, where two-thirds voted Leave. The biggest surprise came from Wales — a region widely expected to favour Remain, much like the U.K.’s other countries, Scotland and Northern Ireland — but where 17 of 22 voting areas ended up backing Brexit. There was a brief Remain surge when the London and Scottish results came in, but by 3 a.m. it was clear that the Brexit camp’s 52 per cent share was there to stay. Britain was on course to end its 43-year-old membership of the European Union (EU).



The buck stops with Cameron

Amidst the shock and the deliberation on how pollsters and pretty much all informed observers managed to call it so dreadfully wrong, finger-pointing has begun on who was to blame for the spectacular failure of the Remain campaign. The result could not be blamed on voter apathy — turnout was 72 per cent, the highest in any British vote since 1992.



Much of the responsibility surely has to sit on the shoulders of Prime Minister David Cameron, and the decision to hold the referendum in the first place. While some argue he had no choice but to do this in order to appease the rebels in his party, it is clear that the referendum and the run-up to it failed spectacularly to do that. The Conservative Party is, arguably, more divided than it has ever been. Far from heading off the Eurosceptic monster, the move simply gave it some oxygen to breathe.



The very real risk of a Brexit vote should have been clear right from the start, notwithstanding Mr. Cameron’s attempts to wing a “better deal” for Britain in negotiations with Merkel & Co. Britain’s relationship with the EU has always been a fraught one from the Thatcher days, fuelled by a hostile media, and an inflated sense of its own importance in the global context. There is a genuine and deep-seated belief shared by many in this country that Britain, the island nation, is somehow above the European ‘super-state’, with its bulging bureaucracy, regulations, and enormous budget, and that somehow it will be able to wend its way in the global economy. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s reference to “independence day” won him loud cheers and a standing ovation at one of the last pre-vote debates this week. In this context, there was little chance of nuanced, informed debate. The example of Cornwall is a case in point: the far south-eastern region of England, despite receiving many hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies and other funds from Europe, voted decisively to leave.





Negative strategy backfires

In seeking an explanation for what went wrong, the larger global trend of increasing discontent with traditional politics and politicians cannot be ignored. The success of Donald Trump in the United States and the near-victory of a neo-Nazi presidential candidate in Austria have heralded the increasing separation between the public and mainstream politics in the West. What has happened in Britain must be seen as part of this trend. Anger with the austerity of the Tories, which has accelerated markedly since the general election last year without the moderating impact of the Liberal Democrats, and the failure of a split Labour party fully to make the case to remain in the EU enabled the Leave campaign to take hold particularly in deprived, working-class areas such as the north-east of the country where it had one of its best performances.



The Remain campaign’s decision to focus on the dangers of leaving, rather than make a positive case for membership and present a grand vision of what a reformed Europe with Britain in it could be, also proved to be a grave political miscalculation. The campaign somehow never managed to shake off the “Project Fear” label it earned in the early days of the campaign, as it brought forth countless economic, industry, and security experts to warn of the dangers of a Brexit. Far from convincing people, this strategy only seemed to alienate many of them further.



It was as though the mainstream economic perspective had no legs to stand on and therefore patronised ordinary people with a simplistic account of the consequences of a Brexit. Some of Brexit’s canniest proponents such as Mr. Johnson made sure they stressed this as a fatal weakness of the Remain campaign. It is noteworthy that car-maker Nissan, which has been one of the most vocal opponents of a Brexit, failed to sway the population of Sunderland, the base of its car manufacturing facility in England. There were attempts towards the end of the campaign to focus on the importance of solidarity and the tremendous achievements of Europe in building cross-continental harmony — among the last voices to be brought out was footballer David Beckham, who said he wanted to be part of a “vibrant and connected world” — but it proved too little, too late.



But the most depressing aspect of all of this cannot be disregarded: the immigration card. There were hopes that the vicious murder of the Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, by a man with links to the far-Right in the U.S., would jolt voters into the realisation that the Brexit campaign had gone too far with its focus on limiting immigration from the EU and the entry of refugees. The murder itself came on the same day UKIP released a poster of a line of brown-skinned refugees, titled “Breaking Point”. This left others in the Leave camp struggling to distance themselves from accusations of racism and what London Mayor Sadiq Khan referred to as “Project Hate”. However, the nastiness did not prove to be much of a deterrent — and whether it was through posters warning about the dire consequences of Turkey joining the EU (something which is far from certain, contrary to the way the Brexit campaign often portrayed it) or proposals to introduce a tougher Australian-esque points-based visa immigration system, the campaign persuaded.



The road from here

While one can start to put together answers retrospectively, the journey forward for the U.K. is a different matter, as its citizens struggle to make sense of their identity, political and social, and how they can chart a course forward. The messy result has left not only two fractured political parties but also a deeply fissured country, as many Remain voters struggled to understand how those with the same nationality could have come to such a radically different conclusion from them. Mr. Farage’s claims that it was “a victory for ordinary, decent people” drew much anger. Londoners on social media expressed their disbelief over the result, with many feeling that they inhabited a different country from the rest (some faced it with typical dark humour, with the hash tag IndependenceForLondon trending on Twitter).



The country’s challenges, aside from the messy economic questions, do not of course stop there. The very future of the union could be at stake, with the possibilities of independence referendums in Northern Ireland and Scotland rearing their heads.



Struggling to keep this all together until October at the latest will be Mr. Cameron. Appearing shattered, he announced emotionally he would be stepping down to ensure the country had “strong, determined, and committed” leadership to lead negotiations with the EU, negotiations that will be fraught with tensions and challenges as other member states grapple with their own domestic consequences from Britain’s move.



Where will Britain go from here? Ardent Brexiteer and bookies’ favourite to be Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has attempted to portray this as a “glorious opportunity” for a forward-looking country seeking to forge stronger links with nations well beyond Europe’s borders. But after the vicious campaign of the past few months, the victors will struggle to shed the view that many across the world have built of them — that of a nation that had so much but chose to abandon it in favour of a xenophobic, small-island mentality.



vidya.ram@thehindu.co.in



After the vicious campaign of the past few months, the victors will struggle to shed the view that many across the world have built of them



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