A scarecrow effigy of Boris Johnson. / Mazzy Bolero
Corey Pein,  June 24, 2016

Neither Great Nor British

The Brexit debacle belongs to England alone

A scarecrow effigy of Boris Johnson. / Mazzy Bolero
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I went to bed smugly satisfied last night after UK Independence Party leader and charmless performative drunk Nigel Farage conceded defeat. It seemed Britain had hung together and voted to Remain in the European Union after all. I woke up to a different reality. The Leave campaign won.

I dreaded this outcome, even though the vote for Brexit benefits me in a narrow and selfish sense as an American living in the UK. Now migrants from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland and everywhere else on the continent will need to apply for permits to live and work in the UK, just like me. Not being native English speakers, they’ll be at a comparative disadvantage in the points-based immigration system that has been touted to supersede the freedom of movement guaranteed to EU citizens.

It’s good news for my personal finances, too. Economists have predicted recession for post-Brexit Britain, but I get paid in U.S. dollars, and the immediate consequence of the Leave victory was for the Great British Pound to fall to a thirty-year low. When I went to bed, the tenner on my dining table was worth $15. When I woke up, it was worth $12. Thus Farage effectively bought my next pint. If I had the chance, though, I’d throw it in his face.

Although the near-term consequences of Leave’s victory may accrue in my favor, I would happily trade my Brexit bonus for a world in which this noxious and disastrous referendum never took place. Do not be misled by the muddled centrist or leftish “eurosceptic” arguments that favored secessionism: this vote is a victory for the reactionary right and a bad omen for the world in the years to come.

In his early-morning victory speech, Farage hailed Brexit as a “victory for decent people”—as opposed to indecent foreigners and Remain supporters—accomplished “without a single bullet being fired.” This boast was galling in its falsehood. One week before the vote, Remain-supporting Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox was murdered by a pro-Leave fascist terrorist who shouted “Britain First!” as he put a bullet in her body. So there’s one lesson from the successful Leave campaign: assassination gets results.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who called for the Brexit referendum in the first place, announced his pending resignation this morning with his characteristically unconvincing brave face. Good riddance to the spineless Etonian, but don’t expect an out-and-proud lefty like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to take over Downing Street after Cameron’s defeat. His successor could well be former London mayor and one-time journalistic fabulist Boris Johnson, who is at least as incompetent as Cameron, but more bigoted and buffoonish. (Also in the running: the fire-breathing top border cop Theresa May and Tory hack Michael Gove, who could be George Will’s weird British cousin.) Appearances may suggest otherwise, but Johnson isn’t Britain’s Trump—he’s much more of a chameleon than the bleating reality-TV bigot is. But Johnson (a former European School pupil as well as yet another Etonian) is happy to emulate Trump’s demagogic tactics and pander to Farage’s UKIP base if he thinks it’ll advance his career.

Little England stays alone in its corner of the world—with its flat, warm beer, its spiceless food, and its theocratic monarchy—just like in the Middle Ages.

Anything that unites Farage, Johnson, the Islamophobic Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, the notorious French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and Donald J. Trump cannot be good, and so Brexit must be terrible. Indeed, the base and venal personalities of the anti-EU leaders throughout the UK and Europe reflect a broader global realignment. All of the above have expressed some measure of admiration for Vladimir Putin and his “traditionalist” style of deep-state thuggery as well as contempt for Angela Merkel and the technocratic secular liberalism she personifies. The Brexit debate, such as it was, generated much harrumphing about the EU as a vanguard for German economic imperialism. The merits of this argument, or lack thereof, were never really the point. The point was to rekindle old Germanophobic prejudices in order to boost the Leave campaign.

And Germany didn’t get the worst of the toxic pro-Leave propaganda. The really nasty stuff was reserved for Africans, Arabs, and Muslims. Every day on the newsstands for well over a year, there were two alternating headlines on basically every mass-circulation British newspaper (with the notable exception of the proudly bougie Guardian and, before it shut down the presses, the Independent). Those headlines could be summarized as follows:

1.) Swarthy “migrants” are coming to steal your country, rape your daughters, and leave you penniless and humiliated.

2.) Funny-talking Eurocrats want to ruin your tea, ban the Queen’s corgis, and rename the English Channel the “Anglo-French Pond.”

None of it was true. But the tabloid lies in favor of Leave set the terms of the debate at all levels of British society. On the BBC, I heard interviewers asking Leave and Remain representatives how they would best control the “flood” of people coming to Britain—the negative effects of immigration were taken as a given.

British people, like Americans, are rightly concerned about their economic security and outraged at their corrupt leadership class. But it was not immigrants who deprived middle- and working-class people of hope and opportunity. It was the failure of several generations of native-born leaders to act in the public interest. The immigration question at the core of the Brexit referendum was a convenient distraction, and a dangerous one at that. A fractured, suspicious, nationalist Europe is capable of terrible things, and plenty of people are still alive who can remember the horrors wrought by this recursive mass xenophobia.

Now it may not be only Europe that disintegrates, but the UK, too. “British” could become a forgotten identity. There have already been calls for Irish reunification—as well as fears of renewed violence—following the Brexit vote. Scotland, which voted Remain in every local voting district, is likely to stage another secession referendum from the UK—and this time, the Scottish Nationalists could have their day at long last. As for Wales, who knows? Wales was the only constituent country within the UK to vote for Leave alongside England. But the Welsh didn’t call the question of Europe, in or out. The English did.

The Leave vote was a profound statement of intent by one country in the UK, not Great Britain as a whole. The goal: to ensure that Little England stays alone in its corner of the world—with its flat, warm beer, its spiceless food, and its theocratic monarchy—just like in the Middle Ages. I am not kidding. That is the sentiment behind Leave, as the New York Times captured well in a recent pre-election report. There’s a middle-aged guy at my local pub we call Henry, because his loud, drunken pro-Brexit tirades have featured unforgettable gems like, “Henry VIII was the last good king,” and “the Scottish are the true enemy of the English.” Henry has always been the face of Brexit in my mind. I know he will be in fine form tonight. I won’t be going to the pub. I can’t handle hearing him gloat. I know he’ll be thrilled when I finally leave England, too, for some place more welcoming.

Corey Pein writes Magical Thinking for The Baffler. He is currently based in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, and has a book on Silicon Valley coming out next year.

 

 

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