For most of my life, I have known that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was coming. It was just a question of when. Nigel Farage made it possible, by linking British antipathy with the EU to our national scepticism over immigration. His UKIP party grew in support to the point where it could divide the right and potentially even cost the Tories the 2015 general election. To placate the eurosceptics in his own party and the electorate, David Cameron offered a referendum if he was re-elected as Prime Minister. He probably assumed that after the election there would be a coalition with the Lib Dems, who would never support having a referendum, and so Cameron could safely drop the pledge. He was wrong. He won a surprise majority in the election, and then had to deliver on his promised referendum.
Most of the liberal left-wing people I knew supported staying in the EU. This position became known as ‘Remain’, whilst the movement to leave the EU become known as ‘Leave’, or ‘Brexit’. There is a strong left-wing case for a Remain vote. However, there were certainly people on the left who passionately believed that we should leave the EU. These people were separate from the Brexit campaign and become known as Lexit. There was also a valid left-wing case for leaving the EU. I recognised that any defence of the EU as an institution has to acknowledge its flaws. However, Lexit was a minority position on the left.
The main campaigns on the Remain and Leave side were both embarrassing and stooped to the lowest common denominator. Brexit employed racially-charged rhetoric about the need to curb immigration, thumped their chest about sovereignty and flatly denied any analysis that said that the economy would suffer if we left. A low point was when Conservative cabinet minister and prominent Brexit voice Michael Gove declared: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.
The Remain campaign instead focused entirely on the economic risks of Brexit. Rather than trying to convince anyone that the EU was a positive institution and could do good, they decided instead to scare people into voting Remain with threats of economic oblivion. I thought this was a mistake and not the correct way to convince people to vote to stay. The outcome, I believe, supports my opinion.
It became apparent that one weakness of the left-wing case for Remain was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s antipathy towards the EU. Corbyn has a record of voting against every EU treaty and opposed the EU from a left-wing point of view. Beset by strife within his own party, I argued that this was the moment Corbyn could turn his leadership around if he became a positive defender of the EU. Sadly, this did not happen.
As voting day drew closer, the polls showed that the country was divided and uncertain, although Remain had lost its large initial lead. Brexit had given up trying to neutralise Remain’s economic argument, and focused entirely on immigration. Remain responded poorly to this as it was too late for a positive pro-EU defence of immigration - although Corbyn did try. It was difficult to predict what the outcome of the vote would be, but I attempted to. My prediction about the result being close turned out to be correct.
The rhetoric from both sides grew more intense in the final weeks, but the Brexit side become increasingly xenophobic as they exploited Britain’s dislike of immigration. Nigel Farage unveiled a racist poster showing huge numbers of migrants pouring into the EU, which summed up his hatred-stoking campaign in one image. On the same day, tragedy struck as Batley and Spen’s Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and killed outside her constituency surgery. The world was appalled and there was much reflection on how deeply divided a nation we had become. In an emotionally charged and bitter campaign, this was a depressing low and it remains a stain on our political history.
The referendum day finally arrived and I cast my vote. There was a tense night of counting, where it briefly looked like Remain would win and at one point Farage conceded defeat (he unconceeded a few hours later).
The final result was a victory for Brexit. A campaign that exploited the worst aspects of anti-politics, that stoked the fires of racism and hatred of immigrants won out over a well-intentioned but deeply flawed campaign. The Remain campaign’s weakness was that it was a vote for the establishment and the status quo. At a time of national division, stagnant wages, poor economic outlook, insecurity and fear, voters did not want the status quo.
Everything we knew seemed to unravel in the days after Brexit. Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, whilst Corbyn’s poor performance in the campaign was the final straw that drove his MPs into open rebellion against him. As both parties were plunged into leadership contests, I wondered what this vote meant for the left? How do we respond to the millions of people who voted to leave? The implication of this vote will define the next few years of British politics and could have far reaching consequences. The United Kingdom itself could dissolve, as now the SNP are pushing for a second independence referendum.
I am still wondering about how the left should respond to Brexit and what it means for our politics. There are no easy answers, but the referendum did not produce consensus and we remain a deeply-divided nation. Of course, it is likely that we were a divided nation before the referendum campaign and this was only exposed by Brexit. I am worried about what will happen next, but I will keep writing about it and I will keep trying to understand.