Friday, 1 July 2016

Dis-United Kingdom: 10 issues to watch

So by 52% to 48% the voters in UK have opted to withdraw from the European Union. The Prime Minister has resigned, shares and sterling are plummeting, and uncertainty spreads across every sector. But between the euphoria of those who think they have taken ‘their’ country back, and the despair of those who feel Britain has lost its way, there are a number of critical issues that should be closely scrutinised in the aftermath of this referendum:

[1] Relationship with the EU
In case anyone thinks the EU blame game is now over, it is only actually just beginning. EU-bashing has served the uber-right (see Note 1) well, and the attention will now shift to attacking the unhelpful ‘Eurocrats’ for refusing to agree to the perfectly reasonable exit terms that would enable the UK to have all the benefits of an EU member state and none of the responsibilities. Furthermore, unsavoury alliances will be developed with far right parties across Europe which want to build on UK’s referendum outcome to break up the EU and foment nationalistic extremism.

[2] Immigration
Many people voted for ‘Leave’ because they believed there were too many immigrants in the UK, and leaving the EU would help to reduce numbers significantly. But since the xenophobia that distorts the perception of what is good or bad about immigrants won’t go away any time soon, the uber-right will continue to fuel and exploit it. Instead of finding a workable balance between the need for EU workers and the inclination amongst some to keep those workers away, the rhetoric will turn to the problem with immigrants from outside the EU: how those numbers must be drastically cut, and even ‘options’ for repatriation may raise their ugly heads.

[3] Transnational Institutions

Will withdrawal from the EU be sufficient for Britons to “take our country back” – away from all ties that make us a part of wider transnational institutions? What about NATO, UN, G7, the Commonwealth, OECD? Will anyone bring up the connections between any of these organisations and the potential movement of foreigners to the UK? After all, once EU migration is ‘blocked’, Commonwealth migration will become the next obvious target. NATO, of course, is also a driver of asylum seeking through its bombing campaigns which generate vast numbers of refugees. But since refugees are useful scapegoats, having more of them to turn away may be tacitly welcome.

[4] TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership)
Uber-right campaigners belatedly acknowledged that the proposed TTIP agreement would rob the British Parliament of its sovereign right to legislate (since under the terms of TTIP, any corporation with enough financial muscle can sue any government for passing laws that allegedly infringe on their profit-making), and argued that leaving the EU would ensure the UK is not part of the TTIP negotiated between the EU and the US. But since uber-right politicians generally favour private trade and profit over public interest legislation, it is possible that a government under their influence will come up with its own trade & investment partnership with the US, that will concede even more to big business and utterly undermine national sovereignty.

[5] Future of the NHS
Handing more, if not all, of the NHS to the private sector has been a consistent theme amongst uber-right politicians. That did not hold them back during the EU referendum campaign to claim that hundreds of millions of pounds ‘saved’ from leaving the EU would be available to invest in the NHS. Many people believed this. But instead of getting more funding support, the NHS could be heading for even more drastic cuts. When the NHS is unable to continue despite the best efforts of its staff, its wholescale dismantling will come to the top of the agenda, and private healthcare firms, having donated to parties on the right, will be invited to cherry pick the parts with the greatest profit-making potential, and leave the rest to rot.

[6] Worker Rights
Right wing politicians have long resented the EU-wide agreement to set minimum standards for protecting all workers from the worst possible terms and conditions. Without EU protection, a right wing government will be able to strip away worker rights, legislate against trade unions until they can never contest any edicts by employers, and do away with the minimum wage. When ever greater insecurity grips working people, they will be told that the problem is that there are still too many immigrants working in the UK.

[7] Social Justice
Some people are shocked that large numbers of Labour supporters voted for ‘Leave’, but they overlook the fact that many of these voters think of ‘Leave’ advocates as not standing at the uber-right end of the political spectrum, but to the left of the Labour Party. The Labour Party failed to link uber-right politicians to policies that have, for example, brought in surcharges for families with disabled members renting public housing (aka ‘Bedroom Tax’), decimated Sure Start support for children, and terminated the vital Education Maintenance Allowance for young people from low income families. The success of the ‘Leave’ campaigners is indeed bringing a change of government, but it is not a government to the left of Cameron, but one decidedly comprising many who are much further to the right of him.

[8] The Financial Sector

When the banking crisis broke out in 2008 as a direct consequence of Thatcher’s deregulation of the financial sector (compounded by Labour’s reluctance in the intervening years to bring back better controls), the Conservatives claimed that more effective regulation must be brought back. Once they were back in government, however, they held back from any substantial reform of the banks. They argued that the UK banking sector could be at a disadvantage if the UK acted alone without similar legislation being introduced across the EU. When the rest of EU agreed on limiting bankers’ bonuses, the UK Conservative Government sought to challenge that agreement in order to protect banking interests in the UK. With the UK pulling out of the EU altogether, politicians on the right can once again invoke the excuse that they could not do anything to regulate the financial sector when there would be no guarantee that EU countries would do the same. Thus another banking crisis looms.

[9] Scotland and Northern Ireland
While England and Wales voted for ‘Leave’, the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Scottish Independence Referendum was previously settled in favour of remaining with the UK on the basis that the UK would in turn remain in the EU. The prospect of the UK dragging Scotland out of the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people means that another independence referendum will almost certainly take place in Scotland, with the vote decidedly swinging towards independence this time round. As for Northern Ireland, the common EU framework it has shared with the Republic of Ireland up to now has helped normalize relations between the two nations. If Northern Ireland is to be pulled out of the EU, that will undoubtedly create serious problems. ‘Leave’ campaigners have insisted that there would be no border controls put in between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but if that were to be the case, then the whole argument about regaining the UK’s own borders would be hollow, since EU citizens could freely travel to Ireland (an EU country), and then just walk over to the Northern Ireland part of the UK.

[10] The Use of Referenda

One thing this referendum has proven is that it makes no sense to use such a device to decide highly complex political issues. To discern the pros and cons of EU membership requires expert analysis. Yet whenever there is a consensus of expert opinions on, for example, the negative economic impact of leaving the EU, they are dismissed as the voice of the establishment, or worse, accused of acting like stooges of a Nazi regime (an accusation made by Michael Gove, MP). Many people voted primarily on the basis that there were too many unwanted immigrants in the UK, and leaving the EU would deal with that problem. In a jury trial, the judge can guide the jurors, and rule out misdirection and false statements, but in a referendum on this scale, lies were perpetrated continuously, and just occasionally retracted quietly. It can only be hoped that the inherent weaknesses of referenda will become more widely known, and it does not become a handy tool for the uber-right to exploit public anger and frustration.

Whenever warnings are issued about uber-right politics, they are dismissed as exaggerations. It would never happen, we are told. Immigrants would not be demonised and blamed for every ill under the sun. Those who use immigrants as scapegoats at every turn would never go on to secure power and run the country. People would never overlook the real causes of problems in society, and simply cheer the ascendancy of the uber-right. Never say never.

Note 1: ‘Uber-right’ covers those on the radical right within the Conservative Party and those in parties to the right of the Conservatives, e.g., UKIP, all sharing the approach of cutting public services, backing military action, and blaming immigrants and multiculturalism for economic problems caused by the banking sector.

[This article was first posted on 24 June 2016, the day after the UK's referendum on its membership of the EU]


Woodman59 said...

Considerable respect as always, but a few comments.

Are we sure that "Uber" given the sense of "extreme" that goes with it, is the best term to use? If we listen to what we previously termed the 'far' or 'extreme' right, we hear that they have essentially given up any fight to NOT have a multicultural Britain. In fact they tend accept that they have effectively lost this argument, and that such a situation is now impossible. Instead, at least if Nick Griffin is anything to go by, the desire is now rather for 'white only' enclaves within a wider UK setting.They also hate Nigel Farrage as being the one who has betrayed any hope of achieving anything close to their original intention by being far too "immigration friendly"...on which position I think they are probably completely right!

Yes, of course we certainly do have to be extremely wary of all the radical right-wing tendencies that you mention. However, the answer is not to spend all our energy on suppressing those who we feel would continue the damage that has already gone on - but rather to focus much more on what would be the alternative.

Here's where I am most puzzled that you weren't more instinctively with the small but to me most impressive "Lexit" camp?

The reason for that is because isn't what has happened now the most extraordinary opportunity for communitarianism that we could ever have imagined - something that could not otherwise have been foreseen any chance of happening for generations?

I have a European parent, and could not speak English when I got here as a child. I have grown up surrounded by immigrants and have counted them as my best friends throughout my life. In short, I am a huge fan of immigration - yet I voted leave because successive governments have managed immigration so poorly that we now have this huge mess that has created huge tensions and resentment. As a consequence I have felt the downsides of immigration over the last 20 years especially, powerfully negatively impacting in my life, and that of wider society. In fact, I would say it has almost killed me - I'm hanging on by a thread, you could say. It could potentially be wonderful, I'm sure - but it can often be highly dangerous for a British national to get involved in a relationship with an immigrant. I have seen that SO many times. For example people can massively change character when they move to another culture - it can bring out huge levels of hostility that would have been held in check before.

From the Lexit side some degree of slowdown HAD to be called so that we can look carefully at what has happened to this runaway train. It will mean lots of very, very hard work to regain a sense of societal cohesion out of the current conflict and confusion.

As the main political parties are fracturing...communitarianism now has it's unexpected golden moment, and for me is the only thing that can save the day.

Could you perhaps write for us something about the subject of "integration"? It would seem to have almost become a 'dirty word' in some left wing circles...but personally, as a psychological is something we ignore at our peril. If we have as a goal the desire for integration, then this opens up the way for communitarian action. And for me, integration is a two-way necessitates wider societal transformation...the very thing the far-right (and actually have observed of many of those firmly on the left as well, in practice, despite all their liberal rhetoric) have been so frightened of all along.

Henry Benedict Tam said...

Communitarianism holds dear the principle of subsidiarity. There are things a nation can do, but just as what can be done effectively at a more local level should be left to that local level, there are things that can only be done effectively at a transnational level, and it would be unwise to refuse to engage in joint action at that level. If there is a political platform to bring about progressive changes post-Brexit, then one could be more optimistic. But at the moment, if I hear that steering the Titanic towards a giant iceberg would create an unprecedented opportunity to put an end to the obnoxious class divide on board, all I think about is that the people on the lower decks would not even get near a lifeboat.