Depending on whom you speak to, the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was either a victory for democracy or a frightening reminder of stark divides in one of the world’s most globalized economies.
Brexit was an appeal, campaigned for passionately on a nationalistic platform of xenophobia, to “real people” — those disaffected by decades of rising income inequality, de-industrialization and a political culture that remains consistently at odds with the anxieties produced by widespread socioeconomic hardship.
Revelling in the victory of “leave”, U.K. Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage stood in the EU Parliament June 28, berating its members.
The “little people” had rejected “big politics,” he told grimacing members of the European Parliament. “The reason you’re so angry has been perfectly clear from all the angry exchanges this morning. You, as a political project, are in denial.”
To the “remain” camp, Farage resembles nothing more than a crass opportunist.
The former commodity broker-turned Eurosceptic champion emerged as the key figurehead of “leave,” stoking fears of migration and the fracturing of British sovereignty by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. His strident and at times racist attacks on immigrants, deplorable as they were, gassed up a powerful hysteria that saw swaths of voters turn against the postwar project of integration.
Throwing caution to the wind, they stepped together into an unknowable abyss.
Whether or not Britain leaves the EU, however, is still in question. Whomever succeeds Prime Minister David Cameron must invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formalize a lawful exit.
It is uncertain (and indeed unlikely) any Tory MP would risk their political career with such a decision. Add to this the looming chance of a general election where, with Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrat support, the Labour Party could emerge victorious and renegotiate Britain’s European membership.
But Brexit is about far more than political posturing and the rhetoric of demagogues such as Farage.
Even facing a global refugee population of 65 million, record migration and underlying concerns about changing demographics at home, the most profound challenges facing the U.K. have to do with class.
The EU referendum, after all, was an opportunity for working people to express their voice, one that has been ignored by the march of globalization and outsourcing that long ago stripped away the collectivity of labour unions and dissolved the workplaces that formed the backbone of so many communities.
In Britain today, more than 13 million people live in poverty. Around half that number are lodged in insecure, temporary and unskilled work. The former industrial heartlands of the northeast— Sunderland, Gateshead, Darlington, Durham, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough among them — all voted to leave, in most cases by a large margin. These to traditional strongholds of the Labour Party failed to succumb to, and actively resisted, the relentless warnings of “remain.”
Overheated cautions fell on deaf ears. To those with a strong distrust of Westminster and the dreaded status quo, “leave” provided a convenient outlet for antipathy to the extreme neglect of cities and towns left behind in the torrid race to the bottom.
Displacing economic grievances for patriotic notions of a return to the good old days, the downtrodden and disenfranchised were left with a choice to abandon the system, or so they were lead to believe.
The elites behind “leave” had only their own interests at heart, duping a large sector of the population to believe that by nixing half of Britain’s trade, prosperity would somehow return.
As Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn has written, this referendum has not only “widened existing political and social divisions within British society, but has ensured that these differences become more divisive and poisonous.”
The slaying of MP Jo Cox only a week before the vote was a morbid prelude. It reminded the whole of the western world of the explosiveness of nationalism and its threat to rational thought. Her death, a global tragedy, reflected the measure of anxiety within British life, now teetering on the brink of implosion.
Scholars and journalists often write about the north-south divide, a global phenomenon propelled by social, political and economic disparity. In Britain, that separation has taken on an extreme and localized form. It will take more than the sway of a single vote to resolve.
Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.
This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.