On the 23rd of June 2016 the British public voted, with an eye-wateringly slim majority of 51.9%, to leave the European Union. It seems like a lifetime ago that David Cameron’s misplaced confidence swept us into the turbulent waters of the political unknown; yet here we are 17 months later, somehow less clear on what a post-Brexit Britain will actually look like than we were back then.
This lack of tangible facts persists, incredibly, despite the near monopoly Brexit has held on news coverage in that time. Indeed, if celebrities weren’t either dying or being outed as awful sexual predators we might have talked about nothing else. With a vote on the final deal looming, it seems as good a time as ever to reflect on just how we ended up here together. It’ll be a bit like straining to remember how we ended up waking, lost and hungover, in a stranger’s bed.
Join me as I pop a paracetamol or three, pour a strong cup of coffee, and do my best to work out how shit all got so real.
It begins in 1975, as most tales of woe do, with the devil herself, Margaret Thatcher (then leader of the opposition). Her successful campaign has just kept the UK in what was then known as the European Economic Community (or EEC). We had only joined two years previously, but it remained a contentious issue throughout Prime Minister Wilson’s tenure. Back then, the Bee Gees were Jive Talkin’, Queen were just poor boys from poor families, and politicians were debating the merits of being part of what was essentially a large trade bloc. A lot has changed since then, and alongside the new acronym, the remit of the EU has expanded to include cross-border policing; free movement of goods, people and capital; the standardisation of legislation around justice, agriculture and other thrilling facets of governance.
The ‘Europe Question’ has remained a touchy subject, primarily for the right wing of the Tory party, pretty much ever since. With every power perceived as ceded to Brussels, Conservative Euroscepticism grew. It would remain a bone of contention after the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which among other developments, birthed the collective Euro currency. However, after the relative economic success presided over by (everyone’s favourite war criminal) Tony Blair, and (traitor to the cause of Scottish independence) Gordon Brown, pro-EU sentiment was in vogue once again through the new millennium’s hopeful first years.
Cue 2008 and the global financial crisis. Or, the inevitable consequences of unchecked greed among the world’s richest tumbling down on top of ordinary people. £500 billion in public money was used to bail out the very financial institutions whose recklessness had left our economy so enervated in the first place, and Average British Joe was left to tighten his average British belt. Public opinion is nothing if not grimly predictable however. Instead of blaming the suit-wearing shitebags who brought the economy down around our ears, anger turned toward European immigrants.
This was in large part due to a concerted campaign by our unabashedly right leaning press to paint them as a special kind of deplorable magician; capable of taking all the jobs and sponging off the state simultaneously. It’s true; the percentage of the Britain’s workforce comprised of non-UK natives more than doubled between 2000 and 2016 to 17%. It’s also true that their workforce participation rate is actually significantly higher than that of people born in this country. Obviously economic migrants are taking jobs. What the Daily Mail never told us, was that they were jobs British people couldn’t be arsed to do in the first place. Ironically, many industries today are gravely concerned about what will likely be a massively reduced, post-Brexit labour pool.
Leader of the right wing UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage (and the world’s only recorded, openly fascist stoat) isn’t the sort to let facts get in the way of a good old-fashioned ideological agenda however. Despite being ‘educated’ at Dulwich College (one of most prestigious schools in Britain, where staff attempted to prevent him from becoming a prefect due to his publicly professed racism), he has built his political career by stirring up anti-immigration and anti-establishment sentiment with depressing effectiveness. This climate of increasing xenophobia has proven fertile ground for his brand of anti-EU populism. Combined with a disproportionately massive degree of media coverage of his pint swilling, “I’m not racist, I just say what people really think” shtick, he took UKIP’s share of the vote from 3% to 12% between 2010 and 2015.
The Tory Party took the 2015 election with a slim twelve seat majority, leaving Prime Minister (and shiny, misshapen sausage casing) David Cameron in a perilous position. Redoubled backbench Euroscepticism and a string of defections to UKIP in protest of his lack of action on immigration made his grip on power shaky at best. It was time to end the ‘Europe Question’ once and for all, and in February, after a short period of renegotiation in which he actually won a few small policy concessions from Brussels, Dave felt confident enough to call a referendum he thought he couldn’t lose.
Spoiler warning: He did lose. But that, my friends, is a tale for another day and another part of this… Brex-trospecive…? Next time we’ll be taking a look at the campaigns and all their pledges, rhetoric and lies, the vote itself, and what the results mean for the UK today. I’ll see you there. If the world hasn’t ended before then, obviously.