This article originally appeared on VICE UK
If you are from some other part of the world, a part of the world that may know Britain best as the place whose most famous resident is an unelected 90-year-old woman who lives in many palaces and whose main crew is a pack of small dogs, you might be wondering what the fuck is going on right now. Just over a week ago, the people of my country narrowly voted to leave the European Union, a decision that has turned our lives into a 24-hour rolling news channel that deals in a bewildering concoction of fear, despair, joy, gossip, patriotism, xenophobia, and sheer confusion.
No one—including the politicians who masterminded this leap into the unknown—knows what is going to happen. For decades, the European Union was a fringe issue in British politics. But it was also a constant source of infighting in the Conservative party and so Prime Minister David Cameron, a man equal parts Patrick Bateman and Downton Abbey, promised this referendum thinking—as most people did—he’d win it, shut up the anti-Europe crowd, and set about building his legacy.
Instead, he opened Pandora’s box and out came over three decades of rage. Rage at a political establishment that has ignored and derided a large swathe of its voters, rage at the way globalization has benefitted some but left others behind, rage at the changing social, and economic fabric of Britain and yes, rage in some quarters of the population at people deemed not to be British.
David Cameron’s legacy will be this: entitled, managerial member of the ruling class who subjected his people to a series of brutal economic policies, gambled on his country’s membership of the EU and lost, leading to years of uncertainty and the possible break up of the union between England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. In voting to leave the European Union, many voters were also voting to kick their prime minister in the balls.
Why did they do it? The concerns of dispossessed working class Britons, old-fashioned conservatives, the elderly and isolationists seem to have driven the Brexit vote. In the end, these overcame the interests of the political and economic establishment, the young, black, and ethnic minority voters and the cosmopolitan urban population. Through it all, the press’s love of inflammatory lying fed the shit show of a campaign, which saw the relentless hurling of fear at a furious, perplexed population from both sides.
The country is now clearly divided by region. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London voted to remain. The rest of the country voted to leave. The Scottish National Party will use Brexit as a pretext for another referendum on Scottish independence. Their leader Nicola Sturgeon, the kind of smart woman a middle-aged American would fall in love with in a Hollywood film about a man whose midlife crisis leads him to go in search of the Loch Ness monster (But what he found was love), has come out of this looking very statesperson-like. In Northern Ireland, the EU was a key component in the uneasy peace between Irish republicans and Ulster loyalists. Things are looking a little uncertain there now.
The multi-cultural metropolis of London is now, more clearly than ever, a place apart. It stands in stark contrast to the parts of Britain Margaret Thatcher waged war on in the 1980s, and which have not been given a new purpose. Across much of the north of England, parts of Wales, and along the English east coast, unemployment is high. Skilled work is scarce. What little money that comes into these areas comes from the EU but there is a feeling among many who live there that immigration has driven wages down and that leaving the EU will be a way of “taking our country back,” or “taking control,” a slogan used by the Leave campaign. Welfare cuts have hit people hard. Inequality gets ever worse: as in much of the capitalist west, workers haven’t had this small a share of the UK’s economic growth since World War Two.
Analysis of the Brexit vote reveals an interesting alliance between working class Britons in former industrial heartlands and affluent conservatives from the countryside. Working class Leave voters wanted to put two fingers up at the economic establishment. Affluent Leave voters wanted to put two fingers up at the cultural establishment.
While 63 percent of Labour supporters voted to remain in the EU, a large swathe of the party’s politicians are now attempting to overthrow leader Jeremy Corbyn, who they deride as an incompetent, sandal-wearing, socialist fantasist. For their part, Corbyn supporters see the coup-plotters as a bunch of, automaton careerist babies with expensive media training, unable to accept that their leader has huge support in the party grassroots.
The Conservative party are doing something similar, with knives being plunged into backs wherever you turn. You may remember Boris Johnson as the lovable clown-mayor stuck on a zip-wire during the 2012 Olympics. He’s taken on a more sinister persona as he backed the Leave campaign seemingly so he could take over the Tory party. He did this only to have his shot at the leadership ruined by his former ally Michael Gove, a sort of strange puppet man who surprisingly seems to be the most Machiavellian politician in the UK right now.
Scarcely a minute passes without the news of some new betrayal or resignation. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party—basically the UK’s Tea Party—which can be partly credited with forcing the referendum to happen, resigned today. Oh, I forgot to mention, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned—the news has been so seismic that it feels like a footnote. All the people who caused the referendum seem to want to quit now.
Thousands of jokes about British politics being like Game of Thrones are made on social media every minute. Thousands of jokes about British politics being like The Thick of It—the TV show about British politics that spawned In the Loop—are made on social media every minute.
It would all be too much if it weren’t also so serious. Xenophobia is on the rise and the far-right is emboldened. There is no plan in place for the future and right now Britain is still actually in the EU. We’ve always been an island that prided ourselves on our difference, we have taken that difference and turned it inward, imagining that our specialness was under assault from those beyond our shores. No longer an empire, Britain longs for a past that was far more terrible than it realizes. In the grip of post-colonial melancholia, with much of its population given little to hope for, it imagines that the enemy lies across the channel in Europe. But the enemy, as always, is right here.
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