The Tragedy of Brexit

In Thursday’s Brexit referendum, Britain decided its fate. But what will that fate be?

Jane Miller

Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation after 52% of voters approved the controversial "Brexit." (Moritz Hager/ Flickr / Creative Commons).

We’re in a mess. You’ll have noticed, and may have felt There but for the grace of…” We’ve voted ourselves out of Europe, our main political parties are riven and in disarray, and the Prime Minister has resigned.

Both have looked sheepish and uneasy since their triumph, just as Shakespeare’s conspirators did after the deed, as if they’d never thought their campaign would succeed and are now wishing it hadn’t.

It began from a simple mistake. David Cameron promised a referendum to pacify his yelping right-wingers when he thought there’d be a coalition after the 2015 General Election and he wouldn’t have to go through with a referendum. Neither Boris Johnson nor Michael Gove, ostensibly Cameron’s friends and colleagues, had publicly declared their Brexit intentions at that point. Cameron must have thought he could defeat Nigel Farage’s UKIP Party along with his Tory tormentors, and could count on the Labour Party to back him. Now he’s resigned, and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, has been deserted by more than half his shadow cabinet. He’s refusing to quit and there’s talk of the Labour Party splitting.

It’s impossible not to see Johnson and Gove as Brutus and Cassius, envious conspirators with grudges. Boris has competed with Cameron from their Eton school days through Oxford and into their political careers: his as lovable buffoon. Gove can’t have forgiven his friend Cameron for sacking him as Education Secretary in 2014. Both have looked sheepish and uneasy since their triumph, just as Shakespeare’s conspirators did after the deed, as if they’d never thought their campaign would succeed and are now wishing it hadn’t.

What began and even remained an internal Tory party battle has exploited — cynically and destructively — real divisions. Divisions between North and South, between the affluent and the poor, between the powerful and the powerless and between the old and the young — all have been used and magnified by the referendum. Seething anger, provoked by the shrunken state, by reductions in welfare, by low pay and austerity generally, and by the ever more obvious manifestations of inequality and unfairness, has been encouraged and simplified by blaming everything on the EU. Both campaigns relied on wild speculation and untruths, but Brexit lies went down better: that our sovereignty is undermined, that the EU is run by bureaucrats rather than elected members, that immigration from EU countries was preventing immigration from Commonwealth countries, that it was immigrants’ pressure on public services rather than cuts that was undermining schools, hospitals, even prisons. Most of this is nonsense, and interestingly, the most vociferous objections to immigration are expressed by those least exposed to it.

Events are moving so fast it’s hard to keep up. The pound is at its lowest ebb for 31 years and markets everywhere are in turmoil. It will take time to replace the prime minister, and until he’s replaced it’s impossible to trigger Article 50,” which is essential for starting the process of leaving the EU. Meanwhile, Scotland is threatening to try again for Independence, and the two Irelands are preparing for a return to border trouble and violence.

Last year’s election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader put Labour supporters against their members of parliament. In parts of the country that have suffered most from the decline in manufacturing industry, in mining and shipping and fishing, for instance, there has been a turning away from the Labour Party and a collapse of the Unions. Now Corbyn is charged with running a lacklustre” campaign, a handy pretext, possibly, for getting rid of him anyway. There is still no obvious alternative leader for a party still reeling from the murder of the young, charismatic Jo Cox, who has come to embody a stillborn hopefulness. The media haven’t helped by focussing on conflict rather than facts and informed adjudication among the lies. The very few Labour Brexiters got far more air time than their duller pro-Europe MPs.

The country is in a state of dismay, confusion and, yes, grief. It reminds my generation of Munich, our 1938 appeasement moment, which we were at least able to overturn. We have cut ourselves off from an organisation that has helped to keep the peace in Europe for nearly 70 years and we’ve done so when the West most needs to collaborate. There are serious as well as silly discussions going on about the legal possibilities of a reversal or an immediate general election. None seem convincing, though millions are signing petitions in their favour. The millions who voted for Brexit will be disappointed. Immigration will barely go down, and may rise in the weeks ahead. Much worse, all that money that was to be reclaimed from Brussels and spent on the National Health and other things absolutely won’t be coming their way. And rather than a repentant Brutus as Prime Minister, we may find ourselves with Coco the Clown.

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Jane Miller lives in London, and is the author, most recently, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts (2016), a collection of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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