London: This was not a referendum about 1973 – the year when Britain entered the European Union (EU). Nor was it a referendum about 1991 – the year when all the European Union countries agreed under the Maastricht Treaty, essentially, to expand a free trade agreement into a political and parliamentary union.
No, last night’s referendum was about 2004 – the year when the EU was expanded to include many of the ‘have not’ countries of Eastern Europe that had vastly poorer economies and societies. There was a fair amount of concern among the working class of the UK that many of the people living in these countries would simply move to Britain as soon as they had the chance. The then Labour government of Tony Blair dismissed these fears. They actually commissioned a government study that announced only 18,000 people would move from Eastern Europe to the UK because of the expansion of the EU.
To say the government was wrong is an insult to wrongness. No one knows with complete precision exactly how many millions of people came from Eastern Europe into Britain. There are countless migrants who have never registered, but last year alone 500,000 people legally came to the UK.
The immigrants have, largely, placed a strain on working class communities. If you are a poor migrant you are going to come to a poorer area of town and compete for schooling, jobs and housing. This phenomenon has been multiplied in the last 18-months by the spectacle of millions of people arriving on the shores of Greece trying to migrate to Germany or the UK.
The upper and middle-classes have, largely, loved having millions more poor labourers who will look after their plumbing, painting and children cheaper and often more effectively than the native English. This is the fundamental vote divide around the referendum: the people who have been hurt by immigration voted to Leave, the people who like immigration voted to Remain.
2) Fear backfired. In Sunderland, a strong Leave area, the bosses of the Nissan car factory a large employer in the area, were asked by the British Prime Minster David Cameron to write a letter to their workers urging them to vote for Remain. The basic sub-text was vote for Leave and our company may close down the factory.
In Bolivia, in the 2006 presidential elections there was an underdog candidate called Evo Morales. The American Ambassador gave a media interview where he essentially said, “People of Bolivia you can vote for anyone you like, except Evo Morales.” A fair number of the Bolivian electorate turned around and said, ‘Sod you! We will now vote for Evo Morales.”
The same thing happened in Sunderland. The voters effectively said, “You cannot frighten us to voting the way you want. We will vote for Leave!”
This story is a microcosm of an effect up and down Britain yesterday. The political and financial establishment told voters they had to vote a certain way (Richard Branson even videotaped a message from his tax-exile home in the British Virgin Islands urging people to vote Remain.) A segment of the electorate reacted by voting the opposite way.
3) The value of democracy. For the first time, every vote counted in an election. One of the issues of a first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy is that most people’s votes simply do not count. They are in safe seat or a region dominated by one political party. In the referendum, it did not matter where a voter lived their vote counted.
4) Ireland may kick off again. The Sein Fein – the political wing of the IRA, an organization that mounted a terrorism campaign in the UK that makes Al Queda look like a gang of boy scouts – immediately announced that they would be pressing for a referendum on whether Ireland should be one united country. In Northern Ireland those are fighting words, particularly with the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme coming up. Stay tuned for trouble.
5) Scotland may aim for another referendum. A clear majority of people across the class divide voted to stay in the European Union.
6) The left-wing Labour Party is doomed. The right-wing Tory Party will be okay. Odd considering how bitter the arguments between their leaders were; however, the Labour leaders completely misread their traditional voters. They abandoned them and it is not clear that Labour has a strategy to win them back.