On Thursday 23 June a majority of the British people voted in a referendum to Leave the European Union.For a large minority of people Friday 24 was a ‘dark day’. That is understandable to an extent – they lost a very big vote.But there was something very exaggerated about the fear. That is not surprising: the referendum campaign was dominated by fear. People had said that if we left the EU, the economy would collapse, xenophobia – if not Fascism – would take over Britain, and international peace would be at risk. But none of that has happened.
Economic Apocalypse When?
One month on, the British economy has yet to collapse. There’s a long way to go, especially in working out how Britain will trade with the world from outside the EU. And the economy has certainly wobbled in the past month, and a slip back into recession is predicted. But the economy has not melted down, nor will it. The markets bet on a Remain vote, and had to re-adjust. The pound fell in value, but it quickly settled about 9% down. That is a problem for British holidaymakers and some small companies, but it is good news for exporters. The FTSE 100 index is up 5%, while the domestically-focused FTSE 250 is down only 2%. Despite the UK losing its AAA debt rating, borrowing costs remain at an all-time low. British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline told the voters not to vote Leave, but now has just announced £275 million in investment in the UK anyway.
The referendum should make us braver when it comes to politics. For decades, we have been told that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to policies that appease global market forces. Repeated recessions, from Thatcher through New Labour to Cameron, show that deliberately appeasing the markets does not lead to stability. Conversely, voting for a big change has not caused the economic sky to fall. People should now be emboldened to vote for how they want the economy to meet their needs, not to meet the mysterious and unknowable needs of the great god ‘Economy’ – as interpreted by its economist-priests.
Is Britain racist?
The imminent danger of Britain being taken over by right-wing racists was so terrifying for many leftists that they abandoned their criticism of the anti-democratic, elite, ‘neoliberal’ European Union and backed Remain instead. Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee even warned that a Leave vote would be ‘National socialism … in the making.’
But after Brexit, the Far Right has not taken over. If Nigel Farage is a new Home Counties Hitler, he is going a funny way about it – trying to admit defeat before the referendum results were in, and then resigning as party leader a week later. Boris Johnson, always a slightly unconvincing potential Fascist leader, clearly had no idea what to do once he won the referendum and dropped out of the Conservative leadership race shortly afterwards. The British National Party and Britain First are conspicuously absent. Our new Prime Minister is a Tory arch-Blairite who was on the Remain side.
There was a 20% spike in reported hate crimes after the referendum. For some Remainers and middle-class intellectuals, this confirms their worst fears that Britain’s many racists have been unleashed by Brexit. One British journalist told an American newspaper that the white population of the UK is rotten all the way through with 1,000-year-old imperialist racism: ‘The suburbs dream of violence’. Another British intellectual wrote that ‘millions of our fellow citizens … have spent the last few decades privately muttering to themselves that Enoch had a point … There is a real darkness in this country, a xenophobic, racist sickness of heart’.
Racist abuse is terrible, inexcusable, and must be confronted and defeated. But these tasks require sober analysis to really understand the true extent of the problem – not hysterical exaggeration. If these writers were correct, we would not leave our front doors, never mind the EU.
Even if all 6,000 reported incidents of ‘hate crime’ were racist outages committed by individual Leave voters, that still leaves 17,404,742 Leave voters who have not conducted a hate crime, not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, only 0.0001% of eligible voters have perpetrated a hate crime. Presenting the data this way may seem absurd, but there is a reason why the World Values Survey routinely finds Britain to be one of the most racially tolerate societies worldwide. Indeed, a striking aspect of the popular response to these incidents is that communities have quickly rallied around victims. A 20% spike in incidents is regrettable, but is relatively small compared to the surges in racist attacks that invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Like these attacks, the referendum has not created new racists out of thin air, but rather encouraged a small, hard-core minority to come out of the woodwork. Hysterical media reportage may even have exacerbated this by leading this minority to believe its racist actions are widely supported. Similarly, a Remain result would not have made these people vanish; indeed, it might equally have prompted them to vent their anger by attacking immigrants. It would have been ridiculous if Remain voters were blamed for that. Like Leave voters, they voted on whether to leave or stay in the EU, not on whether they supported racist abuse. If the only way to avoid racist violence is not holding a referendum at all, then we allow our democracy to be held hostage by a tiny minority of racists.
Britain is far from perfect. There is undoubtedly a small minority of racist bigots, and a much broader and more deeply entrenched problem of structural/ systemic racism. But despite Remainer commentary, we are not back in the 1970s, where fascists had to be fought on the streets of London and BME citizens or residents had to fear for their lives. Nor, despite a small, despicable number of people shouting “go home!” is there serious pressure to deport migrants. On the contrary: 84% of Britons (including 77% of Leave voters) support the right of existing EU residents to remain in the UK indefinitely. However much British society is concerned by mass immigration, it remains basically tolerant of immigrants as human beings.
World War III still seems some way off
The rulers of the world threatened the voters of Britain with an end to peace if they voted the wrong way in the referendum. The British people voted to Leave the EU over a month ago, and we are still waiting for Germany to invade Poland again.
The EU is not the only barrier between us and World War III. Europe is not constantly one vote away from a return to 1939. It is 2016. Europe is very different now. We are wealthier, more interdependent, less nationalist, no longer tied to rival colonial empires, and all heavily dependent on US domination for our security, that war among European states is unthinkable.
The UK is preparing to Leave the EU without having to declare war on Europe. Theresa May is unlikely to get the best deal for Britain by reviving the Queen’s claim to the French throne and sending the army over on the Eurostar. Instead, Britain is doing what modern rich countries do with other modern rich countries – talking, arguing, negotiating and making deals.
It’s not the end of the world
There’s still an enormous amount to be done to make sure Brexit comes off well. But the referendum has shown to the people of Britain and the world that democratic political change does not have to lead to economic chaos, racism, Fascism and war.
The world has survived Britain’s referendum vote. Hopefully it can show, even to disappointed Remain voters, that we can vote to change the world, without it meaning the end of the world.