On 23 June 2016, the electorate of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar voted to decide if the country should remain a member of, or leave, the European Union. The referendum was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment in the general election of May 2015. The Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron had made that manifesto pledge to both appease and - he expected - to defeat the right wing of his party, who wanted Britain out of the EU, bolstered by the demands of the far right party UKIP. When the Conservatives won the election, the new government established the legal basis for the referendum through the European Referendum Act 2015.
Cameron, and the Chancellor George Osborne, both backed Britain Stronger in Europe, the official group campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU, yet other senior figures in the Conservative Party, such as Boris Johnson MP and Michael Gove MP fronted Vote Leave, the official group campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. In the event, the shock win for Leave resulted in the disastrous situation facing Britain today, the enormous divisions within the Conservative Party, and the inability of the UK parliament to agree on the means of leaving the EU.
Much of the debate during the pre-referendum period was ostensibly about Britain’s economy and sovereignty, in the face of supposedly stifling ‘Brussels bureaucracy’: for the right, Brexit meant freeing Britain from the regulatory embrace of the European Union, allowing our national entrepreneurial spirit to once again reign free in the world at large; for some on the left, it was an essential first step on the path to a socialist Britain, although the significant majority of trade unionists and Labour Party members backed Remain.
Yet rapidly it became clear that the dominant – and indeed the most reactionary feature - of the campaign – was the way that all the ills of British society were laid at the door of immigration. Endless newspaper front pages told us how damaging and harmful immigrants and refugees were to the British way of life – this was the underlying message of the Leave campaign.
The fact that government policies were to blame for the shortages and cuts ascribed to migrants was disregarded, and the real economic benefits brought to our society and economy as a result of migration were airbrushed out of the referendum debate. So it was that the belief that curbing immigration would have a beneficial effect on British society gained widespread currency and this belief was the driving force behind the Leave campaign.
Even among those who supported Remain and across a broad swathe of the labour movement the view that the free movement of people is detrimental to the interests of the British working class had taken hold.
A few days before the referendum vote the leader of Unite, the largest private sector union in Britain, made his views clear. Len McCluskey, writing in The Guardian, said he was not surprised that Labour voters were concerned about immigration:
‘In the last 10 years, there has been a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers. Countries with vast historical differences in wage rates and living standards have been brought together in a common labour market … The result has been sustained pressure on living standards, a systematic attempt to hold down wages and to cut the costs of social provision for working people’.
The view that immigration and particularly free movement within the European Union has been responsible for lowering wages, diminishing social services and creating unemployment was widely held. But evidence shows that this was not actually the case. The enlargement of the EU in 2004, when 75 million people joined, did not lead to a downward pressure on wages. That took place after the crash of 2008. It is since the recession – which began with the credit crunch and the bailing out of the banks that led to the longest and deepest slump in a century – that we have seen substantial pay cuts. Allowing for inflation, average wages fell by 8 to 10 percent in the six years after the global financial crisis of 2008. Yet commentators generally didn’t mention the great crash in their analysis, so voters were left with the impression that immigration was the source of these wage cuts – whereas the reality is that wages overall rose during the period 2004-8 when there was significant large-scale EU migration. Indeed, most studies and reports show that immigration is a net contributor to the economy overall and, as far as average wages are concerned, it has a marginal impact and may actually lead to a small increase in average wages.
Clearly attitudes towards immigration prior to the referendum were not entirely shaped by lived experience. In many areas with low migration such as Wales and the North East, large sections of the working class voted Leave. This served to underline the fact that working class support for Brexit was driven primarily by economic instability – poor housing, low wages, job insecurity in areas experiencing severe social and economic deprivation – combined with the misperception that immigrants were to blame for these problems rather than government policies. Unemployment and demoralisation, together with a decline in trade union organisation in those areas, also fed an anti-immigrant narrative which was driven by the media and by the emergence and development of UKIP.
The last days of the campaign were overshadowed by the terrible killing of the Remain-supporting MP Jo Cox, her attacker shouting ‘Britain First’ – echoing the name of a far-right political party – as he fired into her face. This disastrous turn of events tragically compounded the fact that this had been the most reactionary national campaign in British political history. A new low was achieved with a UKIP campaign advert, picturing queues of refugees under the heading: ‘Breaking Point: Europe has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back our borders’. This was typical of much of the messaging and the narrative propagated by the Leave camp. If one could sum up the chief message of the Leave campaign it would be ‘Blame immigrants for everything’. As the campaign developed so the racism increased, insufficiently challenged and often fed, by the mainstream. The result was an open emergence of the extremist right.
The dominant slogans of the Leave campaign – ‘take back control’ and ‘we want our country back’ with their subtexts of insularity and nationalism and implied hostility to the workers of other European countries have had a lasting and exceptionally unpleasant impact. Since the referendum we have seen an upsurge in racism and Islamophobia, in far right street violence and in a mainstreaming of far right ideas which has been shocking in its rapidity.