The Greek poet C. P. Cavafy’s 1898 poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, stands as one of the greatest examples of modern European poetry. It tells the story of an ancient city-state whose citizens wait for the barbarians to whom they owe tribute to arrive. We hear of the senators of the city dressing up in their finery. Learned men prepare impressive documents to pass to the leaders of these craven hordes for their inspection.
The barbarians, we come to realise, are truly feared. They rule, though from afar, with an iron fist nonetheless; they impose their will by force and by threat. This is why the city’s law-makers sit around idle as they wait for the barbarians to arrive — as Cavafy reminds us, the barbarians will do the legislating.
Going by the rhetoric emerging from what became known as the Brexit camp over recent months, the European Union is to many British people what the barbarians were to Cavafy’s ancients. They too do our legislating for us, forcing on the British people directives and laws whose relevance to the British experience is (so the reasoning goes) minimal, and which interfere with our ability to make our own sovereign laws. They demand tribute, too, in the way of monies paid into the EU budget.
Barbarians the suited politicos of Brussels may not be, but there are barbarian hordes marauding all across Europe, as the populist media has repeatedly reminded us, in the form of immigrants: Poles, Romanians, Turks, and any number of others, arriving in a constant stream at Dover and Heathrow to take advantage of Britain’s relatively generous welfare system and our free healthcare, and taking our jobs and probably our women, too. Such are the stories that have been fed to the British electorate since the referendum poll held last month was announced back in 2015.
The biggest irony is that the referendum did not have to be held at all. Since Britain first entered what would become the European Union in 1973, every Conservative leader has had to deal with the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, a faction to the right of the party’s centre with the aim of getting Britain out of Europe once and for all, and David Cameron was no different. But the Eurosceptics were kept in check for most of Cameron’s first term because of the Conservatives’ relative weakness; the largest party in a hung Parliament, they could only govern as part of a coalition with the help of the Liberal Democrats, a pro-EU party. Fearful of upsetting a very precarious applecart, the Europe issue was shelved.
In the 2015 general election, Cameron’s Conservatives won a small outright majority. Suddenly the ‘in/out’ question gained new relevance. In a bid to quell the increasing sense of rebelliousness in his party, Cameron gambled: he promised the Eurosceptics a referendum on leaving the EU. Probably he had the experience of 2014’s Scottish independence poll in his mind when he did so. After decades of incremental progress, the independentist Scottish National Party (SNP) gained power in the Scottish Parliament in 2007, and immediately began pushing for an independence referendum — ‘Nat heaven in 2011’, as the slogan ran.
It took a little longer than that for the then Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to browbeat a recalcitrant Cameron into agreeing, but, betting that the opinion polls showing consistent support for staying in Britain among Scottish voters would win the day, Cameron eventually called the SNP’s bluff, and was proved right — though he was given an almighty scare in the process when the pro-independence camp polled a massive 45 percent on the day, revealing a Scotland split down the middle by the vote.
This time, Cameron was not so lucky, and he has paid for it with his career. Just over a fortnight ago, 52 percent of those who voted chose to leave the EU — a majority of over one million people.
Why? Who in their right minds thought it would be a good idea for the UK to leave the largest trading bloc on the planet? Who thought it would behove the UK to make political enemies of the 27 countries right next door to it?
As has been recounted time and again since, this storm had been brewing for a while. The neglect of the poorer strata of British society is nothing new, but when the Great Recession began in 2008, the poor were hit extremely hard, and have had little to cheer them during what amounted, pace the Government’s cleverly massaged unemployment figures, not to a jobless recovery perhaps, but to a labour market with few prospects for blue-collar workers. Real GDP growth in the UK fell sharply in 2008-09 and flatlined for most of the following half-decade, and at the same time, unemployment rose to around eight percent, and stayed at that level during the same period before slowly falling from 2013 onward.
However, the emergence and massive popularity among employers of poorly paid, zero-hours contracts during this period has left many in the service industry in particular reliant on the vicissitudes of high street spending and transient investment, while wages have fallen in real terms. While the so-called ‘gig economy’ may indeed be the wave of the future, the only people who are likely to thrive on it are the well-connected, technologically literate digital nomads of Britain’s larger conurbations. For everyone else, it will be a perpetual free-for-all, meandering from one ‘gig’ to the next, all remaining notions of job security a thing of the past.
The Conservatives’ slashing of public spending as a result of their ‘austerity’ budgets have done nothing to obviate these problems, but challenges to their position have been rare and half-hearted due to an ineffective left. With a Labour party still hungover from Tony Blair’s chequered prime ministership and a Liberal Democrat party that suffered an almost complete electoral wipeout in 2015 — widely seen as payback for five years of enabling the Tories’ economic agenda — the result has been that the Conservatives have been spared from paying the price at the polls.
Rather, there has been a swing to the right over the past half-decade or so. The Conservatives have been beneficiaries, but so have the UK Independence Party, a party well to the right of centre campaigning on an anti-EU platform who gained their first Members of Parliament in 2015. UKIP would go on to form a cornerstone of this year’s Brexit campaign, ensuring that the immigration agenda remained at the forefront of public debate and that their leader, the clean-suited, outwardly respectable Nigel Farage, claimed the headlines with superficially plausible claims about national sovereignty and the need to police the UK’s borders more effectively.
UKIP’s pungent brand of anti-politics chimes with those who have had one too many kicks from the UK’s straitened economic circumstances and a political system more or less designed to ensure their voices are not heard; hence, their extraordinary performance at the 2015 General Election, in which they quadrupled their support, winning 3.8 million votes from people tired of the Conservatives’ austerity policies and weak handling of the European question. Their sudden rise from being a fringe populist right-wing party to one with bona fide electoral credentials brought respectability, and it cannot be doubted that they brought a significant number of those who voted for them into the ‘leave’ camp.
Yet it is not so much the urge to give the Government a thrashing over living standards that led to victory for the Brexiteers. The easy manipulation of a populist right-wing press by Brexit’s backers meant that the clinical, unanswerable arguments offered by the ‘remain’ camp were shouted down in a paroxysm of fury over immigration.
On paper, the ‘remain’ camp had by far the more formidable arguments, the most compelling of which was the likelihood that Brexit would be disastrous for British business. Almost all of Britain’s leading economists spoke out against Brexit; ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ could almost have been the ‘remain’ campaign’s catchphrase.
It didn’t matter in the end, though, because no-one listened. One commentator remarked the day after the vote that Britain was now a post-fact democracy, because during the campaign, the propaganda of the right trumped all. Aaron Banks, a businessman who bankrolled one of the more prominent pro-leave campaigns, boasted in the days following the vote that a group of American political advisors hired to co-ordinate the group’s message told them early in the campaign that facts ‘don’t work’. Thus, all semblances of balanced debate were suppressed, talk of the economic consequences was absent, and we were regaled with story after story about illegal immigration instead.
Perhaps the most preposterous promise made by the ‘leave’ camp was that in the event of a leave vote, £350 million a week would be pumped into the ailing National Health Service — the size of Britain’s contribution to the EU budget. That must have gained a few hundred thousand votes on its own, not least among the 1.3 million people who constitute the NHS’s workforce; but not only was the promise disowned by Brexiteers within hours of the vote, it was never deliverable in the first place. The figure failed to take into account Britain’s substantial EU rebate, as well as various other mechanisms by which the country receives money from the EU.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies put Britain’s net contribution to the EU at around half the stated figure. But people believed the Brexiteers’ claim because the ‘leave’ campaign declared open season on experts, statisticians, and academics — in short, on those in possession of the facts. An Ipsos MORI poll held in mid-June showed that 47 percent of those who had heard about the NHS claim believed it, in spite of the fact it had been comprehensively debunked by multiple authorities; just 39 percent knew it to be a falsehood. Michael Gove, a Tory Eurosceptic who spearheaded the ‘leave’ campaign, set the tone in early June when he claimed that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.
It is difficult not to be appalled at the moral bankruptcy of that statement. Anyone with even the thinnest knowledge of modern history knows where such sentiment leads: to the distrust of intellectuals and academics — and their work, on which so much public policy finds a secure foundation — as out of touch or irrelevant; to the replacement of legitimate political debate by recourse to popular mandates far more easily secured by a complicit press; to the elbowing to one side (or outright persecution) of dissenters, on both the left and the right; to the scapegoating of the vulnerable and the minority when such policies as are implemented fail to deliver on their promise; to the burning of property and the breaking of windows — and God knows what else. The deposition of the ‘experts’ is the thin end of the wedge. Get rid of the reasoned, informed consensus of ‘experts’, and there’ll be only groupthink — or mob rule — to put in its place.
But for every voter that was hoodwinked by such promises, others voted for Brexit out of jingoistic patriotism — the ‘Little Englander’ mentality — or a desire for change, no matter what form it took, because things couldn’t get any worse. For all that the ‘remain’ camp have been castigated for playing the racism card once too often during the campaign, the brutal truth is that the ‘leave’ camp was a broad church in the most negative sense, with the far right overwhelmingly voting for Brexit.
The leading lights of the ‘leave’ campaign — mostly Eurosceptic Tories — spoke out against racist sentiment, but with nowhere near enough conviction or determination to make any difference. Even those that did were reluctant to call a spade a spade, and pandered to the pro-Brexit newspapers, preferring to describe, say, the poster Nigel Farage unveiled in the days before the vote (of a long line of immigrants queueing up to gain entry to a UK already full, with the tagline ‘Breaking Point’ in bold lettering) as regrettable or disgusting, when ‘fascist’ would have been a better description.
Now the UK– the solidly multicultural UK, itself an amalgamation of four separate national cultures, three Celtic, one Anglo-Saxon; a state whose capital city’s mayor is a Muslim; a country where the peculiar but tasty hybrid known as chicken tikka masala has as good a claim to be the national dish as fish and chips — reaps the whirlwind. Those with racist tendencies have taken the Brexit vote as a green light to air them in public. Hence, the more than 500 percent increase in racially motivated attacks in the days after the vote; hence, the racist graffiti and the anonymous, expletive-filled missives put through the letterboxes of racial minorities; hence, the stories bandied about in the leftist and the suddenly chastened centre right press about the children of immigrants arriving home from school in tears, having been told that they’ll ‘have to go home’ by peers too ignorant to know any better. Anecdotage! scream the Brexit apologists; but statistics on the reporting of racist incidents from the National Police Chiefs Council bear them out.
Meanwhile, the political and economic consequences of the Brexit vote are already in evidence. The pound went into freefall against the Euro and dollar within hours of news of the Brexit vote and continues to perform exceptionally poorly, reaching lows not seen since the mid-’80s in early July while the performance of the stock markets has given a new meaning to the word ‘turbulent’. Within a week of the vote, several leading credit agencies cut the UK’s credit rating, and it was shortly reported that so much value had been wiped off the British economy’s balance sheet that it had slipped from being the fifth largest economy in the world — behind only the US, China, Japan and Germany — to the sixth largest, having been overtaken at the end of June by France.
Most grievously for the Brexiteers, the United Kingdom itself is now looking exceptionally fragile. How ironic it is that the historical drama Outlander is more popular than ever — not since Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ’45 has the United Kingdom looked in so much danger of breaking apart. For Scotland voted a massive 62 percent to 38 percent in favour of remaining in the EU, and since the vote results were announced, the Scottish press, including even several newspapers that were staunchly pro-UK during the 2014 independence referendum, are now clamouring to break away from the UK in order to reapply for admission to the EU after becoming independent.
Indeed, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon went on a well-publicised fact-finding mission to Brussels the week after the vote, and although she got short shrift from the Spanish in particular — who are, after all, facing a challenge from Catalonia, in which a strong independence movement has gained traction in recent years — several European governments were far more sympathetic. The smart money is on a second Scottish independence referendum within the next five years. If it returns a yes vote, the Brexit issue will cease to obtain. One entity can’t leave a second entity if the first entity doesn’t exist.
The Brexiteers cannot say they weren’t warned. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major was interviewed on the BBC in the weeks leading up to the vote predicting exactly this outcome if the ‘leave’ camp prevailed. In Northern Ireland, where the ‘remain’ camp also won the day, talk has been of a reunification with the Republic of Ireland — a fraught option with uncertain consequences. As former British ambassador to the US Christopher Meyer has pointed out, that outcome would leave the United Kingdom reduced to just two countries: England and Wales.
Yet, even in Wales, the Celtic nation with the most lukewarm attitude towards independence, the leader of the principal opposition party in the Welsh Assembly, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, has spoken in recent days of putting the issue back on the table, and on the weekend of 2 July, for the first time in many years, pro-independence rallies were staged in Cardiff and Caernarfon, attracting thousands. A nationwide poll held the following week asked Welsh citizens if they would back Welsh independence if it meant Wales could stay in the EU. So, 35 percent of those who expressed a preference supported the option — up from a minuscule three percent in 2014, and the strongest pro-independence polling in a decade. With a referendum on increasing Wales’ executive powers likely in the next few years, Welsh nationalists have all to play for.
For those who voted to remain, the gruesome spectacle now being played out across the front pages of the British newspapers is no comfort. Now that the EU monster has been slain, one by one, the leading Brexiteers are finding that the first rule of assassination is to kill the assassins. Boris Johnson, all but a shoe-in to be the next Prime Minster as recently as the last week of June, ruled himself out of the running to replace Cameron the week after the Brexit vote in a shock announcement. The inference is obvious: Johnson, whose penchant for risk-taking is well known, backed Brexit in order to position himself as the leader of a valiant but defeated campaign ahead of a challenge to the leadership of David Cameron. Doing so would secure at a stroke the Eurosceptic right as well as a large chunk of the electorate.
What he could not foresee is that the ‘leave’ campaign would be a success. How chastening it was to see this unashamed careerist, this boisterous, ruthless, unapologetic figure, make the meekest and most subdued speech of his life on the Friday morning after the poll, in contrast with the chest-beating, jeering pronouncements of Farage. Johnson then disappeared over the weekend, unwilling to face up to the fact that he had gambled away the British nation’s secure geopolitical position for personal advancement, fiddling while the London political establishment burned. (In fact, he was reported to have spent the weekend playing cricket.)
Johnson’s fellow Brexit leader Michael Gove has already followed suit into the political backwaters. Having repeatedly declared how disinterested he was in the leadership, shortly after Cameron’s resignation speech Gove put his name forward as a successor — and was promptly eliminated from the race behind Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. The last of the three most prominent Brexiteers, Nigel Farage, has also left office, resigning as leader of UKIP so that he could, as he put it, ‘get his life back’.
The supreme irony of all three public faces of the ‘leave’ camp abandoning the campaign after gaining the victory would be funny, were it not for what it indicates: that neither Johnson, Gove, nor Farage have any idea how to implement Brexit. As the economic fallout drifts in their direction, they scurry for cover, preferring instead to castigate Cameron for failing to sketch out the roadmap to a destination they wanted to go to.
Those hoping his successor as heir apparent to the Conservative throne will, to use John Kerry’s phrase, walk back the referendum result will be disappointed. Most of those in the race for the Tory leadership are avid Brexiteers. The most moderate of them all, Home Secretary Theresa May, was weakly pro-remain in May and June, but has promised if made Prime Minister to put a Brexiteer in charge of negotiations with Brussels whenever they should begin.
If May does indeed become the UK’s next Prime Minister as the pollsters suggest, she will have the roughest of rough rides. She will be faced with a restive Conservative party, a bevy of belligerent Celtic countries at home, a hostile European Union led by an unforgiving France and Germany on the continent, and a world wondering how it was that the Brits decided to turn their backs on their European allies, pursue isolationism in the era of the global economy, and pin a sign reading ‘Kick Me’ on the rears of their foremost economic establishments. Even if she succeeds in threading needle after needle with exquisite precision in the economic and political spheres, she will need several large strokes of luck if she is not to preside over the final years of one of the oldest democracies in Europe.
Does any Brexiteer really believe that the outcome of the pending tortuous trade negotiations that will be needed with every single one of the European Union countries, each of which is currently brimming with resentment towards the UK, will be positive? Do they really think that, for the rest of the world, trade with the UK is a case of ‘business as usual’? After all, part of the attraction of the UK for investors is its inherent political stability; for decades it has been viewed as a ‘safe bet’.
That reputation now lies in ruins. The pound momentarily stabilised against the dollar at around $1.33 in the first week of July, down from a high of $1.50 just before the Brexit vote. Since then, however, it has fallen further, and at the time of writing, the rate was hovering at around $1.29, the lowest since 1985, and some commentators are forecasting parity in the coming months. The FTSE 100 index has surged in the past fortnight, a fact that led to crowing banner headlines in the pro-Brexit newspapers of a ‘Brexit boom’ — a cast-iron case of intellectual dishonesty if ever there was one, as any freshman economics student will know, because the index is being mechanically inflated by the sudden devaluation of the pound.
The most ominous signs of all are the rumblings of discontent from big businesses based in the UK, huge numbers of which supported the ‘remain’ campaign, and are looking to relocate to mainland Europe or elsewhere. Theresa May, if indeed she does become Prime Minister, will have to deal with all of these problems.
Worst of all, Cameron’s successor, whoever it may be, will have to do so without that ace in the pack that so many Tory Prime Ministers have fallen back on in times of trouble. They will no longer be able to have the Conservative Party blame Europe for Britain’s woes, be they economic, social, or otherwise. Lest we forget, Cavafy’s poem ends on a peculiar note. Having spent all day waiting for the barbarians to arrive, the citizens of the city find that they are nowhere to be found. ‘What will become of us without the barbarians?’ they ask each other in puzzlement. ‘They were a kind of solution.’