In the ocean of Brexit analysis, here is my drop. I am going to oversimplify and stereotype and generalise all at once by saying the very obvious thing: Britain doing what Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch and Boris Johnson wanted isn’t just about an anti-immigration xenophobia agenda, although it is related to that. No, the Brexit is a symptom of the mass anxiety felt by the people who were once considered the working class, and are now not sure what they are except anxious and scared all the time.
These are the people who feel left behind by globalisation, over-priced, not able to compete, not sure what their futures hold, wishing they could go back to the safe-old-days when they had jobs in manufacturing and coal mines and could work in the same company for 40 years and retire on a comfortable pension. This is what Brexit is about. Such anxiety and fear is very easy to stoke because it’s there, living inside people, all the time. Casualized jobs. No job security. Offshoring of manufacturing. A hollowing out of social services which used to catch people from falling. And a government who constantly tells them their anxiety is all their fault. If they can’t make-good in a capitalist, free market, globalised world, they’re told, the problem is with them. Not the government who refuses to implement policies which ensure the wealth created by globalization is shared fairly and equally amongst everyone who contributes. No, the problem is with those losing out, whose wages haven’t grown at the same rate as the profits, who feel a deep-seated resentment towards ‘the system’ which has left them behind. It’s no wonder they’re resentful.
This anxiety and fear is also very easy to transfer onto easy targets. To some, the villain is symbolised by free trade agreements, fears of world government and unelected EU officials. To others, and I would suggest many, this anxiety is encapsulated by immigration; the faces of the newly-arrived families in their towns are representative of their loss of confidence, of the death of the good old days, the end of the stable, comfortable Britain they grew up in. No matter whether life was better back then or not (and for most, it wasn’t), when resentful, anxious and fearful people see their communities becoming increasingly multi-cultural, it’s incredibly easy to blame those who don’t look like them for every problem they perceive as being caused by a globalised world. So they want these people gone. They think with them gone their anxiety will subside. They’re wrong. The real villains aren’t the immigrants next door. The real villain is an economic system which advantages the rich at the expense of the poor.
Frustratingly, bitterness and resentment make people vulnerable to fear campaigns. What Murdoch, Farage and Johnson didn’t mention was that the Brexit is predicted to make the UK’s economic situation worse by reducing the value of the Pound, thereby decreasing savings, cutting the value of pensions and possibly causing a deep recession and massive job losses. I’m sad for the UK today because I think they’ve made a bad decision. I’m sad for those who voted not to leave, and for those who wanted out. I don’t think anyone wins from this situation and everyone will likely live to regret it.
But this is not the UK’s problem alone. The same resentment, fear and anxiety account in large part for Trump’s popularity. Trump is also promising to tear up free-trade deals, to put up tariffs and to not just metaphorically, but literally build a wall to keep immigration and globalisation out.
The same phenomenon accounts for working-class, manufacturing towns like Whyalla in South Australia madly swinging their vote behind the pox-on-both-the-major-parties local Xenophon candidate. They feel the system has let them down; they don’t trust either Labor or Liberal to fix it, and somehow they think an outsider, anyone else, something else, will.
But how do you ‘fix’ globalisation? You can’t unscramble an egg. You can’t go back in time, and by the way back in time our living standards were worse, but of course everyone remembers the best bits of the past. If people feel left behind by a changing world, the only answer is to support policies which reduce inequality, to ensure globalisation’s spoils aren’t massively disproportionally shared only with the rich.
Bill Shorten this afternoon said the Brexit result proves that Australia needs inclusive growth in order to avoid the type of disenfranchisement experienced in the UK. Inclusive growth means policies such as Labor’s investment in education, healthcare, a social safety net and infrastructure spending to make Australia competitive with the world economy. Did I mention there’s an election next week? Let’s make a smarter choice than the UK.