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Delivering Brexit Won’t Stem Anger At Establishment

The referendum of 2016 offered up a very simple choice to the people of the UK: should we remain in, or leave, the European Union (EU). The referendum succeeded in attracting people to the polling stations in numbers not seen in the UK for almost 25 years as 72.2 per cent of the population participated in the vote. Sadly such enthusiasm for the ballot box may well be short-lived as the chaos, confusion and uncertainty has meant that many people are now more disappointed and disillusioned with the political classes then ever before.

Gone is the resounding consensus across parliament that drove the referendum in the first place, when 544 MPs voted for the referendum and only 53 against. As realities have dawned, and evidence as to what leaving the EU could actually mean have started to haphazardly emerge, many who were once vocal about leaving and the benefits for the UK are now much less keen to voice their blasé claims for no job losses or millions of pounds of extra revenue for public services or the NHS.

Our elected representatives are now as divided as the rest of the country as critical votes, which will determine all of our futures, are won and lost by strikingly low margins. All the while, the county’s future rests on a knife-edge and an increasingly frustrated public look on in despair as MPs fail to deliver consensus, certainty or stability in any direction.

There has been much focus, perhaps understandably, on the results of the referendum and questions as to why people voted one way or another have led to much division, as well as recriminations and blame. Some of that discussion has focussed on segments of the working class who reside in deprived communities and who, quite rightly, feel that they have for a very long time been locked out of the benefits of neoliberal capitalism.

Many people living in deindustrialised communities, such of parts of Teesside, where I have done much of my own research, have for a long time been all too well aware of the disconnect between their lives and the lives of those who inhabit the corridors of Westminster.  

Over a decade of austerity politics have, in addition, hit such communities and people very hard indeed and many, quite rightly feel anger at their lack of access to decent jobs and wider opportunities.

There is no question that, for some, it was this anger that drove them to the ballot boxes, when many had avoided polling stations for years, and prompted them to vote to leave the EU.

Despite some of the claims of ignorance and racism that play on long-stranding stereotypes and stigmatising narratives about the working class, many were driven by a hope that life would indeed get better if we left the EU. It was perhaps not unreasonable to think so given the - what we now know to be - false promises made by the leave campaign that promised millions of extra pounds sloshing around in the public purse once we left the EU.

But this line of thinking overlooks an important fact. It is our own government’s policies that have the biggest impact on the life conditions of the citizens of our country. The UK has some of the highest rates of poverty, low paid work and insecure employment contracts than anywhere in Europe. We lag behind many of our European counterparts on many important issues, such as cancer diagnosis and treatment and educational attainment.

Since the 1970s the UK has followed policy agendas that increase inequality and make life harder for those on low incomes. The UN Rapporteur for extreme poverty visited the UK in November 2018 and highlighted the shocking extent of poverty across the UK. 

It is almost certain that withdrawal from the EU will do nothing to alter this direction of travel or to stem to the rising tide of poverty and destitution in our country. In all likelihood it will make matters worse. So if we want to understand what is going wrong in the UK we would do better to turn our heads towards Westminster than seeking answers from Brussels.

No matter the confusion and rhetoric that dogged the referendum campaign, it was clearly lacking clarity and honesty around one fundamentally important fact: that leaving the EU was never going to be a straightforward process or one that could, without question, readily deliver up positive changes for the citizens of the UK.

As debates have ensued and the government itself has been forced to rapidly gather some sort of evidence on what leaving the EU might mean most MP’s now seem to accept that the cost / benefit equation of the UK being a member of the EU was much more complex than many had understood.

The process was inevitably going to be complex. The seemingly benign offer of the possibility to leave the EU that appeared on the ballot paper seems, with hindsight, to sit uneasily with the subsequent chaos, insecurity and uncertainty that has followed and is already having very real impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.

So rather than picking over the whys and wherefores of who voted what and why (notwithstanding, of course, that such questions are very interesting) we should perhaps be talking more about the role our elected representatives have played in this whole process and in particular, in bringing forward a referendum that was devoid of any substance as to what was at stake.

Responsibility for the fact that the electorate were not better informed before they entered the ballot box lies with our house of representatives along with both sides of the referendum campaign who were embarrassingly ill informed on so many levels.

The electorate turned out to vote in their droves. For many of those who voted leave, they feel justifiably angry, if not furious, and their views have often hardened. Who can blame them? They voted in good faith on what appeared to be a very clear and simple choice; that the UK would leave the EU. 

The political classes who orchestrated that choice have, thus far, been unable deliver. So the last two and a half years have seen Theresa May and her ministers grappling not just with getting to grips with what leaving the EU necessarily involves and what the consequences for our country might be, but have had to do that in haste and all while engaged in intricately complex negotiations with the EU.

Theresa May battles on as a virtually lone voice now, trying still to deliver on the ‘will of the people’ and all the while we speed ever closer to leaving with no deal at all. It would have taken strong, truthful and well-informed leadership to have navigated this differently, if not before the vote for the referendum then certainly afterwards.

Whatever happens, both in the short and the long term, unless we have a change of policy direction in respect of wealth inequalities in this country, delivering on the ‘will of the people’ – whatever that might end up meaning – is unlikely to be enough to stem the rising tide of anger against an establishment that seems increasingly at odds with its people.

Tracy Shildrick is Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University.