This morning’s news confirmed the dread I felt going to bed last light. The Brexiteers have won. Just as disturbing are the domestic party political consequences. People who campaigned for the UK to Remain in the EU feared a Leave vote would parachute a more right wing Tory into No 10, in addition to unravelling employment protection legislation for British workers, and reducing living standards for all.
Two of these three elements are already happening, although Boris and Gove may have to wait until October to see which of them claims the prize. A run on the pound, if sustained, will not only push up prices but put off badly needed foreign investors whose wealth we need to finance the growing deficit in trade and services. When it is freed from the “shackles” of the EU, an even more rightward Conservative Government will also be free to reduce British workers’ rights at work.
The new UK leadership will be under enormous pressure to confirm that a Leave vote will produce a major change in the one issue that sadly dominated the campaign: European immigration. Goodwill among remaining EU member states will be necessary for the UK to retain access to the European Single Market. It will be very hard to generate, whatever the claimed influence of domestic car makers over German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Why make secession from the EU seem relatively painless when you are desperately trying to keep the union together amidst bail outs and migration crises and the possibility of other member states, or at least their emboldened far right parties, seeking a similar vote? If the UK is not allowed to stay in the European Single Market then the common standards that the EU enforces – the right to holidays, and maternity and paternity pay, even for temporary workers – can be swept away by the new Tory administration.
Perhaps a change at the top of British politics in the context of UK negotiations with the EU over the terms of its exit will create a public clamour among a newly empowered British electorate for a UK General Election in the Autumn. After all, can the angry British public continue to say “What’s the point in voting, they’re all the same?” However, even a divided Tory Party would trash a Labour Party that firmly, and conservatively, sided with the status quo – remaining in the EU – especially one that may still be led by Jeremy Corbyn. The man who told working class Labour voters angry about deindustrialisation and welfare cuts that unlimited migration was a good thing sounded even more out of touch with Labour’s traditional values than the Blair acolytes he so roundly trounced in last year’s leadership election.
The last time the Labour Party faced a working class revolt over immigration it used the pragmatism of office to swiftly reduce it, specifically targeting Commonwealth immigration in hurried legislation issued in the wake of the mass appeal nationalism of Enoch Powell. Blair in government was disinterested in the contemporary version of these concerns, which is less about colour but is partly about culture and religion. Being a believer in neo-liberal economics he didn’t consider using the option of a five year delay to mass Polish immigration.
Middle class metropolitan liberals like to shop around in the multicultural store. Britain for them is about values, imperfect and contradictory as they may be, not culture or identity. Mr Brown famously said of a voter who was the epitome of traditional Labour support that she was “some bigoted old woman.” The EU referendum debate did not mention culture, the “c” word that still doesn’t get mentioned in polite political company, yet it was there all the time, just below the surface, and Remain had nothing to say about it. In fact the Remain campaign’s leading figures had precious little to say about immigration at all, other than it was simply a “good thing”, until the final stages when a few relatively centrist Labour figures mused unconvincingly about trying to restrict it from the rest of Europe.
We do need migrants, skilled and unskilled, but we also need to properly train our own workforce, enforce a genuine Living wage, clamp down on illegal immigrants, and punish hard those who sidestep our workers in favour of cheaper workers, wherever they come from. (The UK would actually have had the EU on its side if it got tough with UK-based companies who import cheaper European labour in preference to indigenous workers). We also need to keep out multi-millionaires who add nothing to our economy than increased property prices, and the plethora of servants that travel here (from outside the EU) to ease their indolence.
Labour is now officially a sideshow. Following Brexit and Scotland’s almost inevitable second stab at an independence vote at a time more or less of the SNP’s choosing, it will struggle to ever get into office again. The EU referendum result will now take second place to a three month Tory leadership campaign in which 150,000 party members will choose the British Prime Minister. Parliament is plainly not sovereign. The last two British PMs to resign in office were at least replaced in a vote of their party’s MPs. Cameron says the will of the British people cannot be ignored, but he has this morning used the powers vested in him by the royal sovereign to put exit negotiations on ice until his party’s latest little local difficulty is resolved.
The British people exercised their version of sovereignty in yesterday’s “advisory” referendum. They will (eventually) get their way. I do not think they will like the outcome. Overall migration will not go down that much, unemployment will rise - chiefly because of the decline in our EU-related trade and investment, rights for those in work will be weakened, tax revenues will fall and public services will very definitely be cut. British, or rather English, politics will be a debate conducted pretty far to the right, and the disaffection among those dispossessed by the impersonal economic forces unleashed by successive governments since the 1980s will grow. Perhaps into this void a reasonable sounding English nationalist will emerge. Nigel? Maybe this is genuinely what a majority of (English) voters would wish for.