Who is the Villain of Brexit?

The Union Flag

The Union Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the aftermath of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, I cannot help thinking of that old Mitchell and Webb sketch in which the terrible truth dawns on two Nazi SS officers fighting in the Second World War: that they’re the “baddies”. I don’t think the same realistion has come to the British yet, that in the wake of last week’s disastrous Brexit vote, we are the villains of Europe.

Consider what happened. We voted to abandon our friends and allies. Even as Europe’s borders are being menaced by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, months after the mad killers of Isis struck in the hearts of Paris and Brussels, we turned our backs on them. In doing this, we managed to inflict damage not only on our own economy, but on theirs as well. We threw into uncertainty the economies of our allies around the world, from the United States to India. We took food from the mouths of their children.

And for what? Because we did not want immigrants. In other words, we left the European Union because we didn’t want their people. However much the vote was really fired by anger at inequality and poverty in Britain, when we decided to blame that on immigration we decided to blame it on our neighbours. We rejected them as people.

For 70 years, the image of Britain around the world has been forged in the fires of 1940: the nation that stood alone against Hitler and saved the world. The country that did the right thing when it mattered. No more. The Britain of The Few is gone now, their memory just a story of something that happened long ago.

Remember Nigel Farage at the European parliament, waving his little flag and his sense of inadequacy around? I worry that is the authentic face of Britain to the world now.

We have also, it seems, unleashed the twin furies of racism and xenophobia on our own streets. A video has emerged of a man being told to “go back to Africa” on a Manchester tram because of the colour of his skin. Leaflets have been distributed threatening Poles and telling them to go home. A German woman living in Britain called the radio in tears to say she was afraid to leave her house after threats from her neighbours.

Generations from now, Friday 24 June will be remembered not as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s independence day, but as a day of infamy. A day when a better Britain died. Children yet unborn will curse those who did this to them.

And now the Leave campaign tell us we must unite behind the decision. You break my hopes and dreams and then you tell me to join in. You dishonour me in the eyes of the world and tell me to be a patriot. I can only reply in the words of Muhammad Ali: You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You my enemy.

This vote was all about racism. Yes, I know it was fuelled by discontent at the outrageous inequality of modern Britain. Yes, I know it fed on the anger of the dispossessed, the jobless, the people who couldn’t afford a home or find a school for their children. But when the leaders of the Leave campaign told them all we needed to do was vote the foreigners out, they made it about hatred.

Boris Johnson told people immigrants were taking money from their paypackets and their children’s places in schools, though he knew it was a lie. Michael Gove frightened people with the spectre of millions of Turks stealing into their homes in the night, though he knew it was a lie. David Cameron described the broken, huddled masses fleeing the fires of Syria as a “swarm”, though he knew it was a slur.

Johnson liked to portray himself as a latter day Churchill, but he borrowed his strategy from another Second World War leader: identify a group of outsiders and blame them for the country’s problems, and if the lie convinces enough people you can ride their hatred all the way to power. Except it didn’t quite work for Boris: some one else will reap the reward of his treachery.

And who is in charge, with our country facing its greatest crisis since the Second World War? The Prime Minister is larking about in parliament like a schoolboy who’s finished his exams. The Tory party are engaged in a ritual of blood-letting — probably good preparation for the negotiations in Brussels, in which our former allies will be more polite, but the disembowelment more complete.

Who then, will be our next prime minister? Macgove, in his friend Cameron’s blood stepped in so far that he decided to have done with Johnson as well? I doubt it, I suspect their ghosts will haunt him at the feast. Theresa May, who has watched the whole thing unfold from afar with an assassin’s wintry smile? It does not matter: none of the jackals fighting over the bones of the Conservative Party will speak up for the useful scapegoats. On the contrary, they will vie with one another to be as hostile to immigrants as they can, knowing that is what won the referendum, and that is what will deliver them power now.

And the opposition? At this hour of Britain’s greatest need, it appears they are too busy with their own problems to deal with the country’s. How does Jeremy Corbyn propose to unite Britain if he cannot even unite the Labour Party?

For all the fury with which the Tories are tearing each other apart to get to Number 10, the job of being Britain’s next prime minister will be a thankless task. I wonder if that may have had something to do with the indecent haste with which Boris Johnson quit the contest. You can tell we are in trouble when the two dominant Tories of their generation, Cameron and Johnson, have both washed their hands of it.

What exactly is the plan? Apparently it is to tell our European neighbours that they cannot come and work here and demand access to their economies anyway. The same economies we have already damaged with Brexit. Even though they have already said they will not agree to this. We’ve just done out best to wreck a union that matters deeply to them, and we’re planning to tell them we want to keep all the benefits while rejecting all the costs.

We’re told the losses of European markets this week show their economies are dependent on us, so they’ll have no choice but to go along. First we take the food from their children’s tables, then we tell them it will get worse unless they do what we want. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for peaceful coexistence to me. If you put a gun to a man’s head, don’t be surprised if he shoots you under the table. Even if this works, it will poison our relations with Europe for a generation.

The time for soundbites will soon be over. The EU has already appointed its chief Brexit negotiator while in London they are still fighting over the carcasses of the Conservative and Labour parties. Whoever will be our next prime minister can made as many pronouncements as they like , there will be no audience in the negotiating room opposite Angela Merkel, only the cold truth of history.

Right now, it seems possible that a referendum designed to end Tory infighting may succeed in destroying the Conservative party altogether, and take Labour with it into the bargain. If we do not secure a good deal from Europe the Conservatives will be blamed for the disaster of Brexit. That, I think, is why all that can be seen of Cameron and Johnson, the two party heavyweights of a generation, is their fleeing figures rapidly disappearing into the distance.

But Labour will not escape its share of the blame if it does not even turn up to the debate. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that both could be wiped out in 2020, and we could be looking at a new era in British politics.

If this vote really was, as it appears to have been, a cry of anger from the people at the political elite, then the spectacle we have witnessed since can hardly have assuaged that anger. Instead of answering the people’s cry, the politicians are using it to trample over each other in their own self-serving quest to reach the top. If we do not see some proper leadership soon, we could end up with a real revolution on our hands.

I do not want to leave it there. The Britain I know and love is in peril and I do not want to abandon it. We have heard a lot in recent days about respecting the will of the people and claims it is undemocratic to criticise the result of the referendum. Democracy does not begin and end with a single vote. It is not a football match, there is no final whistle. It would be undemocratic to ignore the result of the referendum, but there is nothing undemocratic about engaging with it.

Our entire democratic system is based around opposition. When we hold a general election, the losers are not told to shut up, they are given seats in parliament and government funding and told it is their duty to oppose the government and keep it in check. I believe it is the duty of those of us who believe our country has made a terrible mistake to continue to oppose it, to make the case against it, and to try to persuade the people to change course before it is too late.

The lights went out in Britain last week. It is up to us to relight them. It may take a long time. The hard work is just beginning.


  1. tony scarr says

    A lot of people voted for brexit because of the non elected EU over ruled our courts on numerous occasions especially with their stupid “human rights ” embargoes on our ability to get rid of law breakers.

    • Justin Huggler says

      Then they were misinformed. The human rights laws which overrule British courts come from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), not the EU. We have not voted to leave th ECHR, we’re staying in it. Leaving the EU will do precisely nothing about these laws. We still won’t be able to get ride of law-breakers.
      The EU, by the way, is not unelected. It is a confederation of 28 democratically elected governments (soon to be 27 with Brexit). All major decisions are taken by the national governments. Inevitably there are sometimes compromises, but each country has a veto on the most serious issues. Even on those where there is no veto, Britain has been overruled remarkably few times. In fact the UK was the driving force behibnd some of the EU’s most controversial decisions, most notably enlargement, which caused the wave of mass immigration to the UK.
      The unelected European Commission, which the British press complains about so much, has no power to make laws. It is the equivalent of the civil service in Whitehall.

      • Yes they were misinformed about it but they were also misinformed about immigration and all the negative effects immigrants supposedly have on our economy. To focus on one argument for the sake of the article to paint all leave voters as racists and bigots because it suits your argument isn’t going to win over the very racists you complain about and is only going to further alienate those who have voted for other reasons.
        You don’t need to persuade remainers and you’re not going to persuade the racists who are always going to blame foreigners for everything anyway. Focus on educating those who think they know how the EU works and who could actually be swayed if they realise their protest vote was pointless (and already clearly damaging).

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