The origins of Brexit and the emotions that fuelled it.
There is little in the history of diplomatic relations that has caused as much global confusion and anger than that of Brexit. It has torn the UK apart and has created a binary politics which will be the basis of political discourse for the next century. But before we discuss the future of Brexit, we must first understand the origins; the roots of the widespread political populism we now see in Whitehall and Parliament, caused by the biggest upset in British politics since the Second World War.
Brexit wouldn’t have existed without the issue of immigration; more specifically the scale of which immigration was, and arguably still is, occurring. Deriving from the undercurrent of xenophobia and ‘soft’ racism that flowed beneath society, immigration erupted and spilled over into mainstream discourse following 9/11, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003–2011 Iraq War and largescale invasion of the Middle East. Before the turn of the millennia, the importance immigration played as an issue facing the UK was below 10%, however by 2008, its importance had increased to over 40%. Since 2008, immigration as an issue has not fallen below 20%. The presence of the UK and USA in the Middle East after 9/11 deeply infuriated many social factions, notably the ‘Stop the war’ coalition which campaigned in London and across mainland Europe in the predeceasing months before the invasion. However, it also strengthened a nationalistic ideal, that the West were leading a Crusade again, seeking to westernise the Middle East and drag them into the 21st Century. This conjured up substantial xenophobia towards the natives of the Middle East who had fled their homes, allowing the racism that many hoped had been eradicated from the West, to resurface. However, it is interesting to point out that shortly after the Brexit vote in June 2016, ‘immigration’ as an issue saw a sharp decline, whilst ‘Brexit’ naturally saw a notorious increase. This shows how immigration played a key role in Brexit. Because it was such an important issue to the public, it was able to harness itself to ‘Brexit’ and exchange positions in the nation’s psyche. This was largely down to the work of Leave.eu, the organisation led by Nigel Farage, who were not afraid to use immigration as an issue to win votes in the referendum. Voteleave refused to use immigration as a tactic, as Dominic Cummings (the campaign director of VoteLeave) saw it as too risky an issue to engage with. Nevertheless, if immigration had not been as important an issue as it was in the predeceasing years before the referendum, remain may have been victorious. However, the immigration wasn’t the sole origin of Brexit.
The financial crash of 2008–09, which caused the Eurozone crisis that continued until 2012, was another traceable origin of VoteLeave’s victory. The crash, which began in the USA with the collapse of the housing market, ricocheted across the Atlantic and Pacific and caused major damage to the global economy. This forced David Cameron and his Conservative governemnt to impose austerity and hard-line cuts to public economic infrastructure. Moreover, since the UK was heavily economically tied to the EU (as a member), it had to bear the brunt of the crisis alongside its European counterparts. Following the crisis, Europe was pushed out of the second-place position in the geo-political-economic sphere by Asia (China and India in particular). Therefore, the overarching global dialectic became between Asia and America, and Europe was largely made redundant. Out of this growing irrelevance in the global arena, many people strove to re-capture the dialectic, to break from the sinking ship of Europe, and cling to the underbelly of American dominance. Brexit therefore was caused by people looking to blame someone for economic downturn, which they had to pay the price for. Figures suggest that UK citizens of a lower socio-economic status (SES)(DE and C2 status), who arguably suffered more through austerity, voted for Leave. Moreover, there is an inverse relationship between citizens who had graduated from university, therefore suggesting a greater SES, and voting Leave. Europe’s economic disaster therefore contributed greatly to the referendum result, and the Euro in particular played a large role.
The Euro is the national currency of 19 EU member states, and since it was first introduced in 1999, has led to the integration of those 19 states into the ‘Eurozone’. Monetary policy surrounding the Euro is determined by the ECB (European Central Bank) and the central banks of all member states. The Euro’s goal was to align most of Europe to one currency, so that they were dependent upon each other economically, which again made Europe more cohesive. However, some smaller states have in the past raised concerns about how the Euro is tilted somewhat to benefit larger states with larger populations and therefore disproportionately represent smaller states.
The concerns by Euro-sceptics largely originate not only in the creation of the Euro, but also in the creation and implementation of the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism) which was introduced by the EEC in 1979, which was a pre-cursor to the introduction of the Euro. The ERM had drastic effects on the UK, who joined in 1990 and exited in 1992 after ‘Black Wednesday’, when UK base rates fell 3%. The Treasury have estimated the cost of ‘Black Wednesday’ to be £3.4 billion. This is largely what drove scepticism of the Euro from the early 1990s into the 21st century. This scepticism first came to a head in 2001, when ‘Business for Sterling’ and ‘New Europe’ (two anti-Euro organisations) merged to form the ‘NO’ campaign, which opposed the UK’s adoption of the Euro as a currency. Dominic Cummings was hired as campaign manager, due to his experience at ‘Business for Sterling’, since returning from post-Soviet Russia. After Gordon Brown finally announced that the UK would not adopt the Euro, the campaign ended, however the scepticism that the ‘NO’ campaign had portrayed to the public had already taken place. The seeds of widespread Euroscepticism had been sown.
Later, shortly following the financial crash of 2007/2008, the Eurozone fell into crisis, shrinking by nearly 8% by 2009, and unemployment rising to 12% by 2012. This was the second time in the 21st century that Euro scepticism had come to the forefront. The most profound example that the sceptics would use was Greece, whose economy had nearly defaulted completely and from 2008 to 2012, its GDP fell by 14.5% and interest rates rose to 35%. This forced the EFCM, IMF, ECB and other Eurozone governments to implement a large-scale bailout scheme, which brought Greece back from the brink of total collapse. Greece now owes nearly €300 billion to these organisations.
The sceptics used this to prove their point, that if the UK was to remain in the EU then we may end up like Greece. However, the UK has its own independent currency and in the crisis of 2008–2012, faired far better than Greece. Nevertheless, this was effectively used by sceptics to persuade the public that the Euro was a dysfunctional currency, and the EU was not to be trusted.
The origins of Brexit are steadfast in recent history and must not be ignored. The origins are based on the suffering of economies and the fear that was constructed by those in power. Brexit therefore originated from the suffering of others. The public were fed these three pieces of arguable evidence since the beginning of the 1990s. It is unsurprising therefore that the Leave campaign won. Their campaign started 20 years before the referendum and had been slowly growing ever since. These three origins: immigration, the financial crisis, and the Euro, all have two things in common. First, they have all been reported through a kaleidoscope of fear and resentment, which has, naturally, made the public fear and resent them. And second, they are all foreign origins. Immigration was reported as the ‘other’ coming to the UK to steal the jobs of the natives. The financial crisis was reported as the failure of the Eurozone to sustain its market. And the Euro was reported as embodying the potential financial collapse of the UK, if we were ever to adopt it. These origins should stay in the government’s mind as they navigate through this year, because in order to plan where the UK goes from here, they must remember and understand what brought us here.