'A country suffering a nervous breakdown': openDemocracy readers respond to Brexit vote

Shock. Rage. Analytic calm. A sense of loss. In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next. Here are some of your responses.

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
29 June 2016
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at the gates of Downing Street in central London after the UK voted to leave the European Uni

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at the gates of Downing Street in central London after the UK voted to leave the European Union. Credit: sabel Infantes/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.However you voted, the results of the referendum took many of us by surprise. The implications of the historic vote to leave the EU are only starting to emerge: the country's two main political parties in disarray, the possible breakup of the United Kingdom as Scotland and Northern Ireland weigh their options, racist attacks on the rise and huge divisions riven between remain and leave voters, young and old, immigrants and those who think they should leave.  

As a nation we are trying to digest what this vote means. We have more questions than answers about a future that is by no means clear and as we reflect on the possible futures the UK's historic vote has thrown open, openDemocracy is asking for your thoughts in 350 words. Below are four responses:

'I feel like I am living in a country that is suffering a nervous breakdown'

Never can I remember feeling the political situation in my country is so bleak. I am English, and I voted to Remain. I vote Remain not because I am a huge fan of the EU, but because I felt it was the lesser of two evils.

The Tory right and the media barons now hold more power than ever, and are in the ascendency marching forward with renewed confidence and a sense of empowerment. It is simply a case of bayoneting the wounded on the political battlefield from their point of view. The NHS, the BBC, workers' rights, consumer rights and environmental protection – it is all up for grabs now the EU is out of the way.  Not all of these things were connected to the referendum, however, my point is that those that seek to control us via an unleashing of market forces, now have the momentum and confidence to do so. The picture is indeed bleak.

Additionally, we have a far right, that is now also on the march. Social media is full of stories of ‘keyboard warriors’ turned rabble rousers turning their attention to hassling people in the street now they ‘have their country back’. I fear the murder of lawmaker Jo Cox – whilst extreme – is a sign of things to come, with the advent of a less tolerant society and a far right emboldened by their referendum victory.

England needs to get its act together. We will soon be out of a second union – the one with Scotland. At the moment, I feel like I am living in a country that is suffering a nervous breakdown. It will come out of the other end eventually, but as a very different country to the one we all grew up in.

From regular openDemocracy commenter Holmeboy, an educational salesman with an interest in current affairs from the north of England.

After Brexit, countries will have more power to resist neo-liberal financial measures

Although I realize that Brexit has many far-reaching consequences – and the xenophobia and racism involved makes me want to throw up – I tend to agree that this development provides freedom to other countries, who are in much need of this freedom. Allow me to make this point with willful exclusion of other important considerations.

Over the last few years we have seen some serious crises in the EU. Spain, Portugal and Greece were all understood to threaten the financial wellbeing of the entire Eurozone. Greece came closest to exiting the EU. The reason Greece wanted to exit, was not because exiting was a goal in itself, as is the case with the United Kingdom. 

Greece wanted no more of the neo-liberal financial measures – the cost-cutting needed to get its national budget up to EU standards was considered too damaging by the new Socialist government a year ago. Indeed, the effect of all the cost-cutting was dramatic. As a cynical side note: even the IMF has now released a report indicating that neo-liberal financial measures damage countries, rather than helping them. But for Greece, a Greek exit (Grexit) was a whip, a disciplinary measure, with which the Greeks were threatened if they failed to implement the required financial measures. This threat proved effective, and following crisis after crisis, Greece gave in and followed the neo-liberal financial agenda.

Imagine if Greece hadn't given in and chose to leave the EU. Almost certainly the EU would have tried to make this as difficult as possible. If the disciplinary measures proved insignificant, other countries would notice. That's why I believe the consequences for Greece would have been made as extreme as possible, to deter other countries (Spain, Portugal) from following suit.

Britain is important to the EU, so relations must remain strong and friendly – even after Brexit. Brexit negotiations will therefore be fair (at least in comparison to a Grexit). This will create a precedent on how to exit the EU. In international relations and international law, precedents are very important. The results of the negotiations between the UK and the EU will inform future expectations and negotiations, empowering those who want to exit but are not as important as the UK. But even more important, the exit as a disciplinary measure will be less threatening. Countries will have more power to resist neo-liberal financial measures, and thereby gain power during negotiations, even when they want to stay in the EU.

Jan van Heuzen holds a masters in philosophy of social sciences and in sociology of migration, and researches human trafficking and prostitution policies in the Netherlands and Canada.

This spells the end of Britishness

The rise and fall of Britishness shows that apparently ancient and stable European identities can be as recent, contingent, fragile and transient as any in the formerly colonised world. It is something which the Brexit vote has thrown into sharp relief, because it will probably lead to the end of the United Kingdom.

It was the existence of the British Empire, and the benefits they gained from it that made Scots, Welsh and Irish want to be British in the first place. It was service in and migration to and from that empire which formed Britishness as an identity. I think of myself as British – not English – even though the latter is what most of those I have met outside the British Isles consider me.

My surname is Scottish – that grandfather was born in Greenock, near Glasgow, though our Morrisons were originally from the Isle of Lewis. My grandfather spent 25 years working as an engineer for Sudan Railways on their Nile steamer services. When he returned to Britain in 1954 he settled in Fareham, near Portsmouth. His wife, my grandmother, was half English, half Austro-Hungarian Jewish. My other grandfather's family were all English, from Kent and Sussex, but my grandmother's family were part Irish,
part Anglo-Indian, and we had relatives living in southern India until the 1970s. With its mixture of backgrounds from different parts of the British Isles, and the strong connection with empire, this is a quintessentially British origin – and not, I think, an unusual one.

Britishness is a civic, not an ethnic identity. As such I think it has been easier for more recent migrants to the British Isles to identify with it than with Englishness. For me it is a much more personal question – although it was clear there was a decline in the number of those explicitly identifying as British, the United Kingdom was still there, and I didn't have to choose between being English, or Scottish – I could be British and leave it at that.

When Scotland leaves the UK, as following Brexit I believe it surely will, and if Northern Ireland follows, I think it will spell the end for Britishness, as a culture, a nationality, an identity – we will be able to chart its rise and fall in full, from the Union of Crowns in 1603 to dissolution of the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century. A lot of people will not be sorry to see it go – in many cases with good reason, given how many crimes have been committed in its name – but personally I will regret it – and I don't think its replacement with the type of 'Englishness' that brought us the Brexit vote will be an improvement.

Alexander Morrison is Professor of History at Nazarbayev University in Kazahkstan

Leave politicians have nothing to offer communities who voted out of Europe

Brexit is a symptom of deeper causes. In addition to directly causing an outbreak of open racism, plus enormous fear and uncertainty, the Leave vote has laid bare existing rifts and sicknesses in British society. We urgently need a political plan that confronts these underlying problems – racism, neoliberal austerity, the democratic deficit – as well as the place of Britain, or more likely England and Wales, within Europe.

The Leave politicians have not only called forth a storm of racism and xenophobia. They also have nothing, beyond the temporary warm feeling of having ‘taken control’, to offer those communities that voted overwhelmingly to leave. They have no plan to restore the institutions of the welfare state – themselves dependent on migrant workers – or to invest in failing industrial or post-industrial areas. They are in fact among the keenest to destroy these institutions and make Britain ever more subservient to the City of London. They have no plan for actually giving people ‘control’ over their lives, for addressing their powerlessness and disenfranchisement. All they can do is to exploit these facts, diverting people’s anger away from the real causes of their distress, towards migrants and minorities.

Most of the Remain camp have little to offer either. The Labour right, Tim Farron and much of the liberal commentariat seem to think the answer is to restore the political centrism of the Blair era, and to attempt to reverse the Brexit decision. But a Project Fear redux based purely on opposing the Brexit vote will, again, do nothing about the underlying issues. Instead, it will likely make concessions to the xenophobia of UKIP and the Leave campaign, pursuing a settlement with the EU that preserves the interests of finance capital but sacrifices the rights of people to move and work freely. It may well embolden the far-right or provoke a still bigger backlash against migrants and minorities.

Meanwhile, the one major political player which has offered to address the causes behind Brexit – austerity, neoliberalism, and, less strongly, the democratic deficit – is the Corbyn-led Labour Party. Corbyn’s leadership, after being constantly undermined by the media, is now facing an attack by an embittered Labour right. If Labour members can successfully defend it, their party has a chance of becoming a centre around which a new and creative political plan can form, capable of addressing the real issues behind the anger of Leave voters, of making a firm case for England and Wales as European countries, while resisting the anti-immigration rhetoric. If Corbyn goes under, we will still need to build that plan, with whatever political materials are left.

Peter Hill is a D. Phil. student at Oxford University working on Arabic literature. He is an editor of and regular contributor to the Oxford Left Review.

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