The British People Have Been Suckered

5 minute read
Laurie Penny is the author of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.

We’re so, so, sorry. British people say that a lot, but this time we mean it—at least, the 48.1% of us who did not vote to light the funhouse on fire and see what happened. There is a cartoon logic to the slow-motion car-crash of British politics. Days after the country voted by a very narrow margin to leave the E.U., in a referendum engineered by a weak prime minister to secure his own power, it feels like we’ve got to the part in one of those old looney-tunes shows where Wile E. Coyote chases Roadrunner right off the edge of a cliff, and hangs there in mid-air, his legs pinwheeling. Just one look down and we’re plummeting into the worst political crisis in living memory.

Brexit is a shameful, concocted word for a shameful, concocted situation. Hours after the vote was in, the prime minister had resigned, and his party descended into civil war, with the Labour opposition not far behind as the stock markets tumbled and Scotland and Northern Ireland opened the question of breaking up the union. Meanwhile, racists across the nation were emboldened with a venal sense of victory, and started assaulting Asian children in the street, posting cards through their neighbors’ doors telling “Muslims” and “vermin” to go “home.” The government has no plan for what happens next. The “leave” campaign has no plan, either. The Labour Party is busy tearing itself to shreds. We thought we were better than this. We were wrong.

No, not everyone who voted “leave” is a swivel-eyed bigot. But the people who are largely voted that way, and the many gentler citizens who did the same now have to live with the fact that they’ve helped to empower the worst impulses of the angriest, most desperate people in this country at a time when racism is the only recognized outlet for working-class rage. As in America, the “voice of the people” is never paid any attention unless and until it is redirected into violent neo-nationalism, and that’s an formula which overlooks a good many of the actual, living, human people struggling to survive under neoliberalism today. That includes young people, queer people, disabled people, migrants, people of color and a great many ordinary citizens who were not taken in by hollow promises that Brexit would lead to better public services and free cake for everyone.

A lot of people voted “leave” because they were told that this was the way to get back at a hated political class. But the younger generation, who have been hardest hit by six years of merciless austerity, voted overwhelmingly to remain. Britain is not divided into “The Metropolitan Elite” and “Ordinary People.” The cracks in our civil society are nowhere near so neat, and plenty of people live in those cracks, and they are as frightened and despairing today as they have ever been.

Many “leave” voters are looking on their victory with the sick dread of a pie-eating champion who has just been told that the prize is more pie. As the pound crashes, taking international markets with it, and Brexit leaders admit that their entire campaign was based on extravagant lies, electoral officials are fielding calls from people asking if they can change their vote, and voters who just wanted to give a hated establishment a richly-deserved poke in the eye are wondering what the hell they’ve done.

What was sold as a working-class revolt has been revealed as a victory for a subset of the political elite mean-drunk on its own ambitions. The chief villains of this piece are David Cameron, who gambled the entire future of the nation on his own political career by promising a referendum to placate the right-wing of his party, and his Eton and Oxford chum Boris Johnson, the charismatic former London mayor who stalks British politics, burbling and chuckling out lie after awful lie, like a nightmare clown in a pulp horror film. In case anyone’s motivations were in question, Johnson has already anointed himself Prime Minister in waiting and set out his bid for the leadership. As for the country, Johnson’s assumption seems to be that if he broke it, he bought it.

The ordinary people of Britain have been suckered into taking sides in a war between conniving petty despots who care not a whit if their locker-room rivalry takes the whole country down with them. If I want to watch cackling incompetents with way too much power enlist bewildered people as cannon fodder in their playground rivalries whilst the country collapses, I will watch Game of Thrones, because the soundtrack is better. The rolling implosion of British civil society has no theme-tune besides a chorus of angry, frightened people demanding to know what’s going on, who’s in charge, and why they have been lied to so profoundly and with so little compunction.

Americans should take note. Many of us in Britain thought Brexit was a joke, including those who signed up for it, a good of whom are now publicly panicking at the unfolding consequences of their hilarious protest vote. If you introduce people with very little to lose to a big red button and tell them that they must not touch it or something dreadful will happen, a lot of them are going to push that button, because it’s hard to imagine how things can get worse. Well, we no longer need to imagine. Things are about to get a lot worse. On the morning of the results, in case we were hurting for scarily coiffed, opportunistic millionaire demagogues, Donald Trump helicoptered in to congratulate Brits for “taking their country back,” promising that the Americans will soon do the same. Watch and learn from this omnishambles—before it’s too late.

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