I wrote a lengthy and relatively well-researched piece on the consequences of Brexit, looking at all the things that came to my mind about Brexit’s mostly negative implications. I even took a moment to meander into random musings on how the little European star-circle symbol on people’s car license plates will have to change in Britain – back to the Union flag or to individual country flags, like those in Norway and Iceland.
And then… in not at all dramatic fashion, my computer automatically restarted, and WordPress had not saved the latest draft. Not one single word of it.
I don’t remember a time in recent memory that I have been so angry. Mostly at myself for not obsessively pressing “save” or writing it in Word from the get-go.
Despite the post being about the UK and its future following its vote to exit the EU, the exercise of thinking about and researching it also led to a great deal of thinking about the United States and what it will soon face. I had written quite a lot about America at the same time as elucidating the potential problems of Brexit – about how Britain is just earlier to the “party” in terms of heading down what may well be a very dangerous path. America is bringing up the rear, but still roaring toward voting against its own best interests and isolating itself, rolling back human and civil rights and essentially creating a living nightmare. (Is this hyperbole? Perhaps. But we can’t sleepwalk through all of it in any case.) I wrote a lot about how rights fought for and won, such as the right to abortion, are precious and should not be taken for granted. Just as at least half of the UK, and more than half of the Scots and Northern Irish, once had all the rights granted to EU citizens – and now, that is in doubt. (Much of the reason the Scots voted against independence a couple of years ago is because they were promised that the UK would remain in the EU.)
At any given moment, the whole political and social landscape can change and become little more than a circus in which politicians become clowns and verbal acrobats and contortionists and individuals are essentially powerless circus animals. In the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, whole countries were powerless in the end.
As the clown car that was the US Republican primary process emptied out, leaving the biggest clown of all, Donald Trump, in the driver’s seat, it dawned on the “reasonable” half of America that we should all be scared shitless (but not scared into inactivity). A Trump presidency will be a disaster. Beyond which, Trump just named Indiana governor, Mike Pence, as his running mate – and, as Robert Reich describes in a Facebook post, Pence is “one of the most extreme right-wing officials in America” and went on to describe how.
As we can see from the continued and contentious tug-of-war that defines the right-to-choose (which is a personal liberty and health issue – not a moral issue no matter what religious zealots claim), these issues are never set in stone or decided finally. Things can change, which is both good and bad. While the right to abortion may erode, which is a bad change, we can also see that the right to marriage equality has moved forward, which is a good change. But rights are always in a state of flux and subject to the winds and whims of change. This is especially true when no issue, no political candidate, no momentum ever enjoys a very clear majority – everything is split closely down the middle. No huge majority exists, generally, on one side or the other of any issue.
Only slightly more than half of the UK voted to exit the EU, meaning that Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted with a larger majority to remain in the EU, are dragged along with England and Wales’s bold-but-stupid plans. By extension, this means that a slight majority of Americans choosing Trump can drag the entire country toward chaos against its will. (We saw something similar when Bush II became president after a too-close-to-call, contested election in 2000 versus Al Gore. We see how that turned out.)
The point: We always have to be vigilant – about rights we already have and about continuing to vote (hopefully against lunacy).
This is why Brexit is perplexing. It feels like we are moving backwards, like when you are stuck in a nightmare and try to run but are stuck no matter how fast your legs move. Brexit was sold to the British public as a way to “take back control”: but take back control of what? Your own circus burning down?
No one framed the losses of Brexit better than political journalist Nicholas Barrett. Do read the whole eloquent thing, but what it boils down to is:
- The working class who voted to leave will be the ones most adversely affected by Brexit (voting blindly against their own best interest)
- The youth of both the UK and Europe both lose the right to live and work freely in each other’s countries; the older generation has taken away an unknown world of experiences, relationships and opportunities from the younger generation
- Anti-intellectualism wins: “We now live in a post-factual democracy.” (Bush, Blair, Trump are all examples of how facts have less and less currency.)
This last point is most telling – and has been barreling toward disaster for a long time, even if it seems that the trend is more like a pendulum. Americans elected an intellectual (Barack Obama), who also happened to be America’s first black president, but will go to the extreme anti-intellect next time. At the same time, they will blindly and blithely claim, post-factually, that we live in a post-racial society because we once voted a black man into the office of president. All the facts speak otherwise, as a deeply insightful piece from Henry Rollins illustrates.
Bill Clinton was fairly intellectual, so a lot of people thirsted for the anti-intellect of George W. Bush in the post-Clinton era. (And the sliver-thin difference in number of votes between Bush and Gore left the country without a declared presidential election winner for more than a month. The fact that it was even close is what alarmed me more than the results themselves. That was the final straw for me as far as living in America goes. I had already moved away, but that cemented my resolve to never go back.)
I have given a lot of thought to these points and tried to look at them through the Brexit lens: demagogue leaders rush into Brexit without a plan, lie to the voters (who, by and large, are average people – meaning that they are not going to dig for real information for themselves; they are reactionary) and their issue wins. Once the vote is over, and they gloat (see Nigel Farage) but also backtrack on promises, back away from the supposed “facts” (see the lies about the money Britain was sending to the EU that could be used for the National Health Service) and do the most cowardly thing possible: they stepped down and said they accomplished what they wanted. Fine, that sounds Farage-like. But Trump-clone-blowhard Boris Johnson stepped away from power only to be handed the office of Foreign Secretary when a new government was basically appointed (I realize that’s how the system works but is mightily undemocratic seeming). And David Cameron was the idiot who set all of this in motion, somehow underestimating the power of the post-factual world we live in and the apathy of most voters – and the passion of single-issue and uninformed voters who have been scared into voting against their own interests. And now we seem to be heading toward a refrain of Britain in the 1980s: ultra-conservatism, economic uncertainty and unemployment and… if we are lucky, a surge of great music (since that is all there will be to cling to).
What will Brexit mean in real terms? People have had time to digest it, and with the (in)digestion, heartburn is setting in.
One journalist, Ian McConnell writes: “It has been difficult to escape the growing feeling, since the Brexit vote, of being stuck in one of the more shambolic episodes of Dad’s Army.”
Caveat: I am not British so it’s not really my deal – but it affects the whole world, all of Europe, and most of all, Britain itself. I have my own British interests in that I co-own a business there, have relationships there (well, in Scotland anyway), and have, like most Europeans, enjoyed the freedom to visit and stay as long as I wanted or needed to. I out myself here as a pro-Scottish independence, SNP supporter who forces all my Scottish friends to educate themselves, register to vote and vote – I might be deluded, but I think Scotland would be better off without England and remaining a part of the EU (as they voted to do). In this case, Scotland knows what it would be getting into if it were to vote to leave (i.e., “taking back control”), completely unlike the UK’s slapdash and uninformed vote to leave, which has left the country in a kind of tailspin – anything but in control – regardless of the British stiff upper lip they’re trying to display to the world.
A lengthy but not exhaustive list of what Brexit may mean (I am not a lawyer, an economist, any kind of expert or a psychic – but I have enough common sense to know that these may be among some of the results):
Currency value/price increases: Even before the Brexit vote, the value of the British pound started fluctuating on fears of an exit vote. The very morning of the vote’s result announcement, the currency plummeted and continues to struggle. The value of British people’s money, thus, has decreased, so in “taking back control”, they have not only made their own holidays abroad more expensive for themselves, in the short term, they have voted to probably raise the costs of their everyday goods in the long term, both in the sense that they will pay more directly and in the sense that everything will cost more as import costs rise, which will be passed on to consumers (and maybe, to make up for shortfalls, VAT will rise too – who knows?). These price hikes and less valuable money all come at a terrible time, of course, because the vote also means… uncertainty rippling throughout the entire economy.
Business uncertainty: In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, companies started preparing exit strategies, no doubt, because of the uncertainty of the business climate and no idea when the details of Brexit will be ironed out. Essentially these contingency plans have led to businesses deciding to leave Britain (a boon for other countries), scale back operations or investment within Britain and/or cut back on staff.
And what does that mean? “Taking back control” means job losses for BRITONS – not just for all the immigrants they imagined were flooding in and stealing all the jobs. It’s not just the big multinationals (think finance/banking here) that will create these holes; small businesses are already feeling the punch to the gut (and who owns small business in Britain? Quite often it’s Britons, yet again!), announcing layoffs, scaled back investment or growth plans and price hikes.
Unemployment and possible loss of employment rights: Yes, unemployment is likely to rise. The aforementioned business uncertainty and probable exodus of companies to other locations means that job cuts are inevitable. It’s going to make those previously referenced price hikes that much more painful; it’s going to make it harder to afford to go away on holiday (if the freedom of movement problems stirred up don’t bar your way first).
A Credit Suisse report warns that a Brexit recession could lead to an increase in the unemployment rate that equals about 500,000 lost jobs. The report expects an increase in the overall unemployment rate from about 5% to 6.5% by the end of 2017 (maybe sooner, depending on what happens). In the week after the Brexit vote result, the number of posted job ads in the UK fell by 700,000. Pretty significant.
By being a part of the EU, workers in the UK actually gained a number of protections and guarantees that were never guaranteed by the UK alone – and some of these pertain to (un)employment rights (as well as family leave, just so you know). Will these rights continue to be guaranteed/enforced, or will they be like the slippery and contentious rights Americans grapple with keeping, as highlighted above?
“Since the mid-1970s, the European Union has played an important role in protecting working people from exploitation and combating discrimination. These EU rights have provided an important counter-balance against pressure for the UK to adopt a US-style hire-and-fire culture where there is an absence of statutory employment rights.”
Beyond the sheer rise in unemployment, though, Brexit makes the UK a much less attractive place for foreign direct investment, which could have contributed to economic growth and created a lot of new jobs.
FDI: Foreign direct investment is not something most average people think about. The UK has long been one of the world’s most attractive FDI recipients because it had a unique set of attributes that companies looking to locate and invest need and want, including being an English-speaking country with (at least in London) an international, multilingual population, great infrastructure and access to the European single market.
“Britain now risks a very unvirtuous circle in which a slowing economy and growing trade and immigration barriers cause companies to leave, spurring even more economic pain.
“Brexit makes the UK a less attractive environment to invest in, particularly for companies that rely on the UK’s access to the single market,” said LSE economist Thomas Sampson. “Some companies are likely to relocate some of their activities to continental Europe, though probably not every company that threatens it is going to do it.””
I take FDI more personally, as I have worked in this industry for some time and have seen how the trends move. A company – large or small – looking at its options for relocating and investing will benchmark UK against other European locations, and where once UK competed favorably, the exit from the single market will exclude the UK from serious consideration. It’s quite complicated and multifaceted. (Ireland will probably benefit from the UK’s “taking back control”.)
Economic slowdown: Economic slowdown can mean a lot of different things, which encompass many of the other points in this list (stagnant growth, unemployment, etc.). It also includes a downturn in business output and in optimism, which have already been affected by Brexit. It can also mean that a recession is coming. The uncertainty I wrote about above also leads to a “deer-in-the-headlights” effect, where businesses are fearful of taking any action, which can likewise contribute to negative economic consequences.
Trade fits into this equation. With Britain exiting the EU, Britain will no longer be party to the trade agreements made by/within the EU. It will probably have to renegotiate and start from scratch on trade arrangements (more than 100 of them), and while the Leave campaigners claimed this would be easy, that Britain had so much to offer – so much leverage – nothing is further from the truth. US President Barack Obama even stated as much, saying Britain is at the back of the queue.
Property values/housing: In a classic case of people voting on an isolated, single issue – and not really understanding the complexity of it, many voters cited (potential) property price decreases (the Treasury warned that house prices would decrease as much as ten percent) as their reason for voting to leave the EU. Aside from the fact that voting should be about benefit to the entire country, not just what you individually think you can gain, this is naïve voting. Maybe property prices decrease as a result of Brexit, but it conversely means that property values decrease, so those Britons who already own property may experience negative equity, which could be particularly acute in northern England and real losses on their investment. The danger in focusing on a single issue also fails to take into account all the other factors at work, e.g., unemployment, wage stagnation and recession, which may lead many people to not be able to afford a home no matter how far property prices fall.
Freedom of movement: The free movement of people is one of the central tenets of the European experiment/experience. And nothing has been more central to the heated arguments around Brexit. Three million Europeans live in Britain; 1.2 million Britons live in the EU. They have jobs, pay taxes, are married to other Europeans, own property, study, etc. All of this has been thrown into a bewildering state of inconclusiveness. No one knows if they will be allowed to stay or what Brexit means for their rights (inside or out of the UK). And Theresa May’s government has not done anything to make this clearer.
A large part of the Leave campaigning focused on “taking control of” immigration and the borders of the UK; most Britons, though, did not think about what leaving would mean for their own mobility. Or what that would mean for their friends, family members and colleagues who already live in Britain – and what that uncertainty and what a mass expulsion of Europeans would mean for the economy (no, it does not automatically mean that there will be floods of open jobs for British citizens; so many Europeans work in Britain in the first place because companies often have unique needs and Europeans unique qualifications that match up; some Europeans will do jobs that British people don’t want to do).
This reasoning also failed to consider that Britain already has exceptions in place that keep people from completely freely showing up in Britain. Britain never joined the Schengen area and thus controlled its borders much more tightly than other Schengen-area countries.
Breakup of the country: The breakup of the United Kingdom is a topic I should not have passionate feelings about and don’t think it’s one about which I can be objective. (Not that I have been totally objective throughout my points here.) On this topic is even more personal. I’ve spent a huge amount of time in Glasgow and feel an exceptionally strong connection to Scotland and see its potential outside of the UK. I supported the independence referendum last time, despite having no vote, and I “activated” all the people I know in Scotland to educate themselves, pick a side and vote.
I understand why “remain” won the first time. It’s scary to leave. I know it sounds hypocritical to be angry that the UK voted to leave the EU while supporting a “leave” vote for Scotland from the UK. However, I support this now – and supported it before – because Scotland is not being represented (while the UK is within the EU) within the UK. Scotland was promised many things as a trade-off for voting to stay part of the union; those promises have not been fulfilled. And now Scotland has been yanked out of the EU without its consent. Sure, maybe they signed up for that by remaining within the UK. But that doesn’t mean they should not leave now.
I don’t necessarily think independence is going to be an easy option. But I support it. When the SNP launched the first bid for independence, they had a lengthy manifesto and a detailed plan and platform. By contrast, there was NO plan for the UK outside the EU, despite it being an even more complex divorce.
Reigniting Northern Ireland problems: I don’t feel the same passion about Northern Ireland as I do about Scotland, but I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of the (T)troubles there. Northern Ireland is a high-stakes Brexit gamble. It’s the UK’s only hard land border with another EU (or any) country (the republic of Ireland), and what happens to this border now that the UK has voted to leave? Will this vote kick up new calls for reunification with the republic of Ireland, and will that reignite the “bitterness and bloodshed” that remains an explosive possibility. The really young may not remember firsthand the violence between Protestant Unionists and the Catholic nationalist minority and the terror that surrounded this battle. It’s not something anyone wants to see repeated, and while it may feel like peace was achieved “long ago”, it’s still less than 20 years.
Science/research/tech startups, etc.: There are a million articles online about the effects of Brexit on science, research, collaboration and EU funding. And UK policy toward science and research is shifting (probably not in a good direction). This may also be applicable to startups and tech firms. The UK, though, may have voted itself onto a path of stagnation rather than innovation.
You can search and read endlessly on these topics and do not need my help.
Food: There are areas Brexit will affect that the average voter probably did not even think about. One of these is food (and how much food is imported, and what that could mean for availability and price).
“Now that the Leave campaign has won the referendum on Europe, it is clear that far more was at stake for British food in the E.U. than our right to misshapen fruit.”
Part of the driving force of the EU’s foundation was to ensure the food supply for entire populations; Britain produces only about half of its food needs. You do the math. More than a quarter of UK food imports came from within the EU as of 2015 – and what happens to that now?
There could also be a knock-on effect to British farming, which will lose EU agriculture subsidies.
Music: Maybe because I care so passionately about music, films and the arts – but mostly music – I am most concerned about its future. What happens to the industries and the touring musicians and the legal/copyright stuff? It’s complex….
And that is the thing – every single industry is facing similar complexities, extricating themselves from the ties that bound them within and often protected them from “going it alone” on so many of these fronts, often offering Brits and Europeans collective benefits that aren’t to be enjoyed outside that “togetherness”.
Alienation/isolation: The price of going it alone and “taking back control” could be isolationism and, as mentioned, moving to the back of the line. There is no certainty that the UK will end up in isolation – the world is a bit more globalized than that. But was the risk worth it? Is the “control” you think you took back keeping you warm at night and comforted?
One thought on “Brexit: unintended and unforeseen consequences – but who cares?”