Rule, Britannia or: Why people voted for Brexit
On Wednesday, article 50 was officially triggered by British PM Theresa May. For the next two years, the UK and the EU are going to negotiate the consequences of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Back in June 2016, the lack of understanding how anyone would even consider leaving the EU was at its peak in many other European countries but is it really that incomprehensible?
If one desires to foresee the future, one has to understand the past and I am not going to break this rule. And as every great disaster in history, the Brexit referendum is a result of many factors playing into one.
Over the last couple of years, the German media has focused on the UK as a country of narrow-minded people who are disloyal to their European neighbours, self-centred and egoistic in their politics, and blind when it comes to the refugee crisis. Be that as it may, I have spent much time studying this country’s history and culture and I think we’re making it very easy for ourselves to judge them on their position without taking the British history into account.
Immigration has always been a major issue in Great Britain. Looking back, the British Empire went down in history as a global superpower, claiming more than 1/5 of the world its territory at its peak. A country that owns most of the world cannot exist in isolation.
After World War II, Britain was in desperate need of workers in order to rebuild the country, and since they were lacking of young, fit men they brought in workers from the Commonwealth countries. In 1948, the British Nationality Act gave every subject in the Commonwealth the status and rights of a British citizen, which made it easier for people from the colonies to set sails for their mother country. The Empire Windrush, a passanger liner on voyage from Jamaica to the UK, served as a namesake to the first big wave of immigrants arriving in Great Britain. To ensure that foreigners would come to the country’s help, the British government established a campaign, claiming that better education, higher living standards, and better job opportunities would await those who decided to leave the colonies behind.
Naturally, the migrants arrived at Britain’s ports with the expectation that their new and better lives were awaiting them. Little did they know that the British had no intention of allowing them to stay. If they weren’t sent back to the colonies after their service, they fell victim to a society of classes and discrimination.
Sadly, there has been only slow progress over the last decades. Today, immigration is still a major concern of many Brexit voters, in urban areas less so than in the countryside. The fact that Britain never managed to fully integrate foreigners despite its long history of immigration casts long shadows over the glorious Empire and it raises the question whether this inability is a result of unwillingness or incapability.
The housing crisis
After the Credit Crunch in 2007, life in London has become extremely expensive, attracting millionaires and billionaires from all over the world – and chasing working people away.
In 2015, it was unaffordable for a family with an average annual income to buy or rent a flat or house in London, resulting in foreign investors ‘buying up’ the majority of town houses in the city centre. Most of them are of Arabic or Russian origin and tend to buy property without ever using it, resulting in thousands of empty houses and flats while others are struggling to find a home closer to work. Inequality is, most of the time, a reason why people tend to favour populism over liberal political ideals. While there is no direct connection between inequality and racism, it does tend to play into the hands of the likes of Nigel Farage and the Ukip party.
Adding to the strained situation, many international banks have settled down in the financial metropolis that London has turned into. Due to this gentrification, property prices skyrocketed in only a couple of years. In the event of Brexit, many people predicted that these banks would move to other financial cities such as Frankfurt or Paris and thus leading to a lowering of house prices.
The Welfare State
Compared to Germany, Britain’s welfare state is almost non-existing. In fact, it has never been popular in politics since no government ever accomplished a successful attempt to create a welfare state. In 1942 during World War II, William Beveridge identified the five “Giant Evils” in British society that had to be tackled: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. This report, also known as the Beveridge Report, proposed a reformed system with better National Insurance and a better social welfare. Despite its high popularity with the public, the only long-term solution resulting from Beveridge’s report was the founding of the National Health Service (NHS).
Margaret Thatcher, one of Britain’s most controversial political figures, and her neo-liberal politics have ignored the needs of the poor and strengthened the class system in the 1980s – an impact Britain still struggles with today. While health care is provided for free (there hasn’t even been a need for health insurance until Brexit), many social contributions aren’t available that are being taken for granted in Germany. In the end, it always comes down to social inequality, and the lack of a Welfare State – or even a poor version thereof – can have major influence on the rise of populism.
Too expensive or unfair for those who work hard in order to afford a better lifestyle – the arguments have always been the same debate after debate. The geographical regions that backed Brexit the most have been (in most cases) the ones that are the most dependent on EU support in terms of economic support. If the UK had faced its inequality problems years before, maybe Brexit would have never happened.
The Empire and the Commonwealth Nations
What surprises me the most about the outcome of the referendum is the fact that many immigrants voted in favour of “leave”. Yes, it does sound incomprehensible, but it needs a change of perspective to understand the thought process behind this twisted way of thinking.
As I explained before, the Empire Windrush brought immigrants from the Caribbean to the UK so they would serve as temporary workers before being sent back to the colonies they originally came from. In said colonies, the youth was educated by British standards and they were given the impression that with the education they received, they’d be able to make a new life for themselves in Great Britain. But since their dreams never came true – again, this applies to the majority and not all of the cases – they thought European citizens had a geographical advantage. By voting “Leave” in the referendum, many immigrants from the Commonwealth Nations expect to now have an advantage on the job market due to their still existing connection to the UK.
However, people tend to forget about the past far too easily. If the British had any interest in letting these immigrants stay in the UK in the post WWII era, they would have done so without giving it a second thought. The fact that this hasn’t happened back then is down to a major education difference between Commonwealth colonies and Europe and the unwillingness to accept foreign nationalities as part of the British culture. Just because the UK is no longer a member of the European Union won’t change anything about the partly racist, partly narrow-minded way of thinking.
In the end, there are many reasons why people voted in favour of Brexit and I have just scratched the surface with my little analysis. Lies, empty promises, and hatred played a significant role as well, of course, but this part of the referendum campaign has been explored well enough by the mass media. And some voices shouldn’t be given a louder voice than they deserve.