The Leave vote in last week’s EU referendum bequeaths a legacy that will still be under scrutiny long after David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker evaporate into the political science journals.
In the small hours of Friday morning, tired, frustrated and looking for an angry fix, I described what I consider to be the first three tragedies of Brexit in a comment below an article on FT.com. My rant was screengrabbed, tweeted and, to my surprise, went slightly viral.
So what are the three tragedies? And why did they resonate with voters of my own generation?
First, millions of economically deprived people have voted against a scapegoat — and the solutions they were sold by the Leave campaign are almost entirely unfeasible. It was working-class voters who directed Britain towards the door. There was a clear divide between the more affluent and the millions who felt disempowered by the seemingly uncontrollable winds of globalisation and mass mobility. Furthermore, public services have been squeezed by years of government austerity since the start of the global financial crisis, while sluggish wage growth has exacerbated a feeling of economic abandonment.
And yet, if these conditions are to be improved in a greying country, we will need more of the immigration and international collaboration that so many Leavers felt unable to control. It is almost certain that they will not get the Britain they desired. Or, worse yet, they will — and it is going to hurt.
Second, doors are slamming shut all over Europe. Young Brits like me will lose the automatic right to live and work in 27 EU countries. The “Erasmus generation” — named after the EU’s student exchange scheme — has come to see Europe as borderless, and many of us have grown up studying and working in other European countries. Some 75 per cent of voters under the age of 25 opted to stay in the EU. Meanwhile, those over the age of 65 voted most heavily to leave.
Those who voted Leave may feel powerless and ignored, but demographically they are more likely to be leading settled, retired lives with little need of a continent’s worth of opportunity. They will have to tolerate the economic chaos they have created for roughly 20 years. But millennials — those of us in our twenties and early thirties, one in five of whom are expected to make it to our 100th birthday — will now have to spend up to eight decades locked out of the union we voted to stay in. Does this count, in the parlance of the Leave campaigners, as a “democratic deficit”?
Third, we now appear to live in a post-factual democracy. When Michael Gove, the pro-Brexit justice secretary, was told by Faisal Islam of Sky News in an interview that “the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, IMF, the CBI, five former Nato secretary generals and the chief executive of the NHS” were all against Britain’s exit, the response was remarkable. “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts,” he replied.
And he was right. This was in part because of the rise of social media and the Balkanisation of our news diets, which lead us to gravitate towards confrontation and scapegoats. In almost every instance, emotions trumped research, which could be easily dismissed with accusations of an ulterior elitist motive: “Well, the International Monetary Fund would say that, wouldn’t they?”
But Mr Gove was right, too, because the appeal of “the experts” has been in relatively short supply since the start of the financial crisis nine years ago. When I told one Leave voter that almost every serious economist on earth was warning of a downturn in the event of Britain’s exit, he replied: “Who cares? They didn’t seem to know anything about the last crisis.”
Even if almost all the academic research indicates that, despite the initial shocks to the system, immigration is good for economic growth and that globalisation can enhance every economy, it is of little interest to the average person if it is not immediately evident. If you read about international co-operation only when it goes wrong, why would you vote to keep it?
The reluctant heirs to this island will have to deal with a dissatisfied and distrustful country — a country that might still be known officially as the United Kingdom but is unlikely to be united in practice any time soon.
The writer is deputy editor of thestrix.com