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Brexit: time for Plan B

Patrick Ward By Patrick Ward Published on June 25, 2016
This article was updated on December 8, 2016

So, that happened. Against all odds, the voters of the UK decided it was time to part ways with the European Union. Many of you will no doubt feel gutted, perhaps even scared, at the result. But we’re stuck with it now, so we need to make lemonade from the small, dry, greenhouse-grown British grown lemons we’ve been dealt.

First of all, let’s not terrify ourselves further by viewing the vote as one purely of racism or anti-immigration, nor should we look at it simply as an endorsement of figures like Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson. These things are all true, to a significant extent, but there was also a strong element of anti-establishment anger, especially in poorer areas, fed by years of austerity and disconnect from the political elite. While the Leave campaign scared voters with anti-immigrant propaganda, the main Remain campaign was busy lining up figures like Tony Blair and David Cameron alongside various big business leaders and out of touch celebrities, who spoke in unison about how much better life was inside the union, despite the fact that many of these people had played active parts in making life much more difficult for so many people.

But, whatever the reasons, we have what we have, so let’s work with that. What comes next is uncharted territory, partly because of the complacency of the Remain campaign, which includes the bulk of the UK government and much of Brussels. No one thought Remain would lose, and so plans for a Brexit were severely lacking. That’s partly why the markets have been so rocky. But we do know what the next important vote will be.

Prime Minister David Cameron has handed in his resignation letter, so the first thing will be a Tory party election for their new leader, with Brexiteer and former London mayor Boris Johnson apparently leading the charge. Our first task, then, is to demand a fresh general election, if one is not forthcoming anyway.

The general election will see a bitterly divided Tory party, perhaps with a resurgent UK Independence Party led by Farage. Despite its weakness, there’s no room for complacency. Some sort of electoral alliance between Labour, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Green Party and others would strengthen the movement against the Brexiteers of the hard-right. We will need the most powerful alliance we can assemble, because this could be one of the most important government terms in modern history.

This is vital because of what the new government will be tasked to do: renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the rest of the Europe, rewrite EU-dependent laws, and attempt to heal the divisions, or not, brought to a head by the referendum campaign. Brexit’s winning team, if you like, will want to reduce migrant rights in the UK, block off borders and push for the extreme free market Thatcherism characteristic of the likes of Johnson and Farage.

An alternative government to this could push for continued free movement of people within the EU, on a similar basis as the agreements between the EU and Switzerland or Iceland. It could also do far more to help people coming to the UK from outside the EU, most obviously those currently languishing in Calais.

Another vital first step would be to challenge the austerity narrative, that economic crises should be paid for by the poorest in society. That’s been the bedrock of the Tory government since 2010, but with an economy collapsing around our ears post-Brexit, the Tory leadership-in-waiting will want to push this into overdrive. Those opposed to this will have to work similarly hard to prevent it from happening.

This could also be a realistic chance for parts of the UK to break away and form governments of their own choosing. Scotland is the most obvious example. Having lost its independence referendum in 2014 by a narrow margin, voters in Scotland resoundingly voted to remain in the EU. The same is true for Northern Ireland, with its added complexities and fears that a non-EU north could jeopardise its relationship with the south, which is still in the EU. The Republican movement’s long-held claim to a united Ireland could, perhaps, be on the cards, making it finally free of British manipulation. Gibralta, too, may well have to develop some kind of meaningful shared status with Spain.

That would leave England and Wales going it alone. That won’t be easy. England, outside of London and other major cities, is hardly a hotbed of radicalism, but things can change. And, whether we like it or not, that seems to be the way things are going.

And none of this is simply a matter of sitting back in our armchairs waiting for change to occur. Everyone needs to be involved. Large sections of the Remain campaign, especially young people, who fought for the EU precisely because of free movement of people, in opposition to the far-right and other progressive causes, will need to keep their energy and enthusiasm intact. That means challenging this new emboldened racism wherever it rears its head, campaigning and demonstrating whenever plans to limit the rights of EU migrants are raised, and organising in their workplaces to build strong, effective trade unions to fight off attacks on working conditions and employment regulations. Within hours of the vote being announced, Farage said that a major claim of the Leave campaign, that the £350 million the EU “takes every week” from the UK would be given to the NHS, was not worth the 20 foot banners it was printed on. Already people are campaigning so that this promise, at least, is adhered to.

This situation is far too important to be left to politicians. Even the ones we might like. Everything is up for grabs, and lobbying from the big multinationals, the racists and the free market radicals -- many of whom will have wanted us to Remain -- will be in overdrive. That has to be countered with all the strength we can muster.

Waking up on 24 June, I spoke to many friends, mostly migrants themselves, and many had been in tears. It wasn’t just what the vote meant on a technical level, it was the idea that nearly half the country had voted against their own future in the UK, and against the hopes and dreams they had built up for that future. It’s a big blow, and this article isn’t supposed to dismiss that. These are just ideas, but they don’t seem so outlandish. The alternative is to hunker down, demoralised, as a tidal wave of shit rolls over us all. We can’t let that happen. 

Patrick Ward is a journalist and writer in London. He likes historical non-fiction and sci-fi, which gives him the opportunity to read about what went wrong in the past and how it might be better ... Show More