In the wake of Britain’s shocking vote to leave the European Union last Thursday, the country’s politics have been reconfigured in ways that are only beginning to become clear. This A to Z of Brexit is a guide to why it happened, and what comes next.
A is for Alliance: The Leave coalition seems to be made up of at least six different strands, with widely different motives and demographics. There are the Shire Tories — heartland Euroskeptics, mostly now quite old, motivated by dreams of British exceptionalism and an ancient tribal cause. There are Left-Behind-Traditional Labour voters — working-class people, mainly in the north of England, Midlands, and Wales, motivated by their belief that immigration has inflamed the pressures of financial austerity (see N is for Nowhere Else to Go). There is the Far Right, racists who hated immigration anyway, and have often found a more mainstream home in Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), whose pressure on the Tory vote brought about the referendum in the first place.
Those are the biggest groups. Then there are also the leftists voting for “Lexit” (motivated by dislike of the EU’s implementation of neoliberalism); the ultra-neoliberals like Michael Gove (motivated by dislike of the EU’s non-implementation of neoliberalism); and last, and frankly also the least genuine, sovereignty wonks like the history professor Alan Sked, who provided Leave with rhetorical artillery well in excess of its numbers. In other words, the half of the country that voted Leave was, and is, very divided in motive if not sadly united in action. No faction alone could have gotten Britain here. Pleasing all, or even most, will be impossible.
B is for Blair: In his work-in-progress, Blimey, It Could Be Brexit!, the left-wing theorist of democracy Anthony Barnett points out the continuity between Blair and Cameron (who called Blair “the Master”) — corporatist managerial government with the prime minister selling new restructurings to the board and shareholders of U.K. plc. In that sense, Brexit closes the loop on Blair’s 1997 election win, and is the end of a 19-year managerial experiment. The difference is that Blair acted the photogenic chief exec, happy to dissemble to the public for the sake of “the project,” while Cameron’s background was PR, which is the deft art of crisis management via lying. Each of Cameron’s moves, until the final, fatal referendum, was designed for short-term benefit — stave off a threat here, win a vote there. But because he seemed to have no strategic sense, each raised the stakes a little higher.
C is for Calais: One of the things the Leave campaign was quiet about is the threat of Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, scrapping the arrangement which lets the English border be, de facto, in France. When this happens, it’s going to change the immigration debate in fairly nightmarish ways. Little England was stricken with fear and loathing of migrants when refugee camps in Calais became dangerously overcrowded bottlenecks caused by the French preventing people from getting to Britain. What happens if a populist mayor says, “Not the EU’s problem anymore,” and waves them through? Bodies washing up at Bournemouth? Internment camps on the Isle of Wight? Racist vigilantism in UKIP’s coastal strongholds? I don’t know, and neither does Leave, but it’s terrifying.
D is for Devolution: Bye, Scotland! Sorry, Northern Ireland! And glad to have you with us, Wales, our masochistic mountainous pal who voted to leave the EU despite the enormous levels of investment it enjoys. But it’s England that’s the interesting case in many ways. Barnett points out the unpalatable truth that this is England’s referendum, born of a need to placate English nativism, swung by English counties. His conclusion is that English nationalism will have to be constitutionalized sooner or later (e.g. with an English parliament), and that this will be an opportunity for radical voices to be heard, and a positive, diverse Englishness to emerge. It is very hard to have any faith in this idea right now — not that a positive, diverse Englishness is impossible (it exists — see G is for Greater London), but that an English parliament right now would be anything other than a total horror show.
E is for Empire: The story of the referendum is the story of open psychic wounds — generational losses never quite atoned for, which come back to haunt current decisions. Trying to explain the Baby Boomers’ preference for Brexit, most commentators have fallen back on the idea of the vanished Britain of their youth, which they feel might come back if we left the EU. This is a bit glib, I think. What motivates bitterness isn’t just nostalgia, but a sense of wider loss. The Boomers grew up in a Britain that was simultaneously special — it had held the line against fascism, won the war, and was now a young and lucky country — and losing power and influence at a vertiginous rate. British exceptionalism — the idea that Britain is uniquely plucky and favored — is an imperial myth, not a natural by-product of nationalism. The wrenching glorious win and enormous loss of the ’40s to the ’60s is the psychological root of exceptionalism, and the same exceptionalist strand that motivated Brexit. Britain has never recovered from the Empire. But now, the Brexiteers have got what they wanted: For this chaotic moment, Britain really matters.
F is for Far Right: The far right — and I’m happy to lump UKIP in here — make up a small part of the Leave coalition, but obviously they’re a vocal part and will do very well out of the referendum. They might have done just as well electorally if Remain had won — though, around half of UKIP supporters believed attempts were being made to fix the vote, and a betrayal narrative would have taken off very quickly, leading to a surge in UKIP support. (As it is, the betrayal narrative will return — see S is for Stab in the Back.) The British like to believe their country is naturally inoculated against fascism , but I suspect we’ll see far-right support jump from the 13-percent-UKIP vote at the last election to something closer to the higher levels you see on the continent. Meanwhile, reports suggest a wave of racist abuses and hate crimes by a newly emboldened far right is occurring.
G is for Greater London: London was solid Remain — 30 out of 32 boroughs voted “In.” Inevitably, Londoners woke up that morning to voices, even friendly voices, telling us we lived in a bubble, we were cut off from ordinary people, etc. A response: Fuck you. London — and the other great cities of England that voted Remain — are not bubbles, they’re examples. London is far from perfect — it has gentrification; soaring inequality; it seems determined to price people out of living there; and it has its share of tensions rippling below the surface. But it is also outward-looking, diverse, successfully multicultural, and a place Britain could be proud of. Obviously, it got that way because of high and sustained levels of investment, which the rest of England has mostly been starved of; and the remainder of the country — Remain pockets included — rightly resents London’s monopolization of cultural and media clout. But London and other Remain cities show that investment can work. For better or worse, London is now Labour’s heartland, as well as Remain’s, and even if it won’t ever be enough to return either movement to power on its own, neither side of that arrangement should be ashamed of the fact.
H is for House Prices: One of the important things about this vote is that it represents the moment when traditional political levers for keeping Middle England in line — threats of housing-price falls, interest-rate rises, etc. — stopped working. Only, last year, the threat of a Labour/Scottish National Party coalition causing economic and political “chaos” scared plenty of voters back to the Conservatives. This time, “Project Fear” failed. This is partly because Leave’s “taking back control” slogan was such a strong story — implying that things are already chaotic and will somehow get less so — but it’s also another nail in the coffin for the managerialist idea that steady, affluent improvement (if delivered) will always beat out revolt or grand narrative. The question now is what happens when reality bites. Already the media has seized on Leave voters who are blanching at the reality of their decision as the pound goes down in flames. Schadenfreude aside, these people seem to be a statistical fluke. The vast majority of Leavers will repent at leisure, if at all.
I is for In This Together: “We are all in it together,” Cameron’s scorned platitude about austerity, is the one quote that will survive his political downfall. After such a divisive vote, it feels more bitter than ever. And yet, Brexit is the rare crisis in which citizens really are almost all going to be affected. From bankers to migrant laborers, farmers to steelworkers, homeowners to working women, the scythe of Brexit has a long reach. It’s certainly true that the Leave vote was a blow struck against the Establishment and the elite by those long neglected. It’s also true that it takes place within an economic system so rigged that the only way to harm the Establishment is to wrestle it off a cliff with you.
J is for Jeremy: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had a pretty bad campaign, not for what he said — his musing that he was a “seven out of ten” in favor struck an honest chord — but for how little visibility he had. This may have been calculated — you might see the gray hand of hard-left communications director Seumas Milne, no friend of the EU, at work. But Corbyn’s uselessness at working traditional media is a given at this point. Playing the long game, this might not have mattered — the Corbyn argument is that media is corrupt and the internet lets us build alternative message channels. But with an election possible this year, there may not be a long game anymore, and Brexit has erased any progress Corbyn was making on hauling the Overton window leftwards. Hence, the coup attempt by the center and right of the Labour Party, two days after Brexit, in a desperate bid to find someone who can take on the populist Boris Johnson. Awkwardly, none of Corbyn’s opponents or wannabe inheritors has a good campaign either — there was little buzz about coup leader Hilary Benn on the stump. The most prominent and principled Labour voice in the referendum was only heard after she was murdered.
K is for Kennedy: For a long time, the most significant sudden death in U.K. politics was John Smith, whose heart attack cleared the stage for Blair. Now, I’d say it’s Charles Kennedy, whose illness and death deprived British politics of perhaps its only genuinely popular, populist pro-European voice. As it was, Britain’s most pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats, were a spectral presence at the referendum, though they have at least come out swinging since. Still, the post-Kennedy Lib Dems are a tragic party, having now seen their two most cherished and identifiable policies — voting reform and Europe — directly annihilated at the ballot box.
L is for Literally the Worst: David Cameron is the worst post-war prime minister, a gambler without even the spine to bet his reputation (and the country’s economy) on something he believed in. The ruin of his reputation is a Brexit silver lining, but a very thin and unsatisfying one.
M is for Miltonic: Unfortunately, Cameron’s humiliation has the price of Boris Johnson’s elevation. He is ensconced now as the country’s most popular, luckiest, and most successful politician — his rebellion looking to have paid off handsomely. Better to reign in hell than serve in Brussels — though reigning in hell sounds fine until you get a proper look at the real estate. Boris spent the post-Brexit crisis weekend playing cricket, offering no comment and no plan on the lunacy he’d so joyfully plunged the country into.
N is for Nowhere Else to Go: Blairism, the most successful electoral machine in modern British politics, delivered three large majorities for Labour. Blairites imagine those days can return, but their winning formula was always based on a particular time bomb of a calculation. Tony Blair’s first landslide took place in May 1997, and Brexit is both the horrible reverse of 1997 and the end of its story. New Labour architect Peter Mandelson declared of the old Labour vote that they had “nowhere else to go”. On June 23, after decades of contempt, they finally went there.
O is for Opinion: Expert opinion, to be exact, which was actively mocked and worse by Leave, and turned out to be largely worthless as a vote-shifter. 2016 has been a bad year for punditry on both sides of the Atlantic — commentators were wrong about Brexit, just as they were largely wrong about Trump. We can expect a barrage of economic experts deployed in any snap election, too, with just as little tangible effect on the vote. The question with “post-fact” politics, which Johnson will deploy again and again and again as he runs for prime minister, isn’t just how to fight it — it’s what happens if and when the experts turn out to be right about the devastating economic consequences of leaving the EU. (See S is for Stab in the Back.)
P is for Prisoner’s Dilemma: A.k.a. Leave’s negotiation strategy. Leave’s claim has always been that the EU has too much to lose to not negotiate good deals with Britain post-Brexit. This claim is already being tested. But it has always rested on a very bizarre idea: That, in a tit-for-tat scenario, non-co-operation (a Brexit vote) will be met with co-operation (preferable trade deals). It won’t. And that’s even before the politicians of Europe, desperate for bargaining chips as they struggle to save the EU’s crumbling center from populist nationalism, take the chance to pick on Britain as a whipping boy.
Q is for Quangos: The Conservatives promised a “bonfire of the quangos” and axed hundreds of quasi-governmental organizations in 2012. But the real purge might happen now. The right keeps on winning the battle on “regulations,” partly because it always manages to frame them as “regulations” instead of “protections” and “rights.” It’s easier to think of a regulation you don’t like, such as a parking ticket or speeding fine, than the bad things regulations help prevent , like food poisoning, pollution, and turds floating past you as you paddle, hanky on head, in the freezing Brexitland sea. That distinction may become more tangible soon enough.
R is for Racism: One of the things you hear a lot about is that talking about racism has stopped Britain from having the “real conversation” it needs to about immigration. But the opposite is also true. Talking about immigration has stopped Britain from having the “real conversation” it needs to about racism — it has blurred the lines and given racists an off-the-peg excuse whenever they’re called on their racism.
S is for Stab in the Back: Brexit won. So why would the Brexiteers and Leave voters need to develop a betrayal narrative? Because the promises made to secure the win can’t and won’t come true. Brexit won’t get favored trading deals. It won’t mean more money spent on the NHS. It won’t bring jobs and houses back. It won’t even have much of an impact on immigration. At this point, Leave voters could say “we fucked up,” or even, “well, we had to try,” but some won’t. Because Britain is Exceptional (see E is for Empire), they’ll find someone to blame. The rest of Europe, for its retaliation. The young Remainers, for their youth. The cowards north of the border, for not Sticking It Out. The immigrants, for still existing. The markets — or go one better — the Shadowy Forces behind the markets … and there are plenty of preexisting conspiracies just waiting for such fertile soil to grow in. Unless focus can be put, firmly and brutally, on the liars who headed the Leave campaign, things will become even more ugly.
T is for Two-Party System: The result of the referendum is 17 million versus 16 million, a split so clean and close that it feels like the outline for a U.S.–style two-party system. Leave and Remain are divided across, not along, most existing party lines, but have clear geographic, demographic, and cultural divisions. The Leave party is patriotic, nativist, working class, and traditional. The Remain party is globalist, pro-business, urban, and socially liberal. Neither of them quite feel like real parties — but at the moment — nor do Britain’s current parties. Whoever can latch onto one of the grand referendum coalitions has a chance of reshaping British politics for a long time to come.
U is for Unbrexit: Could the referendum be reversed, perhaps with a second referendum? Could Britain, in fact, never leave? Boris Johnson’s original plan was a second vote (although, he saw it as a change to negotiate better terms with the EU, not reverse the first vote), and millions of people are calling for one. But while there’s plenty of precedent for EU countries being told to go back and do it again, this is exactly the kind of thing that made the Leavers suspect the EU in the first place. The furies unleashed by Brexit might only be stoked higher by a new vote.
More intriguing is the idea that Britain might linger wanly in the Brexit lobby, refusing to invoke Article 50 — the two-year doomsday clock that makes it actually happen. The more obvious the disaster of Brexit becomes, the less any politician will want to actually push the button, runs the argument. Very true, but in this scenario, it’s not U.K. Leave voters whose wrath would be beyond measure, but the rest of the EU who will see it as promoting endless instability. The Leave campaign stands revealed as underpants gnomes, but phase one of their plan, at least, was always clear: Leave the EU. Someone’s going to have to do it.
V is for Volatility: “The pound will go where it will,” said Boris pre-referendum, his glibness echoing ’70s Labour prime minister James Callaghan’s breezy “Crisis? What Crisis?” — one of U.K. politics’ legendary moments. The pound has now gone where it will, and looks set to keep going there. Some of the market volatility around Brexit will indeed settle. But where will it settle? It’s hard not to get the impression that this is a gigantic correction, a national devaluation — not just of the pound, but of Britain itself — as the markets adjust to our new reality as a small, rainy island, which doesn’t manufacture much and just told its friends to fuck off. Of course, it might be that, in a couple of years, we are better off than the EU because we have helped to demolish it. That will be nothing to be proud of.
W is for Women: South and east of the borders, it was a very bloke-y referendum, a late-night gambling session among public schoolboys. This matters not just because voters heard a dreadfully limited range of views, but because it meant the most important question facing Leave — what EU regulations are you planning to liberate us from? — was asked a lot less. Childcare, flexible working, part-time working, parental leave … these are issues that affect women more and which received very little focus, despite being areas where the EU has strong systems of workers’ rights. Economists for Brexit’s Patrick Minford, a notorious hard-right thinker from the Thatcherite ’80s, has suggested the economic impact of leaving could be offset by scrapping gender-equality rules. The lads of Leave may give his ideas a shot.
X is for Generation X: The one fact we all know about the referendum is that it’s a generational split — Baby Boomers went for Leave, young people went for Remain. Generation X-ers, ever ambivalent, were split. Older X-ers swung behind Leave, younger ones went for Remain. Of course, the impact of Brexit on young people will be seismic and probably destructive. But I think its impact on people my age — fortysomethings — will be profound in a different way, not necessarily economically, but psychologically. Britain in the EU, an internationalist Britain, is the backdrop of our entire lives. It has shaped — often unknowingly — our way of life, our careers, our sense of possibility, or, if we didn’t like the EU, our sense of limits and the Other. The “EU Britain” was our country. And now it’s gone. Subtly rebooted overnight. We might not miss it all at once, but when we get to that dreaded 65+ demographic ourselves, when we look around at what’s gone from the world, I bet this is what we’ll think of. Will any demagogue whisper to us, “You can have it back …” ?
Y is for Yorkshire: If English nationalism is the great benefactor of Brexit, what about its hidden cousins? Cornwall, Yorkshire, London, Merseyside … these are places with a well-developed sense of separation, sometimes with languages and movements of their own. All — in the current and likely electoral landscape — wedded to representatives that never touch actual power. What do they do? Might all countries be Balkans if subjected to enough pressure?
Z is for Zeitgeist: Brexit is insular, but not wholly British. You don’t need to struggle to see the parallels across the Channel or the Atlantic: the arrogance of neoliberal elites in constructing a politics designed to sideline and work around democracy, while leaving democracy formally intact. Democracy becomes a potential weapon, a trigger you can vote to pull. But weapons don’t fire themselves, and the genius of Farage and Johnson and Gove (and Trump, potentially) is to get people to focus on the target, not on the one holding the gun.