The Null Device
As of Friday morning, all hell has broken loose in the UK.
As nobody predicted*, the British voting public voted to leave the EU, 52% to 48%. Well, the English and Welsh voting public, mostly; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain. Immediately, things started going tits-up. The pound cratered, experiencing its largest drop in value since the Major government's withdrawal from the European exchange rate mechanism. Meanwhile, Google reported a surge in searches for “what is the EU” and “what happens if we leave the EU”, and the media began filling with reports of sheepish voters saying that they voted Leave because they expected Remain to win and just wanted to show their anger at the political class. Meanwhile, as soon as the result was safely in, the anti-EU politicians who backed the Leave campaign started to walk back their promises. There would be no £350 million for the NHS, no sudden end to the rights of foreigners to breathe our precious British air, no abolition of the VAT on power bills. Cornwall, which voted strongly to leave, nervously demanded reassurance that the hefty EU funding it gets would be replaced, pound for pound, from all the money not being sent to the garlic-eating crooks in Brussels; the silence with which its inquiries were answered must have done little to reassure it. A petition to have a second referendum (which, it turns out ironically, had been started before the result by a Leave supporter wanting to keep his anti-EU crusade alive in the event of a defeat) has, to date, received three and a half million signatures; this figure is still climbing.
The only people who did well out of this were the far right, who found themselves legitimised and emboldened. No longer was xenophobia something to deny, or tenuously rationalise, but a natural part of the order of Man; loathing and disgust for those unlike ourselves are nothing to be ashamed of, the message said, but perfectly natural and normal; indeed, perhaps it's those who don't feel visceral revulsion of the Other that are abnormal or sick. The far right and various bigots lost no time in taking this lesson to heart and intimidating foreign-looking people; all over Britain, Polish families found threatening letters in their letterboxes, a community centre was vandalised, and dark-skinned people found themselves being told by strangers (who, presumably, lacked the intellectual nous to know that they were probably not EU passport holders) that they're next. Even Laurie Penny, the (white, London-born) cyber-Rosa Luxembourg of this age, was told to go home by a man wearing a St. George's flag as a cape, because she looked like an art student, and thus wasn't, in his opinion, really English. I must say that, to an Australian, all this sounds uncomfortably familiar, right down to the wearing of flags as capes and/or markers of belligerent idiocy. (Incidentally, Penny's analysis of Brexit is well worth reading.)
Having realised that they had set the country on a course for economic, if not political, devastation, politicians in Westminster started to panic. A defeated David Cameron resigned tearfully, undoubtedly freighted with the complicatedly mixed feelings that he'd no longer be remembered primarily for having sexually interfered with a pig's head, but for something far, far worse. In doing so, he stated that it would not be him but his successor on whom the responsibility for pushing down the detonator and starting Britain's irrevocable exit from the EU would fall. All the obvious candidates in the Conservative Party hastily demurred; now now, they said, there's no need to be hasty. Britain had climbed out onto the ledge and announced its intention to jump, but upon seeing the distance to the hard ground below, was having second thoughts. This wasn't good enough for EU officials, who insisted that Britain had chosen to jump, and must now jump quickly, before the uncertainty upsets their markets (and also, so that the big gory splat serves as a warning to their own domestic Euro-refuseniks, now agitating for the chance to leave), and if it doesn't, they'll consult with lawyers to see if they can give it a helpful push.
Meanwhile, in staunchly pro-EU Scotland and Northern Ireland, things started to get interesting. Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time, announcing that legislation for a second Scottish independence referendum was being drawn up, and that EU consuls would be invited to a summit in Edinburgh within two weeks to discuss ways of keeping Scotland in the EU. There was also the possibility that Scotland and Northern Ireland's legislatures may be able to veto the process of secession; this is disputed by some constitutional experts, though given the labyrinthine complexity of Britain's constitution (which is actually a collection of many documents), it may inject some doubt into the equation, or at least compel Whitehall to let Scotland have its referendum and leave. (After the last Scottish referendum, the issue was declared resolved for all time; theoretically, if Whitehall forbade a second referendum and the Scottish government went ahead with it, those involved could possibly be charged with treason. Much as the rebels of the Irish Easter Rising, a hundred years ago, were; that, of course, didn't end well for the unity of the Kingdom.)
So the pound is tanking, financial companies based in London (who comprise a big part of Britain's economy) are scoping out office space in Frankfurt and Dublin, and our elected leaders are falling on their swords, knifing each other in the back, or playing hot-potato with a live grenade, whilst those who pulled the pin out wonder whether it would be possible to, somehow, find it and put it back in; meanwhile, neo-Nazis are using this as official sanction to attack anyone they regard as not belonging. Welcome to Britain, 2016.
Oh, and in the time it took to write this article, an additional 18,000 or so people have signed the petition.
* YouGov came closest to predicting it, but got the sides the other way around, predicting a 52% win for Remain.
Polls have opened in Britain's membership referendum; despite heavy rain (and in some areas, flooding), attendance is reportedly high, which is probably a factor in the rising fortunes of Remain in polls and on the betting markets (though there are rumours that part of the latter is manipulation by hedge funds). Having said that, the result is still very much up in the air; the closest to a confident statement anybody has made about it is that it will be close, though a recent poll has predicted a 51%-49% victory for Remain; a victory in name, but not really a victory.
In my opinion, there are three ways this could turn out:
Leave could prevail. In the short term, there would be much uncertainty; the pound would take a hit and there'd be a near-term economic downturn. Perhaps Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his Brexit gamble having served its purpose, would fudge some kind of reconciliation with the EU, or perhaps the UK would still be out. All those Leavers who were looking forward to an end of the effects of globalisation and a return to jobs for life and old-fashioned community values would be in for what Milton Friedman might have called a short sharp shock; the new Britain, afloat on the high seas of international finance, would have to compete on some basis, and being a gateway to the European Union (which, for all its problems, is a huge economy) would no longer be that basis, so it'd come down to low wages, lax regulations and/or tax-haven-style opacity. A permanently low pound (and the absence of any automatic rights for British citizens to look for work abroad) would ensure the first point; the other two could come as political necessity, as governments, needing to attract business, cut everything from human rights to environmental regulations. So, post-Brexit Britain would look not so much as a cozy worker's utopia in vintage bunting as a dirty sweatshop and equally dirty tax haven, whoring out both its historic reputation and its captive population. (As one might expect, Russia's oligarchs expect a bonanza after Britain votes to leave the EU; the depressed pound will let them snap up more prime London property, and the receding threat of transparency rules will make London a very comfortable environment for the wealthy and corrupt; for the rest of us, not so much.)
(That is only considering what would happen in the UK itself. In Europe proper, Britain leaving would embolden its own anti-EU fringe elements, the Marine Le Pens and Alternativen für Deutschland and the don't-call-us-Nazis sticking their noses into the tents of government all over the Nordic countries. Once, say, France or Germany left, the EU would effectively be finished as a significant entity. So border posts go up, cooperation gives way to competition and mistrust, and soon armies are being built up, just in case the neighbours try something. Meanwhile, on the Eastern fringe, Russia jockeys for control over the Baltic states. Poland decides, for perfectly understandable reasons, that it needs a nuclear arsenal, then Germany (hemmed in between nuclear France and nuclear Poland) decides it needs one too. Finland starts preparing for another bitter winter war. And around Europe, nationalist parties are on the rise, and skinheads are attacking foreigners, liberals, gays, and anybody outside a narrow view of their country's national identity. The old post-WW2 world of Interrail and EasyJet, of Erasmus scholarships and weekenders at Berghain and complaints about drunken English stag parties, will seem like a long-lost golden age, and the future will look like the millennia-old killing field. In this world, even if you did manage to get an EU passport before the door slammed shut, Europe won't be a welcoming place to go.)
Remain could, narrowly, win. 51-49, 53-47, or similar. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief for a moment, given that the UK is not crashing out of the EU. The Brexit faction, being reasonable people, realise that the people have spoken and accept their vanquishment graciously, dissolving and going away. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage audition as presenters for the next reboot of Top Gear. Britain's bout of anti-European mania is over, as the nation looks to embrace a progressive, inclusive vision beyond its borders.
Who are we kidding? Almost half the population will have voted to leave the EU; the right-wing press are still around and still despise the EU and the progressive impositions it makes. There would be calls of fraud, demands for a recount, perhaps even allegations that MI5/Mossad/the Masons tampered with ballots. (It's likely that Russian election observers would obligingly provide “evidence” of electoral fraud, as they did in Scotland.) Even if the conspiracy theories didn't get beyond the jet-fuel/steel-beams credibility threshold, Little England's low-intensity war against the EU would continue for another generation. UKIP would get MEPs elected, who would take up seats in Brussels and behave like carbon monoxide molecules in its bloodstream, taking up space and blocking its operation. Tory politicians (and perhaps Labour ones) would find that pandering to Europhobia is politically profitable. The conflict would flare up from time to time, and might again drag Britain towards the edge of the abyss.
- Remain could win decisively, with at least 60%. Perhaps Leave's figure would be as low as the Crazification Factor, the 25% or so of the population who either are actual swivel-eyed lunatics or merely willing to unbridle their id and howl at the moon in the privacy of the polling booth and the internet comment forum, though that's not necessary. In any case, Remain would have a clear majority. The opportunists on the Leave side, having exhausted its usefulness, would jump ship and not look back, and however hard the hardcore and their backers in the tabloids bloviated about the evils of Europe, they'd be dismissed as yesterday's cranks. (Today's cranks would, of course, find some other, more topical, issue to latch onto.) This is the only scenario that could be considered an unambiguous victory for Remain.
I'm hoping for the third scenario. It could still happen, though, if polls are to be believed, is unlikely. If the polls are to be believed, the second scenario is the most likely, which means that things will fester on, albeit in a less acute state. Though recent history has shown that polls aren't what they used to be; perhaps we're entering a chaotic period of history, where assumptions no longer hold. In any case, we'll probably know between 2am and 7am.
Britain's tantrum about whether to remain a member of the EU has been burbling on malevolently, like some kind of grotesque pantomime. The Leave side has been advancing spectacularly, given largely a free ride by the right-leaning tabloids, and has emerged from the depths of absurdity to within grasp of victory. Leave has been fronted mainly by a disingenuous Boris Johnson, using all his Oxford debating society skills, Telegraph editorial experience and classically-educated raconteurial eloquence to posit an argument he is on record as not believing in, buttressed by a Gish Gallop of trivially debunkable urban legends and outright untruths about overbearing EU regulations. it is clear that for him, the prize is not the UK, free at last of the tethers of Brussels and sailing the high seas like a mighty Elizabethan galleon, once again regaining its world-spanning empire due to the innate British genius for free trade, but Boris Johnson moving into 10 Downing St., perhaps even before the next general election. To his right is Nigel Farage, the affable (if you're an older white Englishman, at least) reactionary, pint in hand, telling it like it is and pouring scorn on left-wing metropolitan-elite bullshit, from global warming and finite natural resources to ladies in the workplace and smoking being harmful.
The past week started as a victory lap for the Leave campaign, buoyed by polls giving them a commanding 6-10% lead over Remain (also likely to be inflated by the asymmetry of engagement between the two sides; it is hard to imagine someone who loves the EU with the passion with which the hardcore Europhobes despise it). Remain seemed to be flailing desperately, the chancellor even resorting to threatening voters with punitive tax hikes if Leave won. Leave, meanwhile, stopped pretending that their argument is about bloodless economic calculation and got to the real (red) meat of the argument: the Bloody Foreigners. A poster was produced, showing vast queues of brown-skinned, scarily Islamic-looking refugees befouling England's green and pleasant land with their presence, its framing (wittingly or otherwise) lifted from a Nazi propaganda film from the 1940s. Then there was the flotilla: Farage (the champion of the British fisherman, who sat on the EU Fisheries Committee but declined to attend most of the meetings) leading a group of fishing boats up the Thames in protest, with a counterprotest led by Bob Geldof.
And then there was the murder.
Jo Cox, a Labour MP and human rights campaigner, had been on the Remain flotilla. The following day, she was back in her seat in northern England, holding an electoral surgery, when a man stabbed and shot her, shouting “Britain first”. She did not survive, and became the first sitting British politician murdered since Spencer Perceval in 1812. The right-wing pro-Leave press moved swiftly to disavow any suggestion that the murder was in any way political, let alone connected to an interpretation of their side's arguments, trying to spin the killer as a random lunatic, as likely to have been motivated by, say, the ghost of Freddie Mercury talking to him through his toaster as anything else. That interpretation was not helped when he was found to have had connections with neo-Nazi groups (including Britain First, if a photograph of him at one of their events is authentic), nor when, in court, he gave his name as “Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain” (though Louise Mensch, that reliably south-pointing compass of the British Torysphere, did make a heroic attempt to claim his words as semantically meaningless gibberish, or in her words, “wibble wibble I'm a hatstand”).
By now, pretty much everyone has conceded that the murder was politically motivated, which leaves Leave with the bind of trying to dissociate themselves from extremists further up the continuum of xenophobic opinion from them; meanwhile, polls show that some voters have started deserting Leave (though not in droves; the two sides are now polling neck and neck). Perhaps they're asking themselves about some of the people they've discovered themselves sharing a side in the debate with.
It's three days until the referendum itself, and the result is still very much up in the air. Polling suggests that Leave still have the edge, while the betting markets predict a Remain victory. If Britain votes to leave the EU, it will, in my opinion, be a catastrophically bad decision for reasons too numerous to go into here. If Remain ekes out a narrow victory, though, the sense of relief will be tinged by the awareness that, were it not for the brutal murder of a fundamentally decent human being, our ancestral hatred of the Frogs and Krauts and fear of a brown-skinned Other would almost certainly have shifted it to Leave. And it does make one wonder what proportion of the 40%+ of the population expected to vote Leave would agree with Mr. Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain that Jo Cox, MP was, if not a traitor to Britain, part of an enemy elite hostile to the “silent majority”.