Lessons from Brexit

Written by Eileen Clark, Clarks Clerks:

Result too close to call?

Conservative leader under threat from his own side?

Financial chaos and credit rating threatened?

This seems like a bad case of déjà vu. Last week it was Brexit, today it’s the Australian double dissolution election. In both cases, it appears the little people turned on Big Government, parties were accused of telling Great Big Lies in their campaigning, and voting was underpinned by a strong current of racism.

Watching the Brexit results come in, as an outsider I was struck by the geographic divide in voting. London and the periphery – Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – voted strongly to stay in Europe while the provinces wanted out. Places which were the heartland of the Industrial Revolution and the engine room of British industry in the 20th century are now economically depressed and people on the street spoke of governments ignoring them in the push for free trade and open borders. Both major political parties in Britain supported Brexit, just as here Liberals and the ALP touted free trade and more foreign investment as the way forward. It was left to the peripheral parties like the Greens, Nick Xenophon and One Nation to argue that a more cautious approach was needed. The vote for Brexit in Britain and support for minor parties here show that many ordinary people rejected policies based on neoliberalisn and globalisation.

The Leave campaigners in Brexit seemed to promise an unachievable outcome, claiming they could retain access to the open market in Europe while re-establishing control over the country’s borders. As soon as the result became apparent, the defeated Remain side started pointing out the impossibility of what had been promised, the lies their opponents had told. In the last weeks of electioneering here, the Coalition tried unsuccessfully to convince voters that they would not privatise Medicare, as claimed by the ALP, but no matter how often the words Great Big Lie were said, it seems voters did not believe them, remembering perhaps the promises of ‘no cuts to hospitals’ that were broken after the last election.

Immigration and racism have been a feature in both Great Britain and Australia for most of my lifetime, but they have not always been at the centre of political debate. Immigration came to the fore in Britain in the 1960s, as people of colour moved there from British colonies around the world. In 1968, the right-wing politician Enoch Powell predicted there would be ‘rivers of blood’ in the streets if no controls were placed on immigration. Fast forward to the present and there are claims that, since joining the European Union, Britain has been flooded with east Europeans and refugees, and that these people are taking British jobs, threatening its culture and posing a terrorist threat. Nigel Farage, founder of the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, said simply ‘We’re full.’ Comparisons with Australia are easy to see, with any rational debate about the size and type of immigration we need being overtaken by simplistic slogans and scare tactics about ‘radical Islam’.

The Brexit vote was divided not only by geography but by age, with those under 35 voting strongly to remain in Europe, seeing themselves as citizens of the world not of a country. Young people aged 16 and 17 years old demanded a vote (as in the 2014 Scottish referendum) because it was their future at stake. The current election in Australia was notable for the number of young people who failed to register or failed to vote, yet they are the ones most affected by unregulated university costs, unaffordable housing and few jobs.

As a result of Brexit, the Scottish parliament is pushing for another referendum on Scottish independence. As I write this, a call flashes up, in jest I hope, for a Pauline Hanson-led ‘Quexit’ for the Sunshine State. In Great Britain and Australia, there are rumblings about another poll, going back to the voters in the hope they’ll get it right next time. I’m not sure I could stand the excitement.



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