Unequal nation

20 Feb 2019


The writer is a freelance contributor based in London.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in London.

THE unpleasantness of Brexit swamps Britain. It streams from the uncertainty that engulfs the expert and professional class in Britain, and elsewhere. Politicians, journalists, analysts, lawyers, activists, unionists, academics and the business community, are confused, dumbfounded and equivocal about the future course of Brexit. Yet, the large majority of these experts and professionals profess, with certainty and conviction, the cause of Brexit.

No sooner had the referendum results been announced than the postmortem of Brexit began — and rightly so. The first response to Brexit was along these lines: Brexit is the revolt of the English working class. Simultaneously, published data highlighted that the poor were more likely to have voted Leave, and the rich were more likely to have voted Remain. After some illogical and fallacious contortions, the argument presented was: the leaders of the Leave camp, the white English elite, duped the uneducated white English working class voters by telling them lies about immigrants and by glorifying the imperial, colonial legacy when Britain ruled the world. Therefore, the vote for Leave was based on racism, lies, xenophobia and showed the stupidity of the masses.

This conclusion misinforms us about Brexit and misrepresents those who voted to leave Europe. It ignores a few important facts. First, many South Asians in Britain voted to leave Europe. Would anybody in their right mind suggest that South Asians in Britain were nostalgic about colonial Britain? Second, many anti-imperialist, educated, socialist intellectuals, like Tariq Ali, argued for leaving Europe aka Lexit. The assertion that only the uneducated white working class people voted Leave loses its appeal and attraction when confronted with these two basic facts.

For me, there are four fundamental issues that can only be resolved at a global scale. These are the effects of climate change, the rise of private and public debt, immigration and the rise of inequality. For that reason, I voted to remain in the EU.

Many South Asians in Britain voted to leave Europe.

But, unlike many who voted to remain, I was also interested in how and why people were voting Leave. Almost all the South Asians around me, many Pakistani first-generation immigrants, started professing the virtues of leaving the EU. For them, the case against the EU was simple: with fewer workers from the EU, there would be more jobs for people from South Asia. This reasoning was not driven by racism, xenophobia or even imperial nostalgia but simple ‘self-interest’. The logic of ‘self-interest’ in the current economic system pits one exploited group against another exploited group.

Over the course of next two years, I have spoken to hundreds of working-class people in London, Manchester and other towns, who voted to leave the EU.

Words may be different but there is one sentiment that I have repeatedly heard: ‘despite working hard, my life has become harder’. When you watch Bollywood movies, and watch actors prancing around Piccadilly Circus, you hardly see the plight of working-class people in Britain. If you really want to see their plight and want to understand why people voted for Brexit, then visit Oldham, Liverpool, Rochdale and even some areas in London.

With the ongoing budget cuts in local government, education, the National Health Service and benefit system, and with a rise in council tax in many areas, it is the working-class people of Britain who bear the cost of austerity. Austerity has contributed to the rise in homelessness, the crime rate, in private debt, poverty rates and in ‘Dickensian diseases’ like gout, whooping cough and scarlet fever.

For the first time since 1982, life expectancy has either stopped improving or actually declined in the UK. The British Medical Journal estimates some 120,000 excess deaths in England due to spending cuts in social care. These are direct results, not of Brexit but of the policies taken by the UK government since the 2007-08 financial crisis. For many, vote for Brexit is a vote against the tyranny of these economic policies which produces uneven distributional effects.

Ignoring economic reasons when examining Brexit is akin to ignoring the corpse during a postmortem examination. In politics, Aristotle described what happens when inequality spikes in a country. Those with enormous wealth ignore rules, regulations and the laws of society; and those living in abject poverty develop resentment and hatred for the rules, regulations and laws. The very essence of society comes under threat.

Aristotle suggested that democracy should control inequality or inequality would crush democracy. In The Age of Uncertainty, John Kenneth Galbraith observed: “When reforms from the top became impossible, the revolution from the bottom became inevitable”. Brexit is not a revolution, there is still time for reform and for Britain.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in London.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2019