The Bitter Lesson of Brexit: Don’t Listen to Demagogues With Silly Hair

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The rich but dim scion of a wealthy family enters politics after a high-profile but not entirely successful career, much of which has been spent in the public eye. He’s viewed first as a lovable buffoon but, increasingly, as a threat to the stability of the country he professes to love. He wages a populist campaign based on the demonization of immigrants and flirtation with the far right. It’s questionable whether he actually believes any of the nonsense he’s spouting, but he does it anyway, most likely because he wants power at any cost and/or his ego won’t allow anything else. And he has stupid hair. Sound familiar?

Meet Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, leader of the “Leave” campaign in yesterday’s British referendum on EU membership and now, after David Cameron’s resignation, heir presumptive to the leadership of the Conservative party. Boris, it’s fair to say, looks as surprised as anyone that he actually managed to win this referendum (although Boris also generally looks surprised that he managed to button his shirt correctly in the morning, so don’t read too much into it.) Like Donald Trump, his clownishly-coiffed counterpart on this side of the Atlantic, he’s run a campaign of self-promotion, one in which he probably expected a heroic defeat that he could carp about for years afterwards, duly taking the publicity that came with the campaign without any of the responsibility that comes with an actual victory. And what awaits Britain is a frankly terrifying preview of what we might expect from a Trump administration.

The air of bewilderment with which Johnson has responded to the “Leave” vote should tell potential Trump voters everything they need to know about what to expect if their hero ends up in the White House — as Esquire reported earlier today, “The spearhead of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, gave a speech this morning, in which he looked, frankly, terrified. It is so much fun to hate the expert class, to hate the globalized elites. But let’s see what it’s like without them. Already, Johnson is trying to backtrack.”

There’s no backtracking, though — indeed, like the spurned partner in any other messy breakup, the EU is already changing the locks. Nothing is set in stone until the UK gives formal notice of its intention to leave, which means there’s potentially time for Johnson to wriggle himself out of the mess he’s created. But probably not — any Tory attempt to backtrack on their commitment to honor the results of the referendum would be political suicide. The monster is up and walking, and it’s showing no desire at all to lay back down on the table for further tinkering. It’s up to Johnson and Nigel Farage to deal with the mess they’ve created, and their ability to do so is questionable, to say the very least — history has shown that when demagogues do manage to take power, they generally have no fucking idea what they are doing.

Of course, the Tories know this as well as anyone, which makes David Cameron’s decision to stake the future of his country for short-term political gain even more cynical and ill-conceived. And, indeed, ill-conceived is the word here, because the result of the referendum also demonstrates another depressing modern trend, one that’s manifested over the last 50 years everywhere from the hills of Afghanistan to the halls of Washington: a monster that the right has created has come back to bite it in the ass.

Sadly, Britain just voted to be the example that the rest of the world needs: an example of why listening to the populist, anti-immigrant sentiment of the far right is a terrible idea, both morally AND pragmatically.

For decades, the Tories have been stirring up populist anti-EU sentiment for cheap votes, just like the GOP here has been dog-whistling the far right — and in both cases, the lunatics have ended up taking over the asylum. It shows that the right is generally both super cynical and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Beyond its lunatic fringe, no-one in the Conservative Party wanted to leave the EU; but, at the same time, they were happy to complain bitterly about the EU in their rhetoric, because it’s an easy target and an easy way to put into practice the time-honored practice of creating an Other. But you can only have your cake and eat it for so long; you can only portray the EU as the “real” cause of problems that you yourself are creating for so long before people actually vote to leave the EU. Whoops!

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now that that particular strawman has been so comprehensively immolated. Perhaps the people of Britain will come to realize that their problem isn’t one of sovereignty and racial purity; it’s one of economics. The Brexit campaign has played on the fears of the disenfranchised working class, fears that are driven by declining employment, stagnant wages, and all the other first-world hallmarks of post-industrial, post-globalization decline. These problems are very real, but they’re not the fault of immigrants; they’re the creation of capitalism.

There are plenty of ironies here, not least that whatever else the EU is, it’s an avatar of neoliberalism, as anyone in Greece who’s suffered through the austerity policies imposed by the troika of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank will tell you. But leaving the EU isn’t going to magically save the British working class from the effects of globalization (and certainly not while they retain a Conservative government; the Cameron government’s brand of austerity is just as harsh, if not moreso, than anything Angela Merkel has championed). If anything, it’s simply going to make it worse; without priority access to the European free market, Britain’s combination of high wages and (presumably) a new tariff regime will make it even less of a competitor in the global economic stakes.

As ever, then, it’s the poor that’ll have to carry the can. The last thing English regional areas — who voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU — need is foreign employers pulling out. But that’s almost certainly what’s going to happen — as the Esquire report I linked above points out, “The Financial Times this morning reported that the proposed sale of Tata Steel and Tata Motors, Britain’s largest steel producer and its sister car company, to foreign ownership has been stopped. The people in the towns where those steelworks function voted to leave the European Union by 57 to 43 percent. Now their employers, who will not be their employers for long, will have no access to the largest market at hand. This is what economic suicide looks like.”

Sadly, Britain just voted to be the example that the rest of the world needs: an example of why listening to the populist, anti-immigrant sentiment of the far right is a terrible idea, both morally AND pragmatically. Hopefully it’s an example that the USA will heed, because the fears that drove the Brexit are the same that are driving the supporters of Donald Trump in the USA; on both sides of the Atlantic, bad-haired buffoons who’ve enjoyed huge personal benefits from their membership of the 1% are exploiting the fears of the 99% for personal political capital. In the UK, the results have already been disastrous. Here in the USA, we still have a chance to pull back from the brink.