Has Brexit Saved Us from a Worse Fate?

CSPP contributor Miratus offers thoughts on the political dynamics in the UK and Scotland following the vote to leave the European Union. 


Much is being made at the moment of the links between Brexit and Trump. The rise of identity, ‘taking back control’, opposition to globalisation, issues around immigration and multiculturalism, populism and a rising of the ‘left behind’ against a now famous but rather amorphous ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ (which now seems to be interchangeable with the ‘global neo-liberal elite’).  Most of all we are getting lots of chances to see a picture of a grinning Farage and a grinning Trump, standing in a very bling gold lift, symbolising the twin political earthquakes that have occurred on either side of the pond ascending the lift together to new heights. Brothers indeed ... (although on the plus side at least Farage is over there, rather than back here).

So let’s look at some points of detail of this now very popular narrative. For example the idea of a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ seems far too easy but is certainly a good ‘hate group’ combining as it does bankers, assorted billionaires, international financiers, property speculators etc alongside hated ‘lefty’ intellectuals and overpaid civil servants and public sector managers who are out of touch, full of themselves and live in cities. The combining of bankers and urban lefties into a homogenous group who conspire against the downtrodden is nothing short of brilliant. There’s somebody in there for everyone to hate. Which is exactly why I am suspicious of it.

Here in Scotland of course we already have an identity based populist party in the SNP. It would thankfully appear to be atypical compared to other examples. Some would contest its social democratic credentials, but no one would put Nicola Sturgeon in the same bag as Trump, Marine Le Pen or any of the other assorted right-wing populists currently leading the charge against globalisation and the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’.

And as for the populism apparently evident everywhere based on depressed regions, the working class and those ‘left behind’; it appears more in Scotland that we have ‘urban middle class populism’, and perhaps we have the SNP to thank for that, along with the fact that we don’t seem to have the same right wing surge that is happening in other countries.  This could be because the SNP have already occupied a certain identity-based and anti-establishment space – albeit while holding political power in Scotland. If in reality the choice now in politics is between left of centre identity politics and extreme right wing identity politics then that makes the choice here in Scotland so much easier. And perhaps a sign that the Labour Party in England needs to get on a bit more quickly with the job of redefining itself as a patriotic English Labour Party. Because it’s either that or it’s something much worse...

But let’s go back to Brexit. Alex Neil’s recent admission that he, and according to him other SNP parliamentary representatives, voted for Brexit is a timely reminder that we simplify the currents that supported Brexit at our peril. Voting for Brexit in the UK and voting for Trump in the USA cannot be glibly seen as one and the same.  Because the range of reasons for voting for Brexit went far beyond the cheap populism of Farage (who was seen as ‘toxic’ by the official Leave campaign). Objections to the undemocratic nature of the EU, the treatment of Greece, the rigidity of the EU bureaucratic institutions, the disaster of the Eurozone leading to mass unemployment (and the inability of the EU to deal with this) provided good reasons for voting to leave without getting into identity, culture and immigration.

But then again, undoubtedly identity, culture and immigration were in the equation. Currently we are seeing a media narrative in which Brexit is part of a broader international phenomenon which links the UK, however unwillingly, to the election of Trump. As yet, no one has worked out what Brexit actually is, or how this could all play out. It could still never actually happen, particularly as the issue of triggering article 50 gets drawn into a legal quagmire. But I have a suspicion that when we look back at the Brexit episode, we might see it as the UK actually managing to avoid the descent into the amoral, brutish and bigoted politics of the populist right by lancing that particular boil. If you want to try, here’s a thought experiment – imagine Remain had narrowly won.

Let’s imagine that the result of the European referendum was 52% to 48% for remain. The issues would still be live. Just as the Scottish Independence Referendum did not close down the constitutional issue, but amplified it, so the aftermath of a narrow Remain win could well have seen opposition to the EU energised. It would seem the effect of narrowly losing a referendum is to lead to a redoubling of effort  and a transfer of political loyalties into new voting behaviour. Cameron would have remained Prime Minister., and the ‘Euro-sceptics’ in his own party would have been emboldened by a close vote, and probably crying foul over ‘project fear’. Labour voters who backed Leave would be questioning their party loyalty, blaming Labour for campaigning with the Tories, just as Scottish Labour were tarred in 2014. In Scotland, the SNP, having fought and won a referendum by being on the same side as Cameron and Osborne and the rest of the UK establishment, would suddenly look a lot less like radical insurgents. UKIP could potentially have garnered the dissatisfaction of the 48% who voted Leave just as effectively as the SNP hoovered up the 45% who voted Yes two years ago. And then think forward to the next UK General Election and remember again what happened in Scotland. See what I mean?

With the victory of Trump, and the very good chance that Marine Le Pen could be the next French President, the idea of Nigel Farage leading UKIP to a UK election breakthrough, finishing as the main opposition, or even a UK election victory in which they have the power in a hung parliament to put Farage in Downing Street, is not at all fanciful. Did Brexit save us from this possible fate?

The views expressed represent those of the author, and are intended to provoke debate and discussion. 

Centre for Scottish Public Policy
c/o Digby Brown LLP
160 Causewayside
Causewayside House
Edinburgh EH9 1PR
Follow us