So the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union. The margin was small (51.9% Leave vs 48.1% Remain) but a win is a win, and so Britain will now begin negotiations to leave – a process that might take years to complete. Already the markets have fallen, the currency has crashed, and the Prime Minister has resigned. But the crowds cheer, regardless.
There were two sets of arguments driving the Leave vote. Some politicians on the right argued that leaving the EU would set Britain free. We could become an independent trading nation once more, selling our goods and services across the world, without the EU’s bureaucratic stranglehold. We could welcome skilled workers from abroad to feed our powerhouse economy. We could reclaim democracy for the people of Britain, instead of ever-greater control from the grey-suited men of Brussels.
That argument didn’t win the vote.
You can tell that by looking at a map of the results. The areas of the country that are broadly affluent voted to Remain. The areas that voted to Leave are Labour Party heartlands. They are places where heavy industries like steel and coal once employed millions of men. Where factories belched smoke into the air, to the great consternation of middle-class Victorians who called them Dark Satanic mills. They are former seaside resorts whose days of glory ended when cheap foreign holidays became affordable to everyone. They are parts of the country that have experienced high unemployment, where Trade Union membership is strong, and where people look at the past with a sense of loss and the future with a sense of fear.
The Remain campaign was weak because it tried to instill a sense of fear about what might happen if Britain left the EU. But the people who voted Leave already lived in fear.
The narrative that won the Referendum is a simple one. It says that the rich are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer. It says that life is a zero-sum game, and if I win, you lose. It says that there are no opportunities in the world for us – only for the privileged. It says that the experts are wrong. And more than anything else, it says that those who have power, or wealth, or education, deserve a good kicking.
They got a good kicking with this vote. Britain won’t become a proud trading nation, unfettered by bureaucracy, leading the world in free trade. It looks set to withdraw into itself, shutting out foreigners, splitting into ever-smaller regions, looking backwards, and failing to grasp the myriad opportunities that this wonderful world offers.
I hope that the worst fallout can be avoided. There’s still hope. But the narrative of fear has won a huge victory here. Politicians in other EU countries are calling for their own government to hold a Referendum. And across the Atlantic, the United States is grappling with exactly the same narrative.
Whether it’s Donald Trump wanting to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, or Bernie Sanders blaming everything on the rich, the narrative is the same one that drove Britain to Leave.
I have advocated a certain set of political views on this blog consistently over the past four years. My views are a rejection of the narrative of fear. I want to welcome immigrants from other countries to these shores. I want all the countries of the world to trade freely with each other, growing in prosperity together, sharing culture and spreading common values in the process. I want equality for people of all races, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations, and any other perceived differences. I want the rich to get richer and the poor to become richer at the same time. And I am hugely optimistic about the long-term drive of history and technology. I see a world where poverty and disease are in decline, where literacy and education are growing, where war and violence are trending down. The world will get better in the long term, despite this short-term setback.
Since the majority of my readers are educated Americans who self-identify with the label “Progressive” I am writing this for you. There is much we share in common. But I fear that you are unwittingly feeding this destructive narrative within your own nation. There is a monster growing, and its name is fascism. The people who rally around Donald Trump feed that monster. But so do those who rally around Bernie Sanders. His message to Americans is the same story that drove Britain to leave the EU. That the rich win and the poor lose. That road is the road to revolution. And where revolution goes, fascism follows. Britain just took the first step. Don’t follow us.