(Note: For more Brexit coverage, check out Michael Howard on why it was a good result, and Ben Gran on what it means for America.)
Nigel Farage says June 23rd will now for all Britons come to be regarded as ‘independence day’. Most likely, however, we’ll come to remember that date better as the day we deliberately fucked our own economy, shut the door on Europe and broke Great Britain for good. It’s not that we weren’t warned this would happen — we were, repeatedly. Only the campaign in favour of a Brexit — the Leave campaign, headed up by Tory clown prince Boris Johnson and UKIP panjandrum Farage — told us to ignore the experts. Another core Conservative proponent of Vote Leave, MP Michael Gove, compared any economists warning of post-Brexit recession to scientists paid by Hitler and at one stage went on television to declare the people of Britain had “had enough of experts.”
So, on Thursday, fueled by xenophobia and anti-elite sentiment, and in a display of defiance against Michael Gove’s hated ‘experts’, Britain by a nudge voted to exit the European Union. The majority of voters chose to trust Vote Leave — vaguely promising a glorious Britain, a Britain prospering on its own as in the days of Empire — rather than concern themselves with what any economists or other assorted boffins had to say. What, after all, did they know?
Within minutes of the first Brexit results being released, the pound was plummeting faster and further than it had at any time since 1985. In two hours $350 billion, or the equivalent of 40 years of EU membership payment, was wiped off the UK economy. After five hours, Britain had stopped being the fifth-largest economy in the world. Before the day was even half over, Standard and Poor’s announced Britain was set to lose its AAA credit rating and there were rumors that Morgan Stanley was getting ready to move staff out of London. The UK’s film and TV industry looked shot, and science and technology research spending appeared likely to drop significantly.
Meanwhile, pro-EU Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister confirmed he would seek a poll on a reunified Ireland; a second referendum on independence for the similarly pro-EU Scotland appeared certain; Spain called for joint control of Gibraltar; and there were even quite serious propositions that EU-friendly London, the UK’s and arguably Europe’s capital, should break away from the rest of Euro-sceptic Britain. For all its talk of the glory of Great Britain, the Leave campaign within a day of getting the result it wanted ironically looked to have permanently shattered the nation it so idolized. Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, leaving the ruling Conservative party in turmoil and a snap general election before the end of the year looking probable. This, dear friends on the other side of the Atlantic, has been day one.
You could argue that this was a vote that should never have been put to the people. Research conducted a few years ago by the UK Electoral Commission found that there was in Britain “low levels of contextual understanding of the EU,” with some “having no knowledge of the European Union, or the status of UK membership of the EU, at all.” Indeed, with votes already in and results trickling out, there was a huge spike of Brits Googling “what happens if we leave the EU?” in the early hours of Friday morning. The next day, realizing what they’d actually done, many Leave voters were already showing heavy Regrexit, while areas that voted strongly in favor of Brexit were openly wondering AFTER they’d taken Britain out of the European Union if they were still going to receive EU subsidies (they won’t).
We, all 33 million-plus-change of us who cast a ballot on Thursday, weren’t qualified to make a decision on a matter so complex. We were given power that should only have been given to the experts, then we were told not to listen to the real ones. Now we find ourselves in a country suddenly poorer, less stable and less tolerant than the one we had last week. All because a narrow majority of us swallowed whole the lies of a particularly unsavory group of characters.
This is dangerous territory we find ourselves in. On both sides of the Atlantic, a new form of politics is taking hold. As Trump makes his latest bizarre claim (Obama supports ISIS? Sure!), as Boris Johnson tells another blatant lie (Turkey will join the EU? Of course!), and as neither are sufficiently held to account by either the media or an electorate trapped inside ever-polarising bubbles, facts and expert opinions start to become meaningless. We now live in an era of post-truth, anti-intellectual politics. There has grown a void, in which the least scrupulous politicians can flourish by telling their versions of ‘the truth’ without ever receiving proper scrutiny.
We in the UK were told we had what happened today coming. The vast majority of experts insisted repeatedly that to do something like exit the EU voluntarily was at best unwise, at worst borderline insanity. But more than half of the number who voted yesterday preferred to trust the wacky, vaguely racist, admittedly amusing guy with crazy hair over the people with the actual qualifications on a matter of such grave importance. This should sound familiar — perhaps frighteningly so — to anyone in the US concerned by Trump’s rise. You see, our doomsday has arrived. What’s not to say America’s couldn’t too?
It’s become clear that many voted to leave the EU without really knowing why. Maybe they were convinced by the empty rhetoric of Boris, the anti-fact bluster of Gove, or perhaps the xenophobic scaremongering of Farage. Whatever: it worked, and these people used the same tactics to take Britain out of the EU that Donald Trump is using to get himself ever closer to the White House.
The choice we made on Thursday likely isn’t reversible. Quite understandably, European leaders are calling for the UK to leave the Union as soon as possible. The repercussions of Brexit may be felt years, decades down the line. Things are ugly here, and getting uglier all the time. The world must not avert its gaze, however. We know we’re currently a laughing stock, but what happened in Britain last week must also act as a warning. 23rd June will never be remembered as our independence day, but it must must must be remembered as the day that post-truth, expert-skeptic politics potentially destroyed a nation as we know it. In congratulating Britain on Brexit, Donald Trump said on Friday: “I hope America is watching.” I hope so too.