The EU referendum was both polarised and polarising. It showed the British people to be all too human. Prone to lachrymose sentimentality. Prone to jingoistic delusions of Empirical grandiosity. And prone to empirical selectivism.
Everyone is a partly rational and partly instinctive human being. And every decision is made partly by the head and partly by the heart / gut. It is the head that provides the rationality, but often only to justify the instinctive reaction that has already been taken. That the referendum was won by the Leave campaign is further justification of this.
Cards on the table time. How did I vote? Well, I spoiled my ballot paper. I did not do so out of intellectual indolence. I did not do so because I had not been persuaded by one or other side that their position was the correct one. I did so because I just didn’t know enough to make a reasoned decision. And because I was not prepared to allow my instinct to take the lead on this matter.
In 1929, the world suffered a serious economic shock as a result of the Wall Street Crash. The cognoscenti of the time argued that this was due to the Globalisation of the world economy. A decade of economic stagnation ensued. People looked for a scapegoat for the hardship that they were suffering. They found it in those that were different to themselves, for whatever reason. They retrenched into their national shells.
They sought solace in similarity. And they allied together against those who were different.
Fast forward to 2008. The world suffered a serious economic shock for similar reasons to that in 1929 – an unsustainable growth in the economy and a loss of consumer confidence. The result of this has been a restriction of the money supply, and the growth of nationalist sentiment. The difference in 2008 to 1929 is that a number of countries, and in particular for this analysis the United Kingdom, had by now developed a comprehensive welfare state. And so access to this formed the fulcrum on which the nascent divisions began to leverage themselves. Who should have access to this? Who is taking advantage of our national generosity of spirit?
There are parallels that can be drawn from the comparison of the post-1929 and post-2008 crashes. Firstly, the ‘bad guys’ are not able to be defined by geographical origin. They are, instead, defined by their creed. In the 1930s, it was the Jews. It is currently the Muslims. However, the ‘bad guys’ who seek entry to the UK are, as a general rule, people who are looking to improve their lives. Yes, some are bad eggs. This is inevitable. But in any demographic, you will find some wonderful people and some really rather unpleasant ones – with the majority in the centre of this just trying to get on with their lives.
In the 1930s and 1940s, many of the ‘bad guys’ ended up setting up businesses which have gone on to employ thousands of people throughout the UK. Andrew Godley, in his 2001 book Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London 1880-1914, stated of the immigrant Jews that “they were much more likely to become entrepreneurs than their gentile neighbours, with a heavy concentration in the garment industry as well as in retailing, entertainment and real estate. London provided excellent financing opportunities for entrepreneurs”. This is equally the case with UK-based Muslims today, where they are more likely to hold a Company Directorship than the UK average, and are also more likely to be involved in businesses with three or fewer employees.
Also, on both occasions, the backlash against the immigrant is legitimised by a significant segment of the press. Media hyperbole demonises the incomer. The economic benefit of, some may say requirement for, immigration is over-ridden by a fear of cultural dilution. Subtle pejorative rhetoric is used to plans seeds of uncertainty in the minds of the general populous. And the seeds are left to germinate, liberally watered by the underlying economic uncertainty.
I’ll leave the final words to the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. “The disaffected working- class voter in Sunderland, rightly angry about being economically marginalised and politically disenfranchised, will wait in vain for the magical billions that are supposedly going to be repatriated from Brussels to drop from the clear blue skies of a free England.
“There is, of course, a tried and trusted way to hold this kind of rickety social coalition together. It is to turn up the volume on nationalism and xenophobia, to deflect the inevitable disappointment anger on to Them.
“The English nationalists have just lost their favourite scapegoat, the EU. When their dream turns sour, where will they find another?”
Economic inequality is huge throughout Europe. Economic hardship is, equally, perceived to be rife. And there is a growing nationalist sentiment. We need only look at history to know that this does not augur well!