Man at His Best

Why Brexit Is Much, Much Scarier Than You Think

This is what economic suicide looks like.

BY STEPHEN MARCHE | Jun 25, 2016 | Culture

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Today is going to be a day of panic. 

In the turmoil subsequent to Britain's exit from the European Union, the pound has lost eight percent of its value, the Prime Minister has resigned, and Britain, in the space of five hours, slipped from fifth to sixth largest economy in the world. No doubt this initial panic will dissipate. 

The process of leaving the EU takes at least two years, so European immigrants will not have to flee across the channel immediately. After that first rush of panic—what will the world be like?—a deeper panic will follow, and it should. Brexit is the first major victory for the rising xenophobia that is sweeping the world, which has already overtaken the Republican party in America, and which has gathered significant support in almost every major democracy. We have to face up to an ugly truth about the world as it is: The hatred of difference is winning.

Brexit is the first case since the Second World War of a major global economy choosing, of its own free will, to leave the international system. Already, the economic costs of that decision are staggering, and they will worsen. 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. 

Economic suicide is inevitably political suicide. In the space of a few hours, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, called for a new Scottish referendum on independence. The logic of their departure is clear. If we are going to live as nations, we should divide the nations up properly. Why would Scots shackle themselves to the dying animal of a Britain that has turned its back on the world when they can belong to a larger world order with infinitely more possibilities? The old people of England—and the Leave supporters were overwhelmingly elderly and rural—have denied their children a passport to 27 countries. Seventy-five percent of voters under 25 wanted to stay. 

Brexit is a rejection of modernity and openness itself, and the triumph of an antique form of British identity. George Orwell recognised the spirit that triumphed on Thursday in his famous essay, "England, Your England”:

But Brexit itself was not inevitable, despite the national trait of a suspicion of foreigners. Britain, so far from being a model of xenophobia, was one of history's models for incorporating difference into a single political unity. The United Kingdom had kept peoples with different cultures, even with different languages, gathered around a common purpose. It has been the foremost proponent of the freedom of trade for most of its history, and it has created the world's most cosmopolitan city. That is exactly what is so terrifying this morning. The nativist nightmare has come to roost in the country at the heart of the modern world order. If it could happen there, if it could happen in London, it could happen anywhere.

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 globalised elites. But let's see what it's like without them. Already, Johnson is trying to backtrack. 

"This doesn't mean the United Kingdom will be any less united," he said. "Nor indeed does it mean it will be any less European." 

He is kidding himself. Britain as an idea larger than an ethnic unit is over. I think England is about to be very surprised by how little the world needs it. Can't bank in London anymore? Well, Frankfurt is just a short flight away. Standard & Poor has already declared that Britain's AAA credit rating is "untenable."

Brexit is a huge loss for the whole world, not just for England. Until this morning, nativist politics were frightening but, at least in the most advanced countries, they remained an undercurrent of mainstream political life. The haters of difference have announced themselves, and declared that retreat from modernity is possible. The European Union has been one of the great success stories of human history, uniting a collection of peoples who have been at war for millennia into a federal government, resulting in a period of peace and prosperity unprecedented since the Roman Empire. 

Peace and prosperity are no longer enough. The deep-seated loathing for political elites, and the massive inequality of the global economic order, and the free movement of people that is the inevitable result of that global economic order, have led to a tribalist counter-reaction. Tribalism makes facts and compassion evaporate. Tribalism is now, officially, winning.

From: Esquire US.