While America has been dealing with far-reaching social and political changes, Britain has been undergoing its own crisis. In a few short weeks the British political landscape has changed dramatically.
Newly-victorious Theresa May is the first woman prime minister of the UK since Margaret Thatcher. May was inaugurated on July 3rd 2016. Like Thatcher before her, Theresa May came to power following political chaos.
Thatcher had become prime minister after a period when trades unions encouraged workers to strike for higher pay and parts of the country came to a standstill. Even gravediggers went on strike and bodies were not buried. Everyone from train drivers to hospital caterers were on strike.
In those dark times, I walked across Highbury Fields in an affluent part of north London one evening and was shocked at the scale of one particular sight – a giant wall of black plastic bags bulging with refuse that had gathered there uncollected, twelve feet high and several layers deep.
That crisis from the end of 1978 to the start of 1979 was dubbed the “Winter of Discontent.” It had happened under James Callaghan’s Labour government, but had died down by the time of the general election that brought Thatcher and her Conservative Party to power.
Though the chaos of that “Winter of Discontent” affected everyone to some degree, for Theresa May, her recent ascent to Number 10, Downing Street, came at a time when Britain is in an ongoing state of chaos. Britain has become more politically and socially divided than at any time since the days of the English Civil War, which ended 365 years ago.
The polarizing influences of the English Civil War are said by some to still influence British culture; the hub of Britain’s recent turmoil has been the referendum to decide if Britain should exit the European Union, a process known in the UK as “Brexit.”
David Cameron’s 2015 election manifesto had pledged the UK voting public a referendum on Europe by the end of 2017. Cameron kept his promise, even though he was firmly of the opinion that Britain should remain within the European Union.
He had reason for confidence in victory: back in June 6th, 1975, only two and a half years after Edward Heath had unilaterally chosen to sign the papers for Britain to join the European Economic Community or Common Market, Britain had been given a referendum to choose whether to remain or not. At that time the Common Market was ostensibly more about free trade between European nations. 67 percent of those voting chose to remain in the EEC.
The recent second referendum was held on Thursday June 23rd 2016, but was markedly different from the circumstances of 1975 when Britain held its first national plebiscite. I was too young to vote in 1975, but I remember my father (a government employee) poring over a sheaf of documents explaining the “for and against” arguments for remaining in the EEC.
In 2016, there
were no leaflets
that explained both arguments for the now vastly expanded and highly
Cameron’s government spent £9 million of taxpayers’ money to post a leaflet arguing the “remain” side to every household in Britain. No taxpayers’ money was spent upon arguing the case for leaving the EU.
In 1975, it would have been considered politically unethical to spend taxpayers’ money promoting one side of an argument in an issue of such far-reaching importance. The distribution of that one leaflet was the start of a campaign by the “Leave” contingent that treated the issue less as a plebiscite, where each individual’s viewpoint would be counted, and more as a party political campaign of the sort that accompanies a (far less democratically representative) general election.
Cameron even co-opted President Obama to support his campaign. In April, Obama told an audience in Britain that if we left the European Union, his nation would prefer to deal with the larger trading bloc of the EU, and Britain would have to “get to the back of the queue.” By effectively wiping his feet on the “special relationship” between Britain and America, Obama’s comments inspired outrage from several quarters in Britain.
As predicted, for some in Britain, it seemed like an American president was meddling in issues that should have been none of his business. The Obama intervention coincided with the rise of sneering anti-Remainer editorials in left-wing media.
Everyone who owns a television in Britain is duty-bound to pay a license fee, which is used to fund the BBC. Traditionally the BBC had a remit to be fair and unbiased in its reporting, but in the run-up to the election it failed in this. Its news output appeared to be promoting the Cameron government’s case that Britain would be isolated and near bankrupt should it leave the EU.
While various commentators such as the head of the IMF warned that a vote for Brexit would lead to dire consequences, the BBC could argue that it was merely reporting events. But on its popular but uninspiring weekly show “Question Time” it chose pro-Remain guest speakers for the last two weeks preceding the referendum. On June 9th, transvestite “comedian” Eddie Izzard, wearing lipstick and a pink beret, heckled speakers such as Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party. His behavior – which included comments about Farage’s family - provoked an audience member to tell him to “Shut up!”
The following week, the BBC Question Time team had scheduled Bob Geldof to be a guest on its last show before the plebiscite. Geldof is not even a British citizen, but on June 15th he had been on a boat in the Thames. Geldof was using a megaphone to insult a flotilla of boats led by Nigel Farage and a group of British fishermen whose livelihoods have been affected by EU diktats on fishing. Geldof also used offensive finger gestures against the fisherman. Geldof would have appeared on “Question Time” on June 16th, but a tragic event caused the show to be cancelled.
At 1pm on June 16th, Jo Cox, the Labour Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen was shot and stabbed in the town of Birstall, West Yorkshire. Shortly after the attack, she died from her injuries. Only an MP for just over a year, Cox’s death caused a ramping up of Remainer hysteria on social media.
Her assailant, Thomas Mair, had a history of mental health issues and had even sought help for these issues the day before the attack. However, his support for far-right groups and his apparent pro-Brexit stance was a godsend for propagandists in the Remainer camp. On Facebook and Twitter “social justice warriors” would use Mair to augment their case that all “Brexiteers” were fascists and racists.
The hysteria and social divisions – caused mainly by Remainers deliberately using racist tropes against Brexiters – had already ramped up the toxic climate in Britain, but Jo Cox became a martyr for the Remainer cause. The BBC, along with other left-leaning media outlets, reported on Cox’s death, but continued saturation coverage on it up until the day before the referendum.
On Monday June 20th, parliament was recalled and both sides of the House offered their eulogies and commiserations with her widower and her two sons. The BBC broadcast continuous coverage of the Commons tributes on its main TV channel. On June 22nd, just the day before the referendum, Jo Cox would have celebrated her birthday. The media and the BBC in particular, were reminding the voting public of the loss. One could have thought that Cox had been responsible for everything positive in the world, but after the referendum Cox’s name has hardly been mentioned in UK broadcast media.
To anyone outside of Britain, it is hard to convey the polarization and hysteria engendered by the referendum. The closeness of the vote, with 52 percent against 48 percent, led to backlashes. The white working classes were blamed in the left-wing media for the Brexit win. Condemnatory analyses appeared in the left-wing press: the Guardian suggested that in Ebbw Vale in Wales, one of the nation’s largest recipients of EU development funding, the populace were biting the hand that had fed them by voting for Brexit.
The same Guardian writer subsequently opined that the town’s populace, as well as being ignorant and ungrateful, had been “lied to.” They “voted against their own interests because no one explained what they owe to the EU.” Welsh academic Richard Wyn Jones presented a similar patronizing analysis. He argued that more campaigning would have swayed the vote.
Such analyses suggest that voters were empty vessels and needed to be “taught” how to vote in their own best interests, as if the electorate were incapable of making up their own minds after experiencing decades of European Union interference in British affairs!
News reports gave the impression that migrants were being violently attacked when often such attacks were merely Twitter comments or verbal attacks. Mainstream media outlets reinforced the trope that most Brexiteers were racists or far right “haters,” magnifying social media comments. Left wing commentator Laurie Penny demanded “her” country back, bemoaned all the “hatred” in Britain - and then added to that hatred by calling Nigel Farage a racist, when he is no such thing.
Because only 24 percent of 18-24 year olds voted, older people were blamed, not only for Brexit but also for robbing the young people of their future. The day after the election, a protest by far-left Remainers featured one placard, which read: “Old people, please die.” Just over a week later, a second protest in London claimed to represent the “48.” Remain advocates such as Bob Geldof, Mark Thomas and David Lammy addressed the crowd.
Labour MP David Lammy had argued for parliament to ignore the will of the people and overturn the referendum result. Since the referendum, various individuals had claimed to speak for “the 48”. There has even been a new printed newspaper called The New European. This publication claims to represent the referendum’s losers; its banner carries the legend: “The new pop-up paper for the 48%.”
Brexit’s losers are also making legal efforts to overturn the plebiscite. Barrister Philip Kolvin, QC, published an open letter demanding the referendum be quashed. Legal firm Miscon de Reya announced it would be launching a legal challenge demanding that an Act of Parliament must be made to allow Article 50 to be signed. 1,000 lawyers gave their support to this proposal.
These are just a few examples of the febrile climate in Britain that followed the referendum. Theresa May has emerged from the political chaos as a firm and principled politician, displaying a level head while others in parliament seemed to be losing theirs.
Fortunately for her, the opposition Labour Party is if anything in even more disarray. We'll explore the struggles of Labour in the next article in this series.
Over the past five years, the editors have been secretly working on a book that summarizes the fundamental viewpoints of Scragged.