This is not really a post about ELT. It’s about a news story that has been spreading around the world a lot in the last few days. ‘Brexit’, the decision in a referendum for the UK to leave the European Union.
So why am I writing about it on an ELT blog? Well I know that many English teachers have, for obvious reasons, an interest in the UK – even an affection for the place – and will want to know more about these momentous political changes. I also imagine that many students will have read or heard about ‘Brexit’ and will turn to their teachers for more information. By the way, we British too are all pretty confused about these surreal times too!
I am not a supporter of ‘Brexit’ and my personal position is that the UK should remain a full member of the EU.
On 23 June 2016 the UK voted by a small margin in a national referendum to leave the EU. The referendum is non-binding as we are a parliamentary democracy and the government does not have to follow the result and leave the EU. It does however seem that they will accept the result, while parliament itself appears to have a huge majority against leaving the EU across all parties. The results of the referendum were not standard across the country, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting overall to stay and most of England voting to leave. London and several major cities voted to stay.
The referendum was called by Prime Minister David Cameron, and it seems that he wanted to settle the issue of UK membership of the EU once and for all, and also to fix some internal politics within his own Conservative party. David Cameron wished to stay in the EU and resigned his post the day after the referendum.
The UK is still in the EU and will be for at least 24 months after it invokes Article 50 of the treaty it has with the EU. David Cameron has said he will not do this and indeed it’s not clear when or even if the next Prime Minister will do it. But whatever happens next, the UK is in a very dangerous situation indeed and has neither effective government (now the Prime Minister has resigned) nor opposition (the leader of the Labour Party will likely soon resign) at the precise time we need a safe pair of hands.
So why did the UK vote for ‘Brexit’? In my opinion the key issues were these.
There is a series of very real educational and socio-economic divides across the nation and this referendum has shown, sadly, just what a divided nation we are. There are large parts of our population that do not feel the benefits of EU membership, and they find the immigration that they sense (wrongly) that comes with that membership threatening to their jobs and culture. These tend to be people in ‘blue collar’ industrial or agricultural jobs, often away from the large cities and in the more economically deprived parts of the country. There are a lot of these deprived areas and ironically, the biggest leave votes were in the areas that receive most EU financial subsidy.
We have a disconnected political elite – both on the right and the left – who have failed to empathise with the working class electorate and their genuine concerns, especially around immigration and jobs. This political elite has made no real clear attempt to inform the electorate of the issues around membership of the EU. The campaign for the referendum was very much a spiteful personal war between politicians rather than an open fact-based discussion of the issues.
We seem to have a low calibre of politician at the moment and it is clear many significant lies were told during the referendum campaign. OK OK, politicians lying is not really a new idea!
The UK has always had a shaky relationship with the EU. There have been constant discussions since we joined over 40 years ago about whether we should remain members, and around the exact nature of our relationship with our European neighbours. Being an island and the strong post-colonial and linguistic connections with non-European countries may partly explain this as does – I fear – my next point below.
There is an ever-present xenophobic undercurrent in this country. We are quite good at hiding it, but if you look a little you can find it. Some sections of the tabloid press display it very openly but the sad fact is that the UK is not as open and international-looking as it appears. Well, parts of it aren’t.
The EU is seen as run by an oligarchy of self-serving bureaucrats who are not directly accountable to the electorate. There is more than a little truth in this. The EU does need considerable reform but is slow to move and very bad at explaining the benefits that it provides to ordinary people.
So what’s next? The UK is in a very deep crisis that is political, economic and above all – in my view – moral. The ‘Brexiters’ never thought they would win – hence the fact that they have no obvious plan. The referendum result alone has damaged the value of the currency, made 50% of the UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) want to secede, lost us a PM and almost certainly the leader of the opposition too, reduced our GDP and in one day alone put 3,000 jobs at risk with more losses coming. Yet this was the will of the people. It is also important to bear in mind that that IF parliament votes they may well reject the whole thing and then what do we do? Several constitutional lawyers are saying that parliament must have the final opinion.
I have no idea what is around the corner. Our two main political parties are in the middle of civil wars and the country itself is very divided, with real hatred and anxiety being expressed in many places. We may not leave, may half leave in some way, or may leave completely. I don’t know.
I am very worried.
“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”.
Lewis Carroll, The Jabberwocky.