Opinion: Brexit

Through the looking glass

There is no question about it: the UK’s response to the Brexit vote amounts to the most confusing event in British history. To get to the bottom of the mess, consider for instance, that not once, but twice, Charles de Gaulle prevented the UK from joining the forerunner to the EU. In his time as President of France, De Gaulle was concerned by “a number of aspects of Britain’s economy, from working practices to agriculture”. He fretted that these had made Britain “incompatible” with Europe. He was convinced of a “deep-seated hostility” to any pan-European project. After De Gaulle, the UK joined the EEC in 1973, an event that easily survived a 1975 referendum. Even so, there have all along been individuals, advocacy and other groupings which have campaigned for an exit. Finally, on 23 June, in the Brexit referendum, 52% of votes cast were for exit. Only 72% of the electorate had gone to the poll.

The outcome triggered shockwaves across the world, not least in currency markets. British Prime Minister David Cameron resigned.

Why such awe and amazement, such horror? The outcome of the vote, at the end of the day, was a vote not so much against anything to do with the EU, but, rather, against the unrelenting and unchecked greed of the elites. If this sounds too easy an explanation, naïve and homespun, consider that we are living in a very different world to De Gaulle’s. Since his time as French President, the financial and economic elites in the world have become increasingly wealthy. According to Oxfam, an NGO, the richest 1% in the world own as much wealth as the rest of the world combined. Oxfam found that just 62 people held as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population: billions of people.

In the West, these growing inequalities (which continue to widen, not narrow) have seen democracies refashioned to increasingly suit the demands of the ever more influential elites. Voters are expected to behave in a certain manner, toe-ing this line here, that line there, and tolerating changes and modifications that only entrench the powers and influence of the elites. Elites actively power-monger across all avenues of life, but the cream focus is reserved for the political classes and, most important, the media.

As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen recently put it: “Journalists today report on hostility to the political class, as if they had nothing to do with it.” The mainstream media is, however, itself a cornerstone of the political class; “if the population – or part of it – is in revolt against the political class, this is a problem for journalism.” Brexit shows that the population is now in revolt. The mainstream media, facing increasing marginalisation by social media, continually reacts with anger, typically blaming, no matter how indirectly, the underclasses. The Brexit vote was a massive vote against elites, not against the EU at all. The elites, as voiced by an obsequious media, continue to react with puerile anger.

The alternative to this atavistic anger is for the political classes and the media to engage in honest self-assessment, and examine just why the increasing detachment of the average voter has been ignored for so long. Brexit shows that people are sick and tired of being shoved around like pieces of sheep meat. Anti-elite sentiment has been further aggravated by the immunity of the modern “ruling classes” from any kind of meaningful discipline, never mind punishment, even when there is clear and unambiguous evidence of wrongdoing.

Take the instance of Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs, once described by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”. This ultimate elite bank earlier this year agreed to the largest regulatory penalty – a cool $5 billion – in world history, resolving allegations over its manner of selling mortgage bonds ahead of the 2008 global financial crisis. In 2005, the US Chamber of Commerce said this about (then) New York State Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer (who was taking on Wall Street’s untouchables): “the most egregious and unacceptable form of intimidation we've seen in this country in modern times”.

That is a vintage example of how elites demand immunity, with impunity, and, at the same time, craftily invoke sympathy from all and sundry.

The principle of elite immunity can be traced to the pardon handed down on 8 September 1974 by president Gerald Ford to Richard Nixon, one of the grubbiest and most repulsive little criminals of the modern era. Ford told the nation that the Nixon family’s situation “is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must”.

If prosecuting authorities are to act without fear or favour, and if everyone is equal before the law, democracies need to revert to basics, and to respect law enforcement (subject to all the normal safeguards) as a basic human right. Democracies will have to somehow move to start re-attaching voters, or voters will continue to move in directions that offer even vague alternatives to the ongoing and  heinous reign of elites. Until then, the Brexits will continue and increase, and Donald Trumps will spring up all over the world.

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