Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Lazy, Ignorant and Entitled: the real reasons Britain voted for Brexit?

There are a whole host of reasons why Brexit happened. Some commentators focus on the role of David Cameron in allowing the situation to arise in the way it did, and for his handling of the issue as a personal act of political indulgence. Others focus on the economic factors that led to large sections of the "disenfranchised" working class voting Leave almost as a form of protest. Again, others look at the rise of UKIP and the populist tendency since the financial crisis. The second and third points are related, though, and prior to the financial crisis it was the BNP who were also tapping into this previously-ignored segment of society, before being superseded by UKIP.

In some ways, then, Brexit could be called the "triumph of the losers"; those who have "lost out" in the modern world (read; globalisation) and want things back the way they were before (when life was easier for them). It is usually termed as a wish to turn back then clock.
Populism has been on the rise since the financial crisis throughout Europe, and as we have seen with Donald Trump, in the USA. The same could also be said of Turkey, who are soon to have a referendum on turning their country into a quasi-authoritarian presidency. Populism is an ideology in its own right, although often loosely-defined. In another sense, it is also a psychology of its own. It is that "psychology", and the psychology of the Brexit-supporter, that the author wants to focus on.


Many of those who voted "Leave" were unskilled workers, who felt their livelihoods had become jeopardized by Eastern Europeans who have undercut them. This is the claim that many of those voters made, in any case.
It is true that there are agencies that recruit solely non-British workers from abroad, and it is true that many of the Eastern Europeans do work for a lower wage, especially in the unregulated black market. But this is far from the whole story. A recent article (there have been a number like this) spoke of how many sectors of industry recruit large numbers of Europeans simply because so few British workers apply for those jobs. It is true that many of these jobs are not well paid, but they are still legitimate salaries.
A simple - if brutally-frank - conclusion to reach is that low-skilled British workers feel that those kinds of jobs (such as in the hospitality sector, but especially seasonal farming work) are too difficult for them. With anti-social hours ("when can find the time to go out?"; "do I really have to get up a four in the morning?") and often physically demanding ("I'm not getting my hands dirty!"), these jobs compare poorly with the sedentary, generic services sector that many of them may be used to. But the point is that someone has to do these jobs; and if not enough "natives" are willing to apply for them, then employers simply have no other choice. This assessment of the reality reflects poorly on the local labour force, and  makes you wonder what the local employers think of them.

So the complaint of "foreigners taking our jobs" doesn't really ring true; those workers making this complaint simply are making an incoherent argument that - even if their argument was valid - would anyway suggest that foreign workers had greater levels of labour flexibility than them. In which case,  why don't the locals try to do better than the foreigners, rather than try to "fix" the economy into an inefficient model that's more in their favour? But as we have seen, their case falls flat in reality; either way, the locals simply look "lazy".

This might sound like a blunt assessment given that British workers are among the hardest-working employees in the EU (in hours worked per week); but this is also the case because of inefficient working practises, which are likely to get worse outside of EU regulation. So be careful what you wish for!

Many of these workers are victims of the changes that have happened to the British economy over the last thirty years, but the reality is that complaining about it will change nothing; simply, many of these people have failed to react or change to circumstances. It's true that many of them are the "losers" of modern-day globalisation. The easy answer of blaming "Europe" for everything, as was the argument from the Leave camp, explains why this was appealing to low-skilled workers: it required nothing to believe an idea that explains away their own misfortune, while doing nothing to tackle the real issues.
As said earlier, it sounds like they want to turn back the clock. This was why they voted for Brexit. But looking at things objectively, this is simply a set of workers, already shown to be "lazy" and entitled when compared to their foreign counterparts, wanting to "fix" the system yet further in the expectation that they could have control over the supply of the labour force, regardless of the the intellectual incoherence of this idea. In any case, the kind of economy they are supporting by backing Brexit is the type of low-wage economy with fewer workers' rights that would make them even worse-off than they are currently.
This is why "Brexit" was a victory for the lazy anti-intellectualism of the anti-globalisation forces: like in all Populist movements, its supporters want to be "protected" from reality, while being duped into supporting something that actually would work against their interests.

Thirty years ago the comedy series "Auf Weidersehn, Pet" highlighted a serious issue, and showed a simple way to resolve it: move to where the work is, as thousands of other Europeans do every year. Which leads on to another issue that many Brits have...


We've looked at how many of the sectors in industry are reliant on European workers due to a lazy sense of entitlement from the local workforce. Some could even assign this to a "Post-Imperial" psychology of expecting others to do the "hard" work for them (such as exists in the Arab Gulf States). But there is another form of "laziness" that also afflicts many Brits: intellectual laziness.

As we have seen, many of the lower-skilled native workforce are guilty of blaming Europeans for their problems. What makes this worse is that Britain is singularly-exceptional in the EU. It has a population that consciously denies itself the full advantage of one of the EU's "four freedoms"; the freedom of labour, simply because, unlike other Europeans, British people don't bother to learn a foreign language.

While it is true that English is the lingua franca of the world, it is this willful ignorance that reflects badly on the British compared to other European nations. Britain has been in the EU for more than forty years, but most of its population have used the freedom of movement simply to indulge their holiday plans, and then casually expect to be able to speak their language in another country. Put in another way, many Brits' attitude towards Europe is to treat the EU like Post-Imperial "colonies", where they are expected, as Brits, to be treated in a superior manner.

It is this mentality that has fed a lazy thinking towards Europe and Britain's place in the EU. If "Europe" is seen by many Brits and the place "over there" only to go on holiday, buy "duty free" and make fun of foreigners' funny accents, how does this help to create a constructive attitude? Unlike other EU countries' workers, who are happy to travel to work in other parts of the EU, Brits tend to use their freedom to travel simply for leisure or for the purpose of retirement. Of the Brits who do live in different parts of the EU, the vast majority are retirees in Spain. The unwillingness to learn a foreign language is one of the major factors towards this difference.
It is true that the European continent's history of wars over the centuries - and especially the last century - that helped to engender an atmosphere of co-operation and amity. It is true that Britain's cultural history is separated from that in many ways; it could be argued that Britain's relationship with Europe is too influenced by its cultural failure to come to terms with the loss of Empire, as many seeing the EU somehow as a replacement for it. But this does not excuse intellectual laziness.

The intellectual laziness that comes from not learning a foreign language has limited how British people can fully benefit from being in the EU, creating a huge self-inflicted bias against the institution. As said earlier, other countries do not have this problem (at least, not to Britain's extent. Many criticise the French on the same grounds, but contrary to common misconception, many French people know at least some English: they simply don't like using it in their own country).

Put in these terms, many Brits attitude to being a part of the EU could seen as intellectually lazy and entitled, ignorant of what the EU stands for, and willfully-ignorant of the opportunities that being a member of the EU represents. When you are part of a multi-national, multi-lingual labour market and can't be bothered to learn a foreign language, you're simply limiting your own options, especially when the workers in the other countries are doing the exact opposite.
This is what makes British workers' criticism of Europeans who come to work in the UK especially galling; in learning a foreign language to work in the UK, the Europeans are doing something that Brits are too lazy to bother doing; yet they are criticized for bothering to make full use of the European labour market, unlike the British.

No wonder Europeans have found the British attitude so unfathomable: many Brits seem to have chosen to leave a club they never even tried to make full use of (or bothering to fully understand the rules), while criticising the others who did. It makes "Brexit" supporters sound like the kind of people who join a gym to lose weight, give up after a couple of times, then complain that it's the gym's fault that they haven't lost any weight. The cultural ignorance towards Europe that seems prevalent in many Brexit supporters is a result of intellectual laziness, and a narcissistic expectation of special treatment. But again, this is a tendency that appears throughout Populist movements.
Which brings us to the other main issue....


Since Britain has joined the EU, it has been one of the largest net contributors to the fund. This is a point that many Eurosceptic politicians have made over the years, and was a major factor in Margaret Thatcher getting her famous "rebate" after being in "the club" for ten years.
But the fact that the UK is the second-largest contributor (Germany being the largest) is hardly surprising, given the size of the UK economy and its population. France is a famous beneficiary of  the CAP, but as we have seen, there are other aspects of its EU membership where the UK has been holding itself back, such as treating the EU simply as one big holiday destination rather than a huge potential work-zone.
Britain's relationship with the EU since its membership has always seemed "semi-detached", and that's been part of the problem. Of course, the EU exists as an association of mutual self-interest for those involved, so all countries will fight their own corner. The "apogee" of Britain's engagement with the EU was clearly in the early years of the Blair premiership (until Brown's resistance against joining the Euro); since then, and especially under the Cameron administration, it has simply been a matter of the UK trying to get the EU to see things from their point of view i.e. that "Europe" was an unpopular cause at home. It was Cameron's liking of "feeding the crocodile" of Euroscepticism that Europeans found exasperating, damaging Britain's relations with the EU for cheap political gain, and was the (unsurprising) cause of his resignation.
While Eurosceptics found Britain's membership of the EU to be some kind of debilitating autocracy,  the reality was that Britain was able to get its way almost all of the time on the key issues that mattered: apart from Thatcher getting a rebate, Britain was able to opt out of Schengen, the Euro, and the social chapter. Britain's "semi-detached" status was therefore thanks to the EU indulging British exceptionalism as far as it could reasonably go without breaking its own rules. But, this was still not enough for the Eurosceptics that wanted to have their cake and eat it while in the EU, with that attitude persisting with Brexit. This sense of entitlement is therefore endemic.

When looking at who voted for Brexit, a clear generation gap can be seen. What's telling about this is that it's the generation who already have a "triple lock" pension (and a holiday home in Spain?) who are still yet unsatisfied with their lot; they are the "have their cake and eat it" generation, if you will, who want their lives protected at all costs. A cynic might add that this is the problem with democracy, when it's the older generation who do most of the voting: in a democracy, a politician must satisfy his voters. This is something that the prize Machiavellian George Osborne was all too aware of.

So David Cameron's "feeding the crocodile" may have made some short-term political sense in a way, though it adds up to horrible long-term strategy: after all, Greece got itself into a financial mess by years and years of politicians simply doing what the voters asked of them: giving them more and more money. This is the ultimate route that Populism takes, and why it always ends in tears.
Politicians have to be leaders "ahead of the curve" as well as being responsive to the electorate; this is one reason why many people in the UK bought into the "austerity" agenda, even though it was based on a false narrative of events (that Labour overspending caused the financial crisis, rather than the banks' reckless mismanagement). People believed it because they liked the idea of a politician "taking a lead" on events and telling them what appeared an "unpalatable truth". But Cameron's reasons for backing "austerity" weren't about genuine leadership; it was about opportunistic political "differentiation", making the Conservatives seem forthright compared to the seemingly-evasive Labour party.
And now that Theresa May has inherited that legacy of Brexit, she seems determined to follow the same path, indulging the worst aspects of Populism by turning her party into a re-branded "UKIP" that steals all their clothes. Meanwhile, those who stand against that, it is implied, are "anti-British" and "doing the country down". It is no wonder that the atmosphere in the country has turned uglier towards foreigners, and even countrymen who are worried about their future.

The "Brexit generation", if we can call them that, are those who are also more likely to vote Conservative i.e. the over-50's (who, of course, are more likely to be voters at all): the same people who are concerned about protecting their status, their (paid for) homes (or second homes), and are wistfully looking back to a time of their childhood when "Britannia ruled the waves".
Looking at it rationally, it's hard to know exactly why these people are so anti-European. What has modern-day Europe ever done to them personally? Why do they despise Brussels? The most common complaint, apart from "immigration" (see the points above) is about loss of sovereignty. But as alluded to before, these are the rules by how the club works: you trade in some sovereignty to get greater freedom of movement, trade and labour, not to mention greater employment rights, investment opportunities, and so on. If Brits don't want to take full advantage of that, it's Britain's problem, not Europe's. They simply don't understand the rules of the game, or can't be bothered to do so.

But this is the point: many of these people are driven by emotional prejudice and historical antipathy that pre-dates Britain joining the EU, rather than due to any rational argument. They still hate Germany because of the war, and think that all Europeans are inherently untrustworthy. They want the Britain of their childhood, with their lovely blue passports, and fewer "brown people". Policy made on such fantastical pretensions, and in favour of people who support such nonsensical thinking, is bound to result in disappointment, if not worse.

Britain is about to find out.

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