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The vote to Leave the EU on June 23rd was not just about the EU; it was a vote against globalisation and a defeat for liberalism. Of course, the arguments were made in the context of the EU, but the issues that were debated were much broader. The vote to Leave was a vote against immigration. It was a vote against ‘established’ economics. It was a vote against internationalism. It was a vote against multiculturalism and diversity.
This was essentially a referendum on globalisation. That Leave won was not all that surprising; the writing was on the wall for longer than many realised. Polling consistently showed immigration was the big issue on people’s minds. And people believed the Leave vote would reduce immigration more readily than they would believe the economic arguments for remaining. British people, particularly those who were already sceptical of globalisation before, have been blitzed by unnecessary austerity, and growth in incomes has been sluggish for nearly a decade. Poverty breeds intolerance, division and resentment, and it makes people distrust the political and economic ‘establishment’. Why would people vote for free trade and ‘established’ economics when they feel that they are not benefiting from it?
We also have a politics that has historically used immigration as a scapegoat for UK problems. Not enough housing? Blame immigrants. Long queues at A&E? Blame immigrants. Shortage of school places? Blame immigrants. Simple lies to camouflage the complex truth that immigrants are net contributors to the Public finances; that you are more likely to be treated by an immigrant than to be queuing behind them in A&E; and that housing and schooling shortages are problems that the government has a responsibility and ability to resolve.
The sad truth is that poverty and poor politics have fostered toxic intolerance and anti-immigrant sentiment, whilst inequality and chronically poor income growth for nearly a decade are undermining public trust in free trade, and ‘established’ economics. This is bad news for those of us who passionately believe that immigration and free trade are overwhelming forces for good, and net positives for the UK economy and society at large. For us liberals, the task now is to redouble our efforts to present the positive case for globalisation.
How do we do this?
First we must accept globalisation’s faults. The net benefits of free trade and immigration are vast, but they are too unevenly distributed and too many people haven’t benefitted, and have often lost out. Cosmopolitan cities such as London and Manchester tended to vote Remain, whilst regions with small immigrant populations tended to vote Leave. Many people living in areas with large immigrant populations see and hear and live the benefits of immigration day in and day out. Areas without large immigrant populations simply don’t see these benefits.
Similarly, we must accept that whilst there are huge economic benefits from free trade (the diffusion of knowledge and technology, specialisation, increased competition and greater consumer choice), some communities have not reaped the rewards. Sunderland, Tyneside, Doncaster, Hull, and many more; vast swathes of old industrial heartland voted to Leave by huge margins. Throughout the deindustrialisation of Britain in the 1980s and since, there has been too little assistance for the worst affected regions. Too many of these old industrial towns and cities continue to experience deprivation and joblessness decades on.
The second thing we must do is propose solutions to these inequalities. The inequality in the benefits of diversity and immigration can be solved through both government and non-government schemes. Changes in the national curriculum to teach children more about different religions and cultures from an early age, and community projects that bring people of different cultures together can both help here. It must also be shown that many of the pressures facing communities, particularly housing shortages and overcrowding in our schools, are not the fault of immigrants and can be solved by planning deregulation, and public investment.
The inequality in the economic proceeds from globalisation can also be rectified by public policy. Worker retraining schemes and public investment in infrastructure will help old industrial heartlands, now plagued by deprivation, to recover and grow. There must be efforts made to encourage the spread of economic opportunity; bringing down the barriers to social mobility. We should offer youngsters more choice; investing in vocational training and apprenticeships as well as university study so that people with non-academic skills can pursue fulfilling, productive careers. University should also be made more accessible and affordable so that everyone with an aspiration to learn can reach his or her full potential. Much more generally, market imperfections and inequities that fuel economic inequality need to be rectified; issues of ‘rent-seeking’, disparities in bargaining power between economic agents and information asymmetries, and extreme inheritance of wealth need addressing.
Finally, the defence of globalisation must be accompanied by a wider campaign for greater tolerance and defence of personal freedom; on issues such as freedom of speech, equal rights and fighting discrimination. Dog-whistle politics and xenophobia helped to fuel the Leave victory, and we cannot let them become the norm in post-Brexit Britain. It should also be shown that many of the toughest challenges we face today are best resolved by working with other countries, with notable examples being Global Warming and international tax evasion.
The Brexit vote was largely a vote against globalisation, against immigration, against liberalism. For proponents of these things, it is time to dust ourselves down and renew our fight for an outward looking, tolerant and internationalist Britain.