Reflections of an outlier

Claire Methven O’Brien*

I look like an outlier. Child of a European migrant and one myself. Career dedicated to human rights and the progressive cause. Left-leaning liberal. Graduate of élite institutions. Ex-London dwelling Scot. Yet, I voted Leave. Why?

Though no easy choice, for me, it was still a clear one. The United Kingdom has been on a wrong path for most of my lifetime, and, in these most recent decades, its social fabric has been brought almost to the breach.

Between 1979 and 2008, UK poverty doubled. One in six children in the UK live in absolute poverty, a proportion set to rise to almost one in five by 2020-21, while relative child poverty, currently running at 17 per cent, is projected by then to affect more than a quarter of children. Over 2 million UK families, more than one-third of the total, subsist on poverty incomes, despite an increased proportion of families including someone in work. Real wages fell 10 per cent between 2007 and 2015, the “longest sustained fall in average pay since the Great Depression”. By 2016, 900,000 people in the UK were employed on zero-hour contracts, a rise of 20 per cent on the previous year. Inequality, across all measures, has soared. The richest 10 per cent of UK households hold 45 per cent of all wealth, while the poorest half account for only 8.7 per cent. The income and wealth prospects of the young are diminishing. Yet, a short eight years after the start of the financial crisis, in 2016, UK firms paid employees £44 billion in bonuses alone, mostly in the financial services and insurance sectors. Those in England lacking financial support from parents now graduate from university with average debts of £44,000, higher than anywhere else in the English-speaking world, even, remarkably, the US. Home ownership has fallen in every region of the UK and in England to its lowest level since 1986, as prices inflated by international and local demand for UK real estate have become unattainable even for people on much higher than average salaries. The costs of childcare, at around £200 per week, wipe out the incomes of all but the highest-paid, while most childcare workers do not even enjoy a living wage. Deepened divisions in social and economic status are naturally accompanied by entrenched disadvantage for the less well-off in physical and mental health prospects and outcomes. The prevalence of obesity amongst the most deprived children is double that of the least deprived, while their likelihood of developing mental illness is 2-3 times as great. Scarcely surprising, in this context, social mobility has ground to a halt.

If statistics offer a snapshot, what they cannot communicate is the lived experience of degradation, marginalisation and, plainly, human abuse, meted out, generation on generation, to the majority who are not born wealthy in the UK.

Hyperbole? So it may seem to the educated metropolitan professionals who, usually, define the political, economic and media narratives framing social experience – to people, in other words, like me. But for anyone with even a mild or passing interest, testimony of this miserable toll is not hard to find.

Can it be said that Britain’s membership of the EU caused this? Of course, the answer is no, not in any direct way. And at various moments, I gladly concede, EU initiatives have patched up gaping holes in British employment and social policy, tempering extremes of Anglo-Atlantic free market ideology with more continental concerns for cohesion.

Yet, and though the matter is complex and uncertain, I believe that, at this time, and in the contingent circumstances that are ours to work with, the UK’s continuing EU membership could be an obstacle to restoring it to greater social balance. I suggest three reasons, scarcely new or original, but perhaps still worth repeating in the context of the present collection.

Firstly, an uncomfortable topic, but one that cannot be avoided: migration. In the ten years to 2011, the UK’s population increased by over 4 million, with immigrants accounting for an estimated 85 per cent of this growth. Over 600,000 people moved to the UK in 2014 and 2015 alone, with net immigration of EU citizens running close to 200,000 in each year. Of the 600,000 total, over half arrived for work, with between half and two-thirds of those already with jobs to go to.

Undoubtedly, and in line with prevailing political orthodoxy, the weight of reported expert economic opinion at least since the 1990s has assessed migrants’ net contribution in terms of taxation and the broader economy as positive. But cumulative gains may lag behind the immediate costs associated with new arrivals as users of public services, which redound on local authorities whose budgets have been cut, and cut again, since the financial crisis, while the profits such workers generate accrete to employers and the owners of capital, so that discussion of global net gains, for real living people, with their inconveniently truncated lifespans, is, at best, meaningless, and, worse, often deliberately manipulative and insincere.

The effects of such significant shifts in workforce on wages, working conditions and access to public services such as housing, hospitals and schools can be parsed, but again, global figures lack relevance to those population segments that are dislocated or undercut. Albeit they may earn more in Britain than they would at home, foreign-born workers and their children in the UK experience poverty at rates almost double those of UK-born workers, even years after arrival. Unskilled EU migrant workers are more vulnerable to exploitation, and are indeed gravely exploited in practice, at both the core and the margins of the UK economy today. If comparable indigent workers, in some cases, have the social wherewithal better to avoid the very worst abuses, this remains a situation in which, surely, no virtue is to be found.

Will Brexit, in itself, cure the ills of Britain’s labour market, and its social inequities? No. Does it entail any hard guarantee of reduced inwards migration to the UK? Again, no. But continued migration to the UK on anything resembling the trajectory of recent years, though still today maintained by many as economically desirable, is plainly not socially sustainable for a country that has so singularly failed to redress the deprivation and discrimination experienced by its existing population. If no silver bullet solution, then, the possibility of greater scope to control inward flow of people to the UK appears fairly assessed as a minimum condition to address the country’s chronic and still deepening social problems.

Second reason: for too long “Europe” has, thanks to the unrelenting efforts of a Eurosceptic right, functioned within British (or more accurately English) political discourse as a veil, a lingering miasma hanging over the Channel, obscuring the real motors of policy choices often made in the UK, the Brussels or Strasbourg bogeyman a convenient distraction from the playing out of more local, or global, interests. I regret this tendency and the confusion it has sowed, that has, for so long now, distorted domestic debate about Europe’s various projects, stunted the UK’s political contribution to them, and arrested our constitutional and democratic renewal, and through it the forging of a much-needed post-imperial identity and narrative. Yet, the past cannot be changed. If Brexit is the only means by which to rob those peddling British victim-status of their phoney pretext and to get the country finally to “move on”, towards a clearer-eyed view of our current social and democratic weaknesses, as well as our rich potential, then, albeit a high one, this is the price that must be paid.

Third reason: though its historical achievements are mammoth, the EU is not perfect. As time has gone on, one brand of economic dogma has increasingly masqueraded as fact, and its ethos has become gradually harder to distinguish from that of the faceless, naturalised wisdom of global markets, as the TTIP débâcle has recently highlighted. Talk of regulatory capture is even losing relevance, as the once-distinct realities of corporate and government, national and sectoral élites have increasingly merged into one across the continent and wider world.

Some European polities have been able to sail on these seas on a course, if not exactly straight, at least identifiable as one of their own choosing, with citizen rather than corporate or capital interests still serving to drive the direction of policy. Britain has not been one of them. The legacies of Thatcherism, and a first-past-the-post electoral system, in combination with the all-pervasive influence of London, as a global financial centre (truly the tail that wags the British dog) on Britain’s economy, political culture, its élites, their aspirations, expectations and social mores, have hollowed out its government, politics and political class, of loyalty to the particular, local and time-bound interests of the “ordinary” people that they were once supposed to serve. Without this ballast, and its capital city awash with the world’s money, clean and dirty, the British state has truly lost direction.

And the argument for Brexit in this? Though, once more, not intentionally or wholly responsible, by intensifying the attraction of London for capital and all its corollaries, Britain’s membership of the EU has operated in negative synergy, on the one hand, with the global dynamics that today tend towards the concentration of wealth, and its own biases towards the erosion of social integrity, on the other. It is, of course, this confluence of forces, inherent in the UK and adjudicated by the vote that explains why the result of 23 June was immediately interpreted as much more than an event of purely local significance, and a rebuff not just for the EU but for “globalisation”, liberal democracy and contemporary capitalism.

To me, this analysis rings true, and the determination of many progressives, British and European, to see no more in Brexit than an ugly spasm of xenophobia is mistaken, sad and frightening. Mistaken because, while it still has problems, Britain is more diverse, open and inclusive than many, if not most, other European states, this of course no lucky accident, but a result of decades of activism and struggle leading eventually to shifting social attitudes and sustained institutional efforts at integration. Sad, for the impulse righteously to condemn, rather than, with humility, to try to discover and understand the real motivations of the many millions who voted Leave, and frightening for the social distance needed to explain this tendency and the self-confident appraisal usually accompanying it, that Leave voters are all nasty fellow-travellers of Nigel Farage, or simply “fascists”.

While I can, of course, see, and indeed agree with, many of the arguments on the other side, and recognise all the costs, deep drawbacks and complications of departure, for these reasons, Brexit was a big gamble, but, at the same time, a risk worth taking in the hope that it might ultimately, if not immediately, yield up a break in Britain’s developmental impasse. If a positive vision for a post-Brexit process and pathway has been lacking on the part of government and opposition, the disruptive and invigorating effects of the vote on party alignments, constitutional and devolution arrangements, on the other hand, on this score at least seem to show some small signs of promise.

And for the EU, what reaction, and what future? These are topics in which I remain personally invested, as a dual EU national residing in a third Member State but, much more than that, as a believer in our continent, its values, and our common future, and as a grand-child of the generation who fought for all of these, without question, in our last great war. All too obviously, mistakes have been made, lessons must be learned, and yet no easy solutions present themselves. But that, of course, is exactly where Europe’s journey first started, and should offer no deterrent to the effort: Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.


* This essay is from a Working Paper of the European University Institute, Department of Law, entitled “Brexit and Academic Citizenship” (LAW 2016.20, San Domenico di Fiesole 2016, available here. The paper, edited by Christian Joerges, collects a series of personal reflections on the outcome of the Brexit referendum. The essays do not engage with the legal and constitutional issues that arise from this event – these aspects have received comment elsewhere. Rather, the editor has solicited personal reflections from a group whose scholarly journey included the European University Institute, a hub for transforming, and integrating Europe. Aware of this privileged position, the authors shed light on how the result of the referendum and its aftermath may impact on the UK and the European Union.

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