I have been following the events in the UK leading up to the referendum from another country; I have to ask myself what has happened to the country I grew up in and love; one that has been looked up to for its democracy and openness? A country that gave me a free education and support to postgraduate level; an education system that allowed and encouraged access to universities that were previously confined to the so-called elite; a free health service that saved my life; I could go on. When I saw the presentation of UKIPs poster with a smug Farage and then shortly after heard of the assassination of Jo Cox; I was just stunned. Can this be the country where my family and some of my best friends live?
When did this all happen? When did the rot start? Britons were responsible for the founding of major international humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam. At the time, there was an overall consensus that this was the right thing to do among the broader population. Despite the welfare state having been introduced by the Labour Government after WWII, it was not wiped away when the Conservatives came into power and was sustained throughout their fifteen years of power through to the mid-1960s and at the time was the one that offered the most comprehensive coverage in Europe.
So back to the question of when the rot set in. I remember clearly during my last undergraduate year in the late 1970s a friend saying to me “if that woman (Thatcher) gets in. she is going to change the face of Britain as we know it”. And he was probably right. The concept of consensus disappeared; social partnership (kill off the unions-if you want a job “on-your-bike”), a healthy and functioning public sector (privatise) and a sense of responsibility of the State towards its citizens in the broadest sense. She started the culture of the “them and us” whether it be the unions or Europeans; the lazy and the industrious (those who can make money); immigration/race (if you don’t support the English cricket team you can’t be British). Above all, she was smart in understanding how to use the media to manipulate popular thinking. Has anyone asked themselves what might have happened to Britain outside of the EU and Thatcher been given a totally free hand? Remember many of the BREXIT supporters in the Conservative Party have views of where Britain should be moving that are not too distant from Thatcher’s.
Since that time, the media has supported and encouraged the policies of the small elite, irrespective of the party in power. And politicians have played to the power of the media; including Blair who flagrantly abandoned the interests of the working class and the broader philosophy of the role and responsibilities of the State and the concept of social mobility (e.g. student loans that paved the way for student fees). Politicians sought the support of newspapers whose owners openly supported Fascism in the 1930s and, not surprisingly, whose present owners have much to be worried about if the EU with the OECD seriously tackles the issues of tax transparency (evasion).
These are problems that are not confined to the UK but have been exacerbated by a very powerful press that represents interests that are not necessarily beneficial to the broader UK population. So whilst politicians and certain political commentators have appealed to moderate the language, it will be very difficult to change a mindset that has carefully been cultivated for the past 30 plus years.
It is a very sad moment for Britain that these divisions in a fundamentally open and caring society have been opened up for egoistic motives and the interests of a small (elitist) group that has been able to misinform and manipulate. Unfortunately, these scars are not going to be easy to repair. It is clear from the comments to articles in newspapers (including the Guardian and Independent) are based on an ignorance of how Europe works and how national politicians pass the blame onto Europe when they have themselves been the architects of the policies. And remember it has been the UK Government that has been the main driver of the neoliberal policies, both in Britain and Europe, that have contributed to austerity (and immigration); not to mention de-regulation that caused the 2008 financial crisis. But with the help of the media, governments can always point the finger at somebody else; governments that increasingly have distanced themselves from the broader population and politicians who willingly have allowed our democracies to degenerate into a system of “divide-and-rule” for the benefit of a few and a return to the agenda of the Victorian era.
All this does not mean that I embrace the EU blindly with open arms; it needs urgent reforms if Juncker is to live up to his statements of “open and inclusive Europe”. Maybe the BREXIT referendum will give that push; certainly the comments of the newly elected President of Austria are a positive sign. In the meantime Britain is going to have to deal with a gaping and divisive wound to its society which going to take a long time to heal.