The Uncertain Storm: Fear and Loathing in Brexitland

Consultant Joseph Henry reveals public perceptions on the ground as Brexit unfolds in the UK.

During the referendum campaign I was manning a market stall in a very prosperous part of southern England. A town with high employment, low benefits claimant count and a tradition of new comers making it home since the war, a place with big international companies and a thriving economy.

What I heard and saw on this market stall was both shocking, upsetting and representative of a type of fear and loathing that has entered British politics.

Racism, xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia were all trotted out, as well as a little class war just for good measure. I was deeply shocked and viewed all leave voters as little Englanders who just did not like Johnny Foreigner. My views seemed confirmed by the rise in racist attacks.

Then the result came in.

Across social media an outpour of hatred for old people, the working class, the unwashed masses and racists who had voted leave from people who voted remain. Initially, I was inclined to agree with them. However a couple of days later as the shock of the result faded I started to see the reasons why people voted leave and why people were angry at them.

Britain has been going through a period of disruptive change to our economy, our culture, social norms, the relationship between the government and our people, globalisation and our demographics.

This has been combined with massive fault lines in our politics: intergenerational unfairness, economic participation, metropolitan-rural divide, education opportunities and attitudes to immigration.

These changes and fault-lines combine to create in Britain a sense of uncertainty.

  • For the benefits claimant, it is the worry that they will not have a safety net soon.
  • For the young, it is the worry that the older generation is slowly taking away their future.
  • For the low skilled worker, it is the fear that an immigrant will take their job.
  • For the elderly, it is a fear that the country has changed and was ‘better’ during their day.
  • For the worker in the City of London, a fear that their well-paid job will move abroad.

These fears are justified because our politics has failed to represent the whole nation, but only a small group at any one time - leaving many without a voice through times of change and upheaval.

However, an insidious hatred and loathing has also entered our politics and social structure. At its worst it will lead to racism, xenophobia and islamophobia. For others it will mean ignoring other’s plight, destitution and poverty.

Currently as British politics stands, too many of our fault lines and disruptive change are creating zero-sum winners and losers. This process has been going on for a while but since the Great Recession, it appears to be picking up speed and the referendum was the final release of this pressure. Hopefully this referendum will be a turning point that creates a new social and political consensus that creates both economic and social stability.