Boris Johnson addresses the media
Boris Johnson addresses the media

Since Friday’s shock win for the Leave campaign, commentators have been battling to shoehorn Brexit into their preferred narratives. For some on both the left and the right, it was an upwelling of good old-fashioned nationalism against elite manipulation, with nationalism seen as alternately bad or good depending on your ideological position.

For the right, it’s about — per Trump — a restoration of sovereignty and a confirmation that the common sense masses will never accept supranational control of their lives. For the left, it’s a confirmation of latent racism among ordinary people or, for the more optimistic types, the ruthless exploitation of racism by the right, with racist and Islamophobic attacks breaking out on the streets of Britain in the aftermath of the vote.

The other, resolutely left narrative is that Brexit is a defeat for neoliberalism, a response by the working classes abandoned and betrayed by decades of hardline economic policies that have punished them and made them compete against labour not merely from Europe from the developing world as well.

[Brexit — the shockwaves spread out from a departing Britain]

In truth, none of these narratives serve as a full explanation. You can’t get more elite than the Eton-and-Oxford-educated buffoon Boris Johnson, now visibly at a loss about what to do since he backflipped and opportunistically became a leader of the Leave campaign. That the EU could somehow be portrayed as a bastion of neoliberalism and market economics is laughable — witness the Welsh town that heavily depends on EU subsidies voting to leave.

The darling of the far left and doughty opponent of neoliberalism, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, campaigned for Remain, albeit so tepidly that he failed to mobilise the Labour vote. And while Wales is the poorest part of the United Kingdom, the average wage in both Scotland and Northern Ireland is considerably below that of England, but both voted Remain — especially the Scots. Hard to portray the Scots as members of some out-of-touch supranational elite.

And the most perfect indicator of voting intention was age, with likelihood of voting Leave increasing perfectly consistently with age. It was the oldies wot won it — leading to claims of intergenerational war and Baby Boomer selfishness, except for the problem that younger voters didn’t turn out in the same numbers as the grey army of Brexiteers.

What’s clear in the aftermath is that no one expected Leave to win, not even Leave. David Cameron has announced his resignation and indicated he won’t be initiating the departure process, leaving that with his successor (“why should I do the hard shit?” he is said to have asked). The leaders of the Leave campaign are already busily backpedalling on some of the promises and claims they made during the campaign about the benefits that would flow from leaving the EU. The actual Leave process from here is entirely unclear: the EU wants to get cracking and start the departure process immediately, but there’s talk of waiting months to start it from the British.

Johnson has argued, with a serious face, that Britons would still get all the benefits of EU membership despite the UK leaving. The problem for this ridiculous optimism is that the EU can adopt an all-care-and-no-responsibility approach to the negotiations that will commence as soon as the departure clause is triggered, because the UK automatically gets kicked out of the EU after two years of negotiations. There will be no pressure on the EU to agree to anything the UK wants; it can simply run down the clock to late 2018.

And the hapless, politically ineffectual Corbyn is facing open mutiny, sparked by his own decision to sack shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, in turn prompting a dozen shadow ministers to resign; his own deputy, Tom Watson, is refusing to back him. Labour seems to be waking up to the fact that, given the Tories are in disarray and a new prime minister, whether Johnson or a uniting figure like Theresa May, will likely go to an election, having the least electable leader since Michael Foot guarantees progressive voters are, in effect, disenfranchised.

[Brexit torpedoes media stocks]

Here, the government seems in two minds about the economic impacts of Brexit, which has seen the pound collapse and hundreds of billions wiped off equities markets worldwide. Relevantly, for Australia, the Chinese government is dismayed about the result, and the aftermath has sent the Japanese yen soaring, quite possibly wrecking all the work Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done to make Japan more competitive.

Treasurer Scott Morrison declared, even as markets were taking fright on Friday, that the implications would be “minimal” for Australia. Since then, however, the Coalition has changed its mind and argued that the crisis is of such magnitude that Australia can’t afford to change government. It obviously means more uncertainty for the global economy, for which growth forecasts have already been repeatedly ratcheted down this year. That will, inevitably, flow through to Australia’s export markets, which are helping to maintain growth here as we transition from the mining investment boom.

In terms of the election outcome, the commentator consensus is that Brexit will cause voters to turn to the Coalition for reassurance. But there’s another, more subtle consequence for domestic politics. Malcolm Turnbull is under increasing pressure over his decision to stick with the Abbott government’s delaying tactic on same-sex marriage of holding a plebiscite after the election. On Friday, Turnbull admitted that no one in the government would be bound by the plebiscite result, meaning the entire $160 million process — which will likely bring homophobic abuse of same-sex couples legitimated in public discourse — will be a waste of time, and no better than an opinion poll that MPs can choose to ignore entirely.

Like the moderate, centrist David Cameron holding a Brexit referendum, moderate, centrist Turnbull is holding the same-sex marriage plebiscite as a sop to the far right of his party. The UK campaign has meant an MP murdered by a Brexit supporter and shameless xenophobia and fearmongering from Leave campaigners.

It demonstrates how events can spin wildly out of the control of those who set them in motion. We know Turnbull doesn’t want the plebiscite. His judgement might yet be confirmed in ways he doesn’t expect.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey