• What Lies Behind the Brexit Vote?

    I am proud to be a sixth-generation New Zealander.  But I am also gratefully aware of my British heritage.

    All eight of the families of my great grandparents came to New Zealand, from England, Scotland and Wales, and had settled here by the mid-nineteenth century.  I had the pleasure of returning to the UK as a student and spending a substantial part of my working life there.

    My involvement in British politics meant that I took more than a passing interest in the referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Un ion.  I was surprised, but pleased, at the result, but I have been even more surprised – and less pleased – at the reaction to that result, not least the reaction of some prestigious organs of opinion whose opinions I normally respect.

    To hear it the way they tell it, one would think that the vote in favour of Brexit was a calamity brought about as the consequence of the bigotry (not to say racism) and ignorance of those who knew no better.  Their task now, it seems, is to show them the error of their ways, and find some way of reversing or overriding what was a democratic decision.

    There is no recognition of the perfectly rational considerations that might have led many voters to say of the EU “enough is enough”.  For many citizens, British and European, membership of the EU has meant joining an economic zone specifically created to allow powerful corporations to bypass elected governments and to achieve what they want by dealing directly with unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

    For Britain specifically, it has meant a massive trade deficit, particularly in manufactured goods – a deficit that has decimated British manufacturing, destroyed jobs, especially in the regions, and made it impossible for the British economy to grow for fear that the deficit will get worse.

    For many workers, it has also meant an unstoppable inflow of cheap labour from Eastern Europe – a tap that cannot be turned off.  To express concern at this might look like racism from the leafy suburbs of southern England, but it looks rather different to those whose jobs are at risk, whose wages are undercut, and whose housing, schools and hospitals are put under pressure.

    Yes, the Brexit vote may have been partly a protest on the part of those who felt that their interests had been ignored.  But there is more to it than that.

    Many of those most likely to bewail the Brexit vote do so from a position of assumed cultural superiority.  Outside the EU, it seems, they will suffer a deprivation not endured by lesser mortals; they will be denied access to European culture, food, holidays – a loss that may not matter to others but is important to them.

    The paradox is that this manifestation of supposed superiority is entirely misplaced.  There is nothing that – whether in or out of the EU – can deny the centuries-old British involvement in or access to Continental Europe.  Britain has always been historically, geographically, culturally, economically and in every other way a part of Europe and has often played a crucial part in its affairs – something for which Europe has been at times very grateful.  The question is not – whether Europe, but what kind of Europe.

    And on that issue, it may well be that the instincts of the Brexiteers are more reliable and culturally authentic than those who profess themselves to be the most committed “Europeans”.

    The British have always feared and opposed the emergence of a dominant European power.  The Spanish launched their armada and were defeated by Francis Drake; Napoleon made his attempt at European domination and was stopped at Trafalgar and Waterloo; and the Germans had two cracks at it last century and it took two world wars to halt them.

    It may not be appropriate in polite company these days to recall these aspects of past British involvement in Europe.  But these events leave their imprint – and the British preference for a Europe at peace with itself but not subject to domination by any one power remains a strong element in the British cultural identity.

    The British have always valued their independence – and, translated into modern terms, that means the value attached to self-government and democracy.  That is the element that, in their keenness to emphasise their “Europeanness”, is overlooked and misunderstood by the Brexit critics.

    Much of the impetus behind the decision to leave the EU came, in other words, from that long-standing British commitment to running their own affairs, without interference from Continental powers.  They wanted to regain “control” – perhaps an abstract concept but one that mattered to many Brexit voters.

    Those who condemn those voters for their ignorance and bigotry might ask themselves whether it is not the critics who reveal their ignorance.  Even at 12,000 miles distance, I fancy that I understand what those voters were seeking to achieve.  The drive to achieve and retain the right to self-government is not to be derided; it has served both Britain and Europe very well in the long history they share.

    Bryan Gould

    19 December 2016



  1. James says: December 19, 2016 at 9:26 amReply

    Mr. Gould, I considered you to have been a twerp when you were involved in UK politics, but time and distance has clearly given you wisdom.

    • Bryan Gould says: December 19, 2016 at 6:35 pmReply

      I have held these views for 50 years. Perhapss you weren’t listening. Bryan Gould

  2. June Abbey says: December 19, 2016 at 1:20 pmReply

    Bravo Mr Gould.you said it exactly how it is.

  3. Pete Rose says: December 19, 2016 at 1:28 pmReply

    Well said Brian. I too have watched as British manufacturing has been decimated and have seen the working class getting poor deal after poor dea, much of which has been aided by EU legislation, directives and treatiesl. The EU is not our friend, nor is it the friend of any working class person in the whole of Europe. We made the right decision on the 23rd of June, unfortunately we’re up against a well oiled publicity machine that ignores irritating inconveniences like facts or injustice or inequality, and is heavily financed by the EU and big business, and supported by their friends in the Establishment. It’s going to be a hard slog, but I think we’ll win!

  4. Pete Rose says: December 19, 2016 at 3:32 pmReply

    Sorry Bryan, too much rushing not enough proof reading!

  5. Pete Rose says: December 19, 2016 at 3:32 pmReply

    Sorry Bryan, too much rushing not enough proof reading!

  6. peter says: December 19, 2016 at 4:18 pmReply

    Good sensible comment from Mr Gould. ell done, come back Labour needs you