The left wing advocates of an Out vote were right about one thing: the immediate consequence of the vote to leave the EU was a crisis in the Tory party. In the small hours after referendum day, as the count drew to a close, David Cameron announced his resignation – and by the next morning George Osborne had been sworn in as caretaker prime minister.
That fired the starting gun on a Tory leadership contest that was at first seen as a battle between Osborne and the long-tipped Boris Johnson, with Johnson’s chances boosted by his backing for Brexit. What few saw coming, however, was the hard-right insurgency that was about to sweep the party.
UKIP – triumphant after a victory it claimed as its own – set the agenda, calling for not only the fastest possible exit but the immediate closing of the borders and a re-application process for European migrants currently living in Britain. Osborne and Johnson both made concessions to this agenda, but not enough for the Tory base, who sought a Trump-like champion.
They found one in Priti Patel – employment minister, Brexit supporter, former Referendum Party member and hard-line Thatcherite. Under the slogan ‘Make Britain Great Again’ (borrowed from Trump but also once said by Thatcher), she quickly picked up an important endorsement from Liam Fox, who declined to run himself, and gathered nominations from the 40-strong Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs.
Attacks on her past as a spin doctor for big tobacco, her vote against gay marriage and stated support for bringing back the death penalty all failed to damage her – if anything, they further motivated her fans. The grassroots connections formed during the Out campaign provided this UKIP-tinged activist base.
The story of the summer, then, was a resurgent hard right, with news bulletins dominated by a debate between the right and the even further right. Jeremy Corbyn came out with strong opposition but struggled to get much coverage amid a media narrative of ‘Britain heading right’. Meanwhile Osborne plunged in the Tory leadership polling, prompting comparisons to Labour’s failed Blairite candidate Liz Kendall.
Once the government triggered the official two-year notice period for quitting the EU, its first priority was to use the time to negotiate an alternative trade agreement with the bloc. Far from getting us out of the ‘bosses’ club’, the government’s opening negotiating position was to keep all the pro‑corporate, neoliberal elements of EU regulations in the new treaty, but without the attached social rights – or, of course, any democratic representation in Europe’s institutions. EU leaders heralded this as a ‘grown-up approach’, as did many of the corporate bosses who had supported In purely for trade reasons, particularly in the City.
The US – despite Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ rhetoric – was also more than happy to do a TTIP-style deal with Britain, relishing the opportunity to put back in the corporate courts provisions that stalled in the EU after they proved so controversial among European campaigners.
Workers’ rights were first in the firing line, as the government announced it was scrapping parts of UK law that were off-limits in the EU. This included cutting parental leave, paid holiday and breaks, diluting employee protections and abolishing huge areas of health and safety law. The unions focused their organising energies against this attack, but the changes were too technical on the surface to spark much wider interest. The tabloids, meanwhile, celebrated ‘the end of elf and safety culture’ by organising a conkers tournament.
In the end, with an eye on the Tory leadership contest, ministers went further than expected in what they called a ‘bonfire of red tape’: a free-market fundamentalists’ programme to build a new ‘British tiger economy’ that could compete by deregulation, cutting wages and scrapping environmental regulations. Funnily enough, the promised extra funding for the NHS in the event of an exit failed to materialise.
Soon after the referendum the recriminations began about who lost it and why. An insider account of the chaos in the official In campaign Britain Stronger in Europe was published, to general amusement. The author points out that Britain’s entire establishment and ‘dozens of expensive consultants’ all failed to notice they had named their campaign BSE – ‘and it was all downhill from there’.
The mess the establishment made of the In campaign looked much less funny a few months later, though. In the climate created by the Brexit vote, an emboldened far right stepped up its campaign against eastern Europeans, daubing Polish shops with the phrase ‘We voted out, now get out’.
This nasty campaign picked up passive support from a restive part of the public who felt that ‘Out means Out’ and were frustrated that their vote to leave the EU had had no visible effect on immigration. Keen to appease them, the Tories pulled Britain out of the European Court of Human Rights, despite it formally being separate from the EU, and reduced the already paltry number of refugees Britain had pledged to take in.
Patel’s eventual victory in the Tory leadership contest saw this trend accelerate further. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s call for an immediate general election, her first act as prime minister was to make Nigel Farage a lord and invite him to join the government and help negotiate the terms of exit. She said this would ‘heal the wounds of the referendum and show the British people their vote is being put into action’.
The new coalition declared that Europeans living in Britain could stay, but only if they took British citizenship – by passing a citizenship test, meeting an £18,000 minimum income requirement and passing a skills assessment. While the effect was insidious rather than immediate, the rules were designed to particularly target eastern and southern Europeans. In the transition period their rights were gradually restricted, with many losing access to free NHS care.
It was not only in Britain that the right were the beneficiaries of Brexit. Britain was the first state ever to leave the EU, and the referendum result had a domino effect across Europe.
Far-right parties rose to power across the remaining EU, winning elections by pinning the blame for their countries’ economic crises on Europe and the euro, and declaring they wanted to follow Britain in leaving. Far from helping the people of Greece in their battle with EU-imposed austerity, Britain’s vote to leave boosted the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which started symbolically flying British flags on its marches alongside the party’s swastika-esque banners.
Now, as the European Union starts to disintegrate, and xenophobic parties call the shots across the newly divided continent, many remember a little too late that it is less than a century since Europe was riven by war.
As the left exit campaigners had said, the EU had a lot of problems. Unfortunately, Brexit did nothing but hand the initiative to the right – and make everything a hell of a lot worse.
Tom Walker is Red Pepper’s web editor and is supporting Another Europe is Possible
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.