Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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 police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going