Working class voters in the U.K. disproportionately voted to leave the E.U. and greatly influenced the outcome of Thursday’s vote. But if the working class enabled Brexit to happen, they had remarkably little to do with leading the revolt. The primary figures in the Brexit saga have been wealthy politicians, who have ridden the recent European wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and fears over refugees into a position of power — where they likely won’t suffer from the economic repercussions of Brexit in the same way that others in British society will.
Many of these leaders are members of the same elite that working class voters view as being corrupt and out-of-touch. U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage — who played a large role in leading the campaign to leave the E.U. — is a wealthy former commodities broker who has come under fire for tax-dodging and has claimed poverty despite earning a six-figure salary. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, another Brexit champion, once described his own annual salary of £250,000 as “chicken feed.” Still, through an expert campaign that painted immigrants and refugees as a threat to the economy and British jobs, these leaders were able to sway many voters in favor of Brexit.
Speaking an hour after the vote to leave the E.U. was officially confirmed, Farage, walked back his promised to allot £350 million a week to Britain’s National Health Service — a key tenet of the Leave campaign that was painted on buses driving around the country.
Asked by ITV’s Good Morning Britain if he could ensure the £350 million he said is currently sent to the E.U. every week — a number that has been thoroughly disputed — would go the NHS, Farage replied, “No I can’t, I would never have made that claim. That was one of the mistakes made by the Leave campaign.”
This reversal of economic promises is likely only the first of many. Proponents of Brexit emphasized the economic benefits of abandoning the E.U., but there is minimal evidence to suggest the vote will improve living conditions for those who are struggling. As Britain’s Trade Union Congress warned prior to the vote, British citizens are likely to make £38 less a week than their E.U. counterparts by the year 2030 once the country leaves the E.U. It goes without saying that this would hurt, not help, British workers.
The anti-immigration stance taken by Brexit proponents is also closely related to the economy and will have serious repercussions. Trends indicate that immigrants actually have a positive impact on the economy, and the International Monetary Fund has argued that taking in refugees would help countries with stagnating finances. Britain itself has already benefitted financially from migration to the E.U. — one study from University College London approximates the amount to be around £20 billion from between 2001 and 2011 alone.
Already, a plummeting currency has knocked Britain out of its place as the world’s fifth-largest economy, a title which now belongs to France. Markets have been thrown into turmoil and the British pound sterling sits at its lowest level in thirty years. While it will be some time before the full extent of Brexit’s financial impact is known, it is increasingly unlikely that the working class voters who opted to leave the E.U. will be better off.
Ultimately, the British economy has suffered alongside much of the E.U. over the course of the past few years, and those most affected have been blue collar workers. The 2008 financial crisis dealt a hard blow to working families, who still earn £40 less per week than they did before the crash. They have also faced growing obstacles to higher education and increasing challenges when eyeing upward mobility. Questions about the impact of globalization, single markets, and inequality are all fair and long overdue — but so far, it’s clear that Brexit was marketed to voters as something it is not.
Author: Evelyn Anne Crunden