Brexit and globalisation: is this any more than a bureaucratic change?

24 Jun 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jul 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Fears over the economic and cultural impact of immigration drove the UK from the EU, but what if Brexit provides no solutions and only makes these problems worse?

Fear and uncertainty about the future, the feeling that things around you are only getting more difficult – this can drive people to desperation.

Human beings are very flexible. We are not really much different from the men, women and children who walked the Earth as nomads 10,000 years and more before the present day.

Despite what must have been their relative hardship, compared with our mod cons, they experienced the same highs and lows as us, with the circumstances of their own lives providing an origin point of expectation around which their feelings of security and comfort would orbit.

The perception of social and economic security sliding away, of diminishing prospects – whatever your starting point - is stressful and will take its toll on anyone.

And so it is the case for many people living in the West today. For a start, inequality is rising, the prospects for Generations X and especially Y are less than those of the baby boomers who preceded them.

By and large the richest few have experienced an enormous jump in wealth in recent decades. The strain on the middle and especially working classes is palpable, with stagnant wages and ballooning house prices (economic crashes aside).

The economic globalisation that has caused these pressures occurs concurrently - and not entirely unrelatedly - with mass migration of people over the world. Humanity is a much more dynamic community than at any time in our past.

It is therefore no surprise that the many people across the UK who are net losers due to globalisation, along with those who perceive a too-rapid change in British culture, have become so worried about immigration.

But perception and reality do not always match up.

Economic and cultural fears

As the majority of the UK has felt their belts tightening – rising costs on essentials (largely housing), miserable wage growth, and a public sector stretched further and further by, amongst other things, an ageing population – fears about the economic impact of migrants grew.

These fears are divided into roughly two categories: effects on wages and job availability, and strain on public services.

However, while a greater workforce supply will naturally have a downward effect on wages, all else being equal, the reality of the first point is more complicated.

We live in the global village now – leaving the EU won’t change this - and people don’t have to be living in the same town, or county, or country as you to be competition for a job and to put pressure on wage structures.

Money, goods and services travel easily between borders and the fact is we are already competing with Poland and India and wherever else in the jobs market. This can be seen most easily in the manufacturing sector, where the UK has ceded a huge amount of ground in recent decades, while places like China and Bangladesh, for instance, have taken up much of the slack because of lower costs.

Any strain on public services, meanwhile, is at some variance with the above – in that, if someone has a job they should be paying into the public purse and, therefore, paying for these services.

Immigrants without work, however, can be a burden on public services. At the very least, there is a temporal gap between healthcare or education or transport, etc., catching up with spikes in demand. In the current climate of cuts, what is more likely is an increase in pressures. And, rightly or wrongly, there is also a great deal of resentment about immigrants receiving social security.

Another fear is the cultural impact. Many feel their identity is somehow being lost, despite white people of Christian heritage still forming a huge majority of the UK population.

While that may not stand up to much scrutiny, worries about the arrival of people who wish our society, and the principles upon which it is based, harm are unfortunately more realistic.

It is wild to paint the majority of people seeking a better life in the UK, or elsewhere in Europe, as enemy agents. However, one of the sad realities of terrorism is that a small number of people can do an awful lot of damage.

But while leaving the EU almost certainly will see a dip in the number of migrants from EU states, it is unclear what affect this will have on people coming from further afield.

Closing the door

It is impossible to characterise in simple terms the motivations of such a large number of people – their reasons for leaving their homes, their preferred destinations, and even the extent of knowledge about where they are headed.

What is true is that all of those getting on a boat, climbing on the roof of a train, hiding in a lorry – or even in a car engine – have taken the decision to gamble on a truly treacherous voyage to an unknown future in some country they may never have been or even know much about, rather than stay where they are.

We can talk all we like about securing our borders, sending them all home, shutting the portcullis on migrants and whatever else – the fact is that saying “you are not welcome” will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. As long as their calculation is as laid down in the paragraph above, they will continue to come. If so many of these people are already happy to risk life and limb to sneak into the UK (or other countries) does anyone really think that will be affected by any Brexit?

Barring some miraculous turn of events in Syria, and other chaotic parts of the Middle East – where ISIS continues to reach into the darkest depths of barbarity, and other violent powers wage terror that none of us would be happy to live with - more men, women and children will come.

Celebrations about our newfound ability to secure our borders ignore the practical difficulties left unaddressed by rhetoric.

Meanwhile, globalisation has brought significant benefits to many parts of the world, but in already-wealthy countries the real winners have been the rich while the rest have felt stagnation.

The UK leaving the EU does not end the global village. However, it may put us at an economic disadvantage when compared with our neighbours.

Shrinking economic prospects for the middle and especially the working classes, high immigration and the perceptions of rapid cultural flux – these are the reasons behind Brexit and, yet, they may all be left unchanged, or even made worse by any newly-weakened UK position.

If any benefits received from Brexit are mere crumbs compared with the harm we have visited upon ourselves then it is unclear where the UK will go in the medium- and long-term future.

We must hope that this worst case scenario does not come to pass. But, regardless of the referendum result, our future lies in a globalised world.

One way or another we will have to learn to deal with it. Leaving the EU does not alter the major socioeconomic global forces of our time. The best path lies in enjoying the benefits of globalisation while mitigating against its drawbacks. It is not clear that Brexit does either. How ironic it might be if our great Independence Day from the bureaucratic superstate amounts to nothing more than shuffling paper.

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