The autumn of our discontent

October 1, 2023

The autumn of our discontent


reetings from London! Here we are some seven years after The Great British Brexit, and it’s been rather sad to witness the decline of this country after the disastrous referendum of 2016.

Most people here who voted for Brexit don’t really remember why they did but they do have a vague memory that it had to do with “not wanting to be governed by the unelected officials in Brussels“ and that it was about “stopping foreigners from flooding in and taking British jobs“ and so on and so forth. The 2016 referendum was a rather low point in British history in terms of accountability – particularly of the media and the politicians. It’s often said that the first casualty of war is truth; the first casualty of the Brexit campaign and its aftermath was certainly truth.

The untruths peddled were numerous, including Boris Johnson’s claim that leaving the European Union would provide more funding for the National Health Service. His claim that the NHS would get an extra 350 million was splashed across the campaign bus and repeated many times. The press didn’t bother to examine the claim or challenge Johnson on it. Of course, it turned out to be a fiction; perhaps a lie.

Fortunately for Johnson, his party and his successors, the fallout from Brexit has been masked by two developments: the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Every adverse economic problem since then is conveniently blamed on these two factors even though the underlying issue remains that Britain opted out of a regional bloc which had immense economic benefits. British citizens no longer have the right to live and work in EU countries and borderless travel in Europe is now a distant memory for them. They have lost access to all sorts of European grants, scholarships and collaborative programmes. And perhaps most worryingly, the country is no longer bound by EU law and regulation.

An example of the adverse effects of this can be seen in the way water companies in the UK have discharged sewage into Britain’s rivers since Brexit. Raw sewage is floating around in rivers and beaches and it is no coincidence that this has happened when Britain is no longer bound by EU environmental law.

Another result of Brexit has been the political polarisation of the electorate. This sort of polarisation is a global phenomenon and is linked to the rise of social media demagogues and the conspiracy theories they peddle, along with the decline of responsible and committed journalism that could challenge dangerous polemic and propaganda. The defining feature of this sort of narrative is the demonisation of the ‘other’ (foreigners/ political leaders/ the Left/ the Establishment etc) and the cultivation of a cult-like following.

This was not a random occurrence. Researchers and journalists who have studied the Brexit referendum say it is linked to the election of Trump and the emergence and funding of organisations specialising in data manipulation and psychological warfare. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s investigative work uncovered a “shadowy global operation involving big data, billionaire friends of Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign”. This investigation started with a deep look at Cambridge Analytica (a data company formerly known as SCL Ltd), bought by a right-wing hedge fund billionaire, Robert Mercer. The data mining firm had harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook profiles without user consent and had used this for ad targeting in the US presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump as well as in the Brexit referendum and, as Samantha Lai pointed out in a Brookings piece, in “foreign elections in over 200 countries.”

The evidence of psychological warfare and electoral manipulation is chilling when one thinks about its repercussions. Lai sums up the dangers for the future of electoral systems and democratic process: “Digital platforms, massive data collection and increasingly sophisticated software create new ways to generate and spread convincing disinformation and misinformation”. This manipulation is managed by people who stand to profit considerably from the results. A lot of money is invested in the process which is strengthened by the creation of shadowy networks of groups, right-wing organisations, think tanks and individuals.

Cadwalladr termed the Brexit referendum campaign “the hijacking of our democracy” and questioned whether the UK’s electoral process was “still fit for purpose”. The Electoral Commission failed to adequately scrutinise and penalise breaches of law and regulation by the Leave campaign in the referendum. The sweeping majority gained by the Tories in the election following the referendum seems to reinforce the idea that the electoral process in Britain has been somewhat compromised.

So, here we are in Autumn 2023 in Britain, a First World country that seems intent on becoming a Third World country. The East European workers are mostly gone and seem to have been replaced by an army of Indian workers – in hospitality, security and a whole host of sectors. We have raw sewage in our rivers, young people who can’t get jobs or mortgages, working families who can’t afford to eat (food bank users have gone from approximately 26,000 in 2008 to 2.5 million in 2023), a government which has slashed the funding of public services, deleted legal aid and is insistent in its xenophobic rhetoric; and an electorate which seems unable to think rationally. Add to the equation the rocketing food prices, the soaring energy costs and the demonisation by a Conservative government of public sector workers and you have a rather dysfunctional scenario.

As October begins and the days get shorter and afternoons darker, we in post-Brexit Britain will perhaps seek comfort in the familiar – a cuppa tea and snuggling up on the sofa to watch new seasons of The Great British Bake Off and University Challenge. Whether or not we can afford to run our heating is another matter…

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

The autumn of our discontent