Brexit: The English gamble

What are the chances the bet on Britain will pay off?

People take part in a Brexit referendum anti leave result demonstration in Trafalgar Square, central London Britain [EPA]
People take part in a Brexit referendum anti-Leave result demonstration in Trafalgar Square, central London, Britain [EPA]

There has been no shortage of commentary on the British vote to leave the European Union; mostly angry, vengeful, and even apocalyptic, or spiteful and celebratory. Little by way of sober analysis has come to the fore.

Both sides are talking, but neither is listening. The losers focus on the deception before the vote and the blowback after it, while the winners focus on the need to heed the voice of the people, and for all to help to mitigate any potential harm to British interests.

Brexit: EU says no compromise on freedom of movement

Beyond the badgering, however, there should be little doubt that Brexit is a protest vote; it has shown that the majority of people are alienated and angry with their establishment and governing elites. The working class in Britain, much like in Europe and the United States, feels alienated by their leaders and estranged in their countries.

Convinced they’ve got little to lose and much to gain from change, the especially older, poorer and less educated English seem willing to take the risk and wish for the better. Wishful thinking?

A gambling nation

The English are, for lack of a better word, compulsive gamblers. And they gamble on anything and everything from the Lottery, bingo and scratchcards to horse races and sports, notably football.

READ MORE: The English mind

The largest bookmaker in Britain, William Hill, estimates that the gambling industry will rack up wagers of £500m ($670m) on the European Championship tournament this year. And it’s all legal.

Rupert Murdoch's The Sun has been accused of spreading misinformation in support of the Brexit vote [Al Jazeera]Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun has been accused of spreading misinformation in support of the Brexit vote [Al Jazeera]

It’s the leading entertainment activity next to going out. A 2003 study showed that nine out of 10 English gambled at least once; the majority did it twice or three times a week.

They also gamble on politics.

When almost all Brits were anxious in the days before last week’s vote, uncertainty only excited the bookmakers.

By June 23, the English had placed millions of pounds in bets, and the Brexit turned to be “the biggest political betting event of all time, anywhere”.

But if you think about it, what’s this referendum, in and of itself, if not a historic gamble on the future of the country?  

No more hedging

Ever since it joined the EU four decades ago, England has been wary of EU influence, and the leading Conservative Party has been highly suspicious of the EU’s plans for a federal state that would dilute British sovereignty.

The outcome of the vote was determined in no small part by the Brexiters' success in framing the choice in terms of Britain or the EU.

That’s why London has been extra-cautious in its approach to EU integration; with every new commitment it made, London took exception to another.

In that way, England agreed to free trade and free movement of people in the EU, but stayed out of the single currency and out of the Schengen agreement that allows for open borders between its European signatories.

The one-step-forward, one-step-back approach seemed to work fine as long as the relationship was beneficial.

But then came the 2008 financial crisis. It exposed the EU’s fragility, inefficiency and weaknesses, and led to an increased European immigration to Britain, especially from Eastern Europe.

All of this was combined with deepening instability and insecurity on the continent.

The populist, nationalist anti-European camp took advantage of the European crisis to push for exit, using cliches, lies and half-truths.

READ MORE: Brexit – making Britain great again?

And when it came to choosing between the status quo and change, the English chose change.


Britain vs the EU

The outcome of the vote was determined in no small part by the Brexiters’ success in framing the choice in terms of Britain or the EU.

To my mind, that sealed the deal and rendered most other considerations superfluous.

Throughout the campaign, supporters of the Leave camp were pumped up, proud, and passionate about “their Britain” and about regaining its liberty and independence, while the Remain supporters were hazy, hesitant, and half-hearted in their support for the European Union, at times even hostile to it.

Indeed, the Leave camp seemed far more convinced of their arguments about British sovereignty and greatness than was the Remain camp on the European Union.

If Remain's arguments were wonky and wobbly, the Brexit plans for the morning after have been no less vague and elusive.

But if Remain’s arguments were wonky and wobbly, the Brexit plans for the morning after have been no less vague and elusive.

Casino politics

Brexit has already triggered a major crisis in the financial markets. And it promises to exact a greater economic, political, and geopolitical cost on both the UK and the EU.  

It might also lead to contagion of secessions both within the UK (Scotland, Northern Ireland) and the EU (take your pick).

And finally, it could potentially lead to chaos with a spillover effect throughout Europe and beyond.

And yet, the leading politicians behind Brexit don’t seem prepared with a short or long-term strategy for the country without Europe.

They speak in general terms about continued good relations with the EU, but they provide no answers to the challenges of the morning after ending their membership.

READ MORE: Britain and the Arab world post-Brexit

The Council of Europe has already made clear that any future trade deal with England will necessitate accepting the free movement of people and the very EU regulations long detested by the English.

For years, the English have hedged their bets between Britain and the EU, ie, on their special membership in the Union, and the country has grown faster and more secure than the rest of the bloc. 

But the vote is about to change all of that. And it promises to be difficult. The Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts that after “Brexit has plunged the UK into political, economic and market turmoil”; the turmoil will be “sustained”.

So now the English have three options:

Either they embrace the challenge with open arms or, to paraphrase one pundit, the task might be onerous, grim, and confounding, but which worthwhile endeavour was ever anything else?

Or, they sober up, procrastinate, renegotiate and eventually backtrack before the actual divorce takes hold.

And they can always go with the flow, along the lines of the late English romantic rebel John Lennon: Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


The flag of the European Union and the Union flag sit on top of a sand castle on a beach in Southport, United Kingdom [Getty]

The outcome will be a far cry from the sunny utopian uplands of independence many Brexiters are expecting.

opinion by Crispian Cuss
Published On 29 Jun 2016
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