It was my intention to write a book review for Douglas Murphy’s ‘Last Futures – Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture’, which in essence is a book explaining how it has become increasingly difficult to imagine alternative, and more positive, futures in architecture. A loss of confidence in technology, the oil crises of the early 1970s, and of course the neo-liberal turn which followed, all feature as part of the explanation why this has happened. With the United Kingdom now propelled into uncertainty by the decision of a narrow majority of its people to leave the European Union I felt it would be more appropriate to reflect on how this could have happened, and what this says about the UK and the EU, and I will write more on architectural utopias at a later date.
The so-called Brexit process, (short for BRitain EXIT), has been triggered by a referendum held on June 23rd, a vote in which 52% of voters chose to leave the European Union, 48% voted against. The overall turnout was high, at 72.16%. The referendum was called by UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron in an attempt to resolve divisions in the ruling conservative party, in which a Eurosceptic, -or more accurately described as Europhobic, – faction has been a disruptive force since at least the 1970s – if not earlier. He staked his political future on remaining in the European Union, and with the effects of the economic downturn still lingering, a refugee crisis at the borders of the EU, and recent terrorist attacks in France, the timing could not possibly have been worse. David Cameron has now handed in his resignation as prime minister and it is quite likely that this political gamble, – at the expense of the stability of his country -, has ended his political career.
The ‘leave’ vote cannot be easily dismissed because it cuts across traditional party lines, and as press coverage suggests has been embraced as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with political elites in the UK and in Brussels, leadership which is deemed to be too remote and largely unaccountable for the effects of their own policies. It has also been understood as a wide-spread rejection of austerity policies, in which the price of the economic downturn, which was caused by greed and excessive risk taking of the financial industry, was laid at the feet of the most vulnerable of society, of the unemployed, and of the working and lower middle class. The dissatisfaction is so deep that a lot of people have decided to throw economic caution in the wind to make a point about their leadership, their sovereignty as a nation, and last but not least, to express their fear of immigration and foreigners. For instance, I myself have had a bruising exchange with an extremely left-leaning friend of mine who voted ‘leave’ inspired by the misguided idea that the vote was mainly to do with the accountability of his own government. It was preferable, in his mind, to use the power of democracy to drive these points home, rather than to consider the possible negative social, political and economic consequences of his vote. When I said that he should have paused to consider the apprehension and fear of European residents and other migrants in the UK, -who contribute to the economy without having the same rights-, he dismissed my points as ‘nonsense’, me as ‘pathetic’ and pointed out that it was unlikely for them to be kicked out. I then explained that feelings of uneasiness by all my international friends persist and that this vote has altered their notion of the United Kingdom profoundly. He then responded that if they were so uneasy with the messiness of the democratic process they were free to leave and “others should be free to replace them in the workplace.” As a fellow European from the Netherlands, it is of course hard not to take such a remark personally, and does little to foster unity between working people in the UK and on the proverbial ‘continent’. (Surely I am not the only European who finds the persistent use of the word continent to refer to the rest of Europe to be delusional and offensive?)
I have always been fascinated by ideological blindness -not in the least my own -; but when Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marie Le Pen are the only so-called leaders to congratulate you on your decision, and when the police has their hands full with reports of hate crime as a result of the vote, then surely it could dawn on you that you may have made a mistake?
It is thus clear that the referendum, which was supposedly a straight yes or no question to remain in the EU, was hijacked by sentiments on immigration and questions on British identity. It revealed deep divisions, a country at odds with itself, and profoundly insecure of its place in the world and its diminished international stature. It pitted young people against old, rich against poor, depressed regions in the country against more prosperous cities, Scotland and Northern Island against England and Wales and has laid bare a deeply racist and xenophobic strand within a large segment of the British population. The economist Ann Pettifor, when interviewed on Al Jazeera blamed the result of the referendum on the austerity measures enacted by the Conservative government of David Cameron, and she proposed that it was time to roll back economic policies which contract markets in this way. Comments like these are hopeful because the loss of faith in economic and governmental systems needs to be addressed head on in order to meet the various challenges to the European Union. It points to a long overdue move away from the free-market mantra which proclaims that all economic problems can be solved through a toxic mix of privatization, deregulation and the lowering of taxes.
It is no coincidence that this process is so tumultuous in the United Kingdom, it was one of the first countries to have an Industrial Revolution, and concomitantly has been a place where the effects of de-industrialization were felt most severely. It is here that under successive conservative governments, starting with Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the working class was side-lined from the political process through a combined attack on the manufacturing sector (in favour of the financial sector and service industries) and on the unions which represented them. In the European context it was here also where the welfare state, -with its free healthcare, affordable housing, guaranteed pensions, workplace protections and so on-, was abandoned and gradually dismantled in the misguided belief that the tide of trickle-down economics would raise all boats. I am not suggesting that the manufacturing industry in Great Britain was healthy in the 1970s, but the transformation of the economy could have been managed differently and more gradually without leaving whole regions and whole segments of the population behind. When New Labour rose to power in 1997, they choose not to use their wide political mandate on meeting the demands of their traditional working class base, and did not sufficiently create new opportunities in the depressed regions of the Labour heartland. Manufacturing was not sufficiently revived, social housing was not built, but Tony Blair instead chose to put a more humane face on the same old Thatcherite policies. – Hence the anger of my dear leftist friend who proclaims that Labour has never represented the working class.
Coming from a country in which class divisions do exist, but are less pronounced and don’t clash quite so violently, I would like to reflect on my personal experience in the UK, as I think it is indicative of the way in which other young and foreign (architectural) professionals are treated here. I then offer the argument that it may be a blessing in disguise that the United Kingdom is loosening the ties with the European Union temporarily, as it will give them pause to reflect on their national identity and it will release the European Union to choose its own path without continued obstruction from the UK. Their choice is already remarked upon as a lessening of the influence of the United States upon Europe, and again I think this may turn out as a good thing.
I have had the great opportunity to become a global citizen myself (in large part thanks to the opportunities offered to me by the European Union and affordable education), I have lived and worked in the United Kingdom from 2008 to 2013, I am married to a Brazilian, and I am Dutch. The decision to move to the UK was driven by a downturn in the construction industry in the Netherlands as much as it was a result of curiosity. London is a true melting pot and many of my peers from other countries chose to do the same in the wake of the economic downturn and lack of government spending in their respective countries. I realize that I am indeed in no position to complain about any of these things when writing for an Italian website. What I hear and see in the lives of Italian friends is that for Southern Europeans making ends meet is so much more difficult. Very accomplished Italian, Spanish, Greek and Portuguese architects are working long hours for a pittance in the UK in order to make ends meet, and sometimes have to send money home. Particularly galling is the fact that a young, often well-educated workforce is used when the economic need arises, and dumped when a downturn occurs, without offering the same rights as native workers. The EU is trying to offer equality to all its citizens, whereas Great Britain continues to promote more rights for their own citizens. As an example, I earned the same as an English colleague who was seven years younger than I and who had less degrees than I did. The way in which the English class system works means that I, being Dutch, am slightly higher in the pecking order than Polish or Italian people with the English, self-evidently, at the top. I know that this kind of discrimination happens elsewhere too, with a Brazilian friend of my wife, (working in Barcelona before the credit crunch), suffering from discrimination for not being Catalan. In this stupid game of racism, sexism and bigotry no one is innocent and we all lose.
Yesterday Boris Johnson, the main face of the ‘Leave’ campaign proposed in his column in the Daily Telegraph that “British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down.”, he then proclaimed that Great Britain wants to remain part of the European common market under the proviso that “the Government will be able to take back democratic control of immigration policy, with a balanced and humane points-based system to suit the needs of business and industry.” In addition, it was proposed that the money saved by a reduction of the contribution to the European Union could be spent on the National Health Service (NHS) in Great Britain. No clear argumentation is given as to why the UK should reap the benefits of the common market and free travel in the EU but does not have to carry the burden of immigration and asylum seekers. No mention also of the UK pensioners in Spain who are relying on affordable Spanish health care there. In my mind, to use the art of understatement, it would appear as if Boris Johnson would now like to impose his cherished British class system onto the European Union. Fortunately for the rest of Europe this wishful thinking was quickly nipped in the bud by Brussels. One diplomat offered a response:
“It is a pipe dream,” said the EU diplomat. “You cannot have full access to the single market and not accept its rules. If we gave that kind of deal to the UK, then why not to Australia or New Zealand. It would be a free-for-all.”
I have been encouraged by the unified response of the remaining European countries to give a firm negative answer to the idea that the European Union can become a free-market menu from which you can just pick and choose, in addition I do believe that the message that the EU needs to become more democratic has been heard loud and clear. For the European Union to become an effective supra-national governing body, a body which looks out for the interests of all its citizens, and not just the elites, this cannot happen without compromise, and indeed it cannot happen without devolving some sovereignty of the individual members.
If the vote of the British will mean a more unified and democratic Europe in the long run, then I think that we have reason to thank them for their unintentional sacrifice for the greater good.
 New York Times, Monday June 27, front page, “British Politics in Chaos As Vote Result Sinks in, Sidelining Key U.S. Ally