The Immigrant Scapegoat

Brexit has come, but are ‘leave’ voters getting what they want?

By Rhea Pankhurst

Much has changed in the political landscape of Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, ensuing sovereign debt crises, and global economic recessions. A pan-European regime of fiscal austerity resulted in stagnant wages, declining access to social provision, and increasingly precarious employment. Britain in particular struggled post-crash, with the slowest recovery in the G8. Workers found themselves squeezed between static wages and sky-rocketing property prices. For the first time since World War II, a generation of Brits was growing up poorer than their parents.

Anxiety around the economy dominated the British electorate but so too did anxiety around immigration. Immigration had been a slowly escalating concern for UK voters since the early 2000s. At the turn of the millennium, it was the primary concern of less than 5 percent of the electorate; but post-crash, after having been temporarily eclipsed by the economy, it surged to new heights, more than doubling from 2013 to become the single most important issue for over 50 percent of voters by 2016.

The post-crash pan-European surge in populism saw the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) take first place in the 2014 European parliamentary elections. UKIP, originally founded with the sole aim of secession from the E.U., had a marginal presence in the national parliament, largely due to the first-past-the-post system used in British general elections. Increasingly, however, they became a substantial threat to the precariously ruling Conservative party by splitting the right-wing vote. In a bid to stymie UKIP and fight the rebellious Euro-skeptics in his own party, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promised the nation an in-or-out referendum on E.U. membership if his party won a majority in the 2015 general election. The Conservatives went on to win that majority, and in June 2016, the U.K. voted by a margin of almost 3.8 percent to withdraw from the European Union.

The opinion polling had always been …

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