Brexit: Consequence of toxic policies and cause of more

Brexit: Consequence of toxic policies and cause of more
Comment: The economic and political aftershocks of Brexit will weaken the EU and perhaps eventually lead to its disintegration, making way for the appeasement of Russian aggression, writes Robin Yassin-Kassab
6 min read
27 Jun, 2016
Boris Johnson, potentially the next prime minister of Britain [Getty]

On 16th June, Jo Cox, a proponent of EU membership, a compassionate supporter of refugees, and the most articulate voice for revolutionary Syria in the British parliament, was shot, stabbed and kicked by a middle-aged man screaming "Britain First!"

On the same day Syrian citizen journalists Khaled al-Issa and Hadi Abdullah, 48 hours after surviving an air raid, were severely injured in an assassination attempt by controlled explosion.

Jo died in hospital shortly after she was attacked. In a different world, the kind she fought for, she would have been an honoured guest in a free Syria. Khaled al-Essa died of his wounds on June 24th. Having survived Assad and IS-inspired brushes with death, it was probably Jabhat al-Nusra - Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate - that got him in the end. In a different world Khaled would be reporting on the achievements of post-dictatorship Syria. In this world, however, the very best are being murdered. The very worst are growing in power.

East and West, violent and nativist authoritarianism is on the rise. The British media focused on characterisations of Jo's murderer, Thomas Mair, as a troubled loner rather than as a terrorist. Had he screamed "Allahu Akbar" rather than "Britain First" as he stabbed and shot, the emphasis would certainly have been different.

Mair's action was carried out in the context of Britain's vote (a week later) to leave the European Union. Or rather Wales and England's vote. Scotland, once again failed by the British democracy, voted to stay in the EU. So did London, other metropolitan centres and Northern Ireland. Large majorities of Asian and Black voters voted to remain, as did the young.

But the working and lower middle classes in rural, suburban and smalltown England and Wales tended to vote to leave. There are good reasons to worry about the EU's unelected bureaucracy, its neoliberalism, the distance of those in power from the governed. There's a very good case to be made for democratic reform. Sadly, the debate hardly touched on this area.

The absence of a serious left has allowed rightist analysis of this grim situation to dominate

Brexit voters were expressing their discomfort at the dislocations caused by globalisation and, more specifically, the Conservative Party's imposed policies of austerity. Public services are decaying, benefits are being cut and real employment has been replaced by zero-hours contracts. The absence of a serious left has allowed rightist analysis of this grim situation to dominate.

In other words, people are blaming foreigners: If it takes weeks to arrange a doctor's appointment, that's not because of government cuts but because there are too many migrants in the waiting room. If the government failed to spend money on our flood-hit area, that's because the money was sent abroad to help foreigners instead.

The public's profession of such false logic is growing and goes increasingly unchallenged. The assumption that foreigners are behind our social and economic problems generates huge resentment towards both migrants and people who might look like migrants (because they aren't white). In this context, many English people feel that the influx of "aliens" threatens their cultural identity. The significant paradox is that they are less likely to feel this way if they actually live in an area with a high proportion of migrants.

The Leave campaign exploited the mood. It spread the lie that Turkey was about to join the EU, and that millions of Turks were about to move in next door. Nigel Farage's UKIP party deliberately helped confuse the free movement of European citizens with the movement of non-European refugees. UKIP published a poster of brown people, most of them Syrians, queueing at a border with the words "Breaking Point" printed underneath.

People voted to "take their country back", forgetting for a moment that they had never owned it in the first place

Of course, Britain has accepted very few Syrian refugees, and of course, leaving the EU will do nothing to stem non-European migration. But facts don't matter here. It's perception that counts.

"It's all about immigration", one resident of Barnsley told Channel 4, to justify his Leave vote. "It's to stop the Muslims from coming into this country. The movement of people in Europe, fair enough. But not from Africa, Syria, Iraq, everywhere else, it's all wrong."

All Britain's major political parties campaigned to remain in Europe. The exit vote was also, therefore, a vote against the establishment. But in the absence of a real alternative, it became a vote for another, more ruthless wing of the establishment. People voted to "take their country back", forgetting for a moment that they had never owned it in the first place.

Boris Johnson, likely the next prime minister, is a proponent of working more closely with Syria's Assad regime and its Russian sponsor - even though Assad's scorched earth strategy is the first cause of both the refugee crisis and rising Islamist extremism. Johnson praised Vladimir Putin's "ruthless clarity" in Syria - as Russian forces destroy schools, hospitals and marketplaces, as they shower villages and cities with illegal cluster bombs, incendiary and thermobaric bombs.

Johnson's attitude to Putin is shared by his fellow leave campaigner Nigel Farage, and in the US by Donald Trump. Indeed, all three demagogues share qualities with Putin. Like him they are entertainers; masters of the media. Their understanding of style is superb, their approach to facts is postmodern.

Like Putin they know how to use populist, nationalist and racist rhetoric to win the support, or at least the attention, of the alienated and angry classes. And like Putin, their own interests are diametrically opposed to those of their alienated supporters. In this respect, Putin really is a leader of the age. The 21st century he-man, spun on myths, grins and fury, is now the dominant brand.

Johnson's attitude to Putin is shared by his fellow leave campaigner Nigel Farage, and in the US by Donald Trump. Indeed, all three demagogues share qualities with Putin

Putin armed and protected Assad as he burnt Syria and ruined its people. Then he subjected Syrian civilians to Russia's own military assault. Twelve million Syrians are now homeless, five million are refugees abroad.

Putin helped fund right-wing anti-immigrant parties across Europe, including the Front National in France. In Britain, Nigel Farage unveiled a poster of fleeing Syrians. A mood of national chauvinism and xenophobia was inflated. This, at its fascist fringe, led to the murder of Jo Cox. Then England voted to leave the European Union. The economic and political aftershocks will weaken and perhaps eventually disintegrate the Union. The weaker the European Union, the more likely that Putinist aggression (in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, as well as the Middle East) will continue to be appeased.

The world (but primarily Russia and Iran) came to Syria to quash the revolution. Now the echoes of counter-revolution are rippling out to plague the world.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author, with Leila al-Shami, of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, and author of The Road From Damascus, a novel. 

Books he has contributed to include Syria Speaks, Shifting Sands, and Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life Future. His book reviews and commentary have appeared in the Guardian, the National, Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast and others, and he often comments on Syria on TV and radio.

He blogs at and

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.