As you've probably heard, citizens of Britain are voting today on whether to ditch their nation's membership in the European Union. Polling showed a dead heat in the final days, so how this will turn out is anybody's guess.
What we can predict already is how the "Leave" or "Remain" forces would interpret a victory for their side. And it's likely to be ugly either way.
1. How a Leave victory would be interpreted:
The most obvious reason a Leave win would turn nasty is pretty basic: It would empower a lot of racists.
The Conservative Party, which dominates the British parliament, has always been somewhat skeptical of the EU, and about two-thirds of it has entered the pro-Brexit coalition. Along with them is the far more hard-right elements of British politics, like the U.K. Independence Party, plus a very small percentage of euro-skeptic leftists.
Motivated by widespread anger over the EU's immigration policies — polling shows British voters consider immigration the most important issue facing the country — the Leave coalition has already forayed into xenophobia. To take the attitudes towards just one country as an example: Leave campaign materials have featured brawls in the Turkish parliament, warned that Turkish women and their high birthrates will swamp the nation's health system, and claimed that Turkey has unusually high levels of crime. "None of this needs decoding," as Phillip Stevens wryly put it.
So a Brexit would only show the far right that their nativist identity politics was a political winner. This would likely drive the Conservative Party "closer to the politics of Donald Trump than anybody in Britain has ever been before," David Coats, a research fellow at the Smith Institute and a visiting professor at the University of Leicester, told The Week. "It would be like Trump winning the presidency. It's that kind of shift."
That's a shame because many of the issues the pro-Brexit side brings up — Britons' access to public services like health care and education, the availability of housing, and stagnating wages — are genuine. After immigration, Britons list the economy, health, and unemployment as the biggest issues facing their country. "But generally speaking they have nothing to do with immigration at all," Coats continued. Instead they have everything to do with the macroeconomic policy choices made by Britain's own government in response to the Great Recession. Which brings us to...
2. How a Remain victory would be interpreted:
The Remain camp is an unusual political mix. It includes large parts of the Labour Party and the British left who, while skeptical of the EU, are troubled by the racism of the Leave campaign. Then there's the financial elite who are worried about what would happen if London lost its position as Europe's financial capital. And finally there's the remaining Conservatives, like Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne, who basically ran the country into the ground after the Great Recession. This last part of the coalition is key to understanding why the Remain camp will learn all the wrong lessons if it wins.
In 2010, the conservative British government turned very hard towards tax hikes and spending cuts. But that only reduced the country's aggregate demand, draining the British economy of jobs and driving down wages. Meanwhile, spending cuts dried up the supply of health care provision and other public services, leaving native and immigrant Britons competing over scarcer resources.
The problem for Cameron and Osborne is that while both have urged Britons to stay in the EU, they were also the architects of this disastrous move towards austerity, Coats observed. And while they've eased up somewhat on cutting government, they're likely to stay that basic policy course until 2020 at least. So Cameron and Osborn can't very well tell Britons to blame them for the country's economic woes. So what are they going to say?
As my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty chronicled, many in the anti-Brexit coalition have positioned themselves as the sophisticated defenders of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and forward-looking modernity, against the revanchist "howl" of the pro-Brexit side. That cultural grudge match is the frame in which the Remain coalition will understand victory.
"I don't see there being any significant change in monetary or fiscal policy if we vote to remain," Coats said. "Things will carry on pretty much as they are in the U.K. As far as the eurozone's concerned, I don't see much prospect of change either."
That doesn't mean the Remain side doesn't have a worthwhile argument, though.
First, the slide into ugly anti-immigrant tribalism is obviously worth stopping in its own right.
Second, a Brexit poses very real questions about Britain's global influence. "I don't want a Broken Britain without influence. And that is what we risk," Cameron said. Coats agreed: Remaining within the EU would give Britain vastly more clout to negotiate trade deals or international climate change policy with powerful international players like China. "I think [Brexit] diminishes Britain's role in the world," Coats said. "It actually gives us less control over our destiny."
Third, losing access to the EU single market would undoubtedly damage Britain's economy. The bulk of projections lean towards the British economy growing less after a Brexit than it would if it remained in the EU. Sectors like car manufacturers, aerospace manufacturers, and financial services would be hit especially hard. And Coats thinks the worst-case scenarios — a 9 or 10 percent smaller economy in the coming decades — are quite plausible, because the EU would be so politically averse to negotiating an expansive trade deal with Britain right after being kicked in the teeth.
At the same time, a triumph by the Remain camp would prompt no soul-searching.
That's why no matter the outcome, the victors of Thursday's vote are going to miss the most substantial lesson from this whole charade: Government austerity wrecked Britain and blaming immigrants or racists won't fix it.