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Article / 27 June 2016 at 10:00 GMT

How Brexit looks and feels as a Russian in London

Russia oil and gas expert
United Kingdom
  • Brexit vote has changed the landscape in the UK
  • Far-right agenda hijacked 'Leave' camp and made immigrants scapegoats
  • Institutionalised faultlines in UK political and education system to blame
  • Political elites acquiesced in failure through poor leadership
  • A second referendum on staying in the European Economic Area a possibility


Britain has institutionalised a system that has created a society of 'haves' and 'have nots', but scapegoating immigrants does not get to the root cause of the issue. Photo: iStock

By Nadia Kazakova

Imagine that Russian voters were asked to go to a referendum to answer a single question: “Would you want to go back to the Soviet Union? Yes or no”. I guess a sizeable majority would vote to go back, especially older voters who lost out in the last 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

The go-back campaign (if any would be required) would only need to evoke memories of good old times of social housing for all, equal pay for all, free education for all and a guaranteed job for everyone. This positive and patriotic campaign would defeat the nay-sayers who would be criticised for being overly negative and downbeat for arguing that the Soviet Union was a non-viable totalitarian state, which went bankrupt ideologically well before it collapsed economically. 

Of cause, President Vladimir Putin might be already taking Russia in that direction, driven by his own instincts for political survival rather than a popular vote. Ironically, it seems that Putin is more in touch with the wants of the majority than the British political elite. 

To the credit of the British, though, their politicians have been warning the electorate that their preferred route might take all of them together over the cliff. Still, the country sleepwalked into the abyss.

It might be a stretch to compare Brexit vote with the Russian longing for the past glories. But it feels that it has been the same desire to reclaim a country that does not exist any more, all soft pastel colours, honest manual work and no Jonny foreigner in sight. 

And some of the roots of both the Russian resurgence (or aggression) and the British EU exit (and a nasty anti-immigration campaign) could be traced back to the dying days of the Soviet Union. After all, if is was not for the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, the Polish plumbers and builders would not be undercutting locals in the UK — they would be still tolling away in the heavy machinery factories behind the Iron Curtain. 

The Mail on Sunday picked up on the theme with a tongue in cheek article on the possible future trade talks between Boris the British prime minister and Vlad the Russian president. The photomontage pictures Boris Johnson's reaction as he sits at negotiations in the Kremlin: “Oh cripeski! All I wanted was a bit of gas for the central heating and this Russki blighter is demanding Poland in return”. Truly, there is a grain of a joke in every joke.   

Ultimately, it was not President Putin who was the enemy at the gate for the British at the referendum. It was the enemy within. Many Brits bought the propaganda of the far right that it was the immigrants who made their life misery.


Don't look before you leap — it's a steep fall. Photo: iStock

Immigration was the main issue during the Brexit campaign and for many the real question on the ballot paper was: “What about those immigrants: In or Out?” And it is not necessarily about control over some future immigration numbers, it is about those already in the country. 

The hostility in the streets towards immigrants has been palpable (even in cosmopolitan London) and has been directed towards foreigners already settled in the UK. Immigrants are blamed for lack of social housing, overcrowded schools and a long wait for a doctor appointment. The voters did not want to listen to muted Labour reasoning that cutbacks in investment and spending under the Tory government might have tipped public services into the state of a near meltdown. 

It seems that the political elite (both Conservatives and Labour) has been complicit in going along with the notion pushed by the UKIP that there are too many foreigners around (and that it has been a mistake to let in so many) and that immigration controls (in one form or another) would solve many if not most of the problems facing the working poor. Thus migrants became a legitimate bait in the Brexit campaign.

For now, it might have deflected attention from much deeper problems in Britain, which will not be solved by simply kicking out immigrants and whacking the EU for good measure. 

To my mind, the main problem for Britain is that its state education system is not fit for purpose or for an advanced economy in the 21st century. The UK comprehensive state-funded schools seem to be designed chiefly to keep children off the streets and coerce them into taking regular tests.

The private education sector (7% of the population goes to fee-paying schools) sucks in resources and bright kids, and spits out a mixed bag of career politicians, judges, bureaucrats and the City workers, who take the vast majority of jobs in their fields. The situation is aggravated by the near lack of social mobility except for those gifted enough to become adopted children of the elite.

It is not surprising that such a system produces perpetually low productivity (there is a lack of skill to produce high-value goods) and a double deficit: that of the trade balance (majority of consumer goods are imported) and of the budget (low paid workers pay less taxes and claim higher benefits). 

The City might have grown massively on deregulation and been the main beneficiary from the wall of money pumped into the global financial system since 2008 crisis. But the British economy outside the square mile appears to have withered from lack of investments both in hardware and the workforce. It will take years to re-balance the economy and a generation to fix the education system. 

Control over immigration might protect the low-skilled, low-pay labour market to a certain extent, but high-skill high-pay jobs will either disappear altogether or will still go to a qualified migrant, now entering the country under the Australian-style point system (as the Brexit campaigners suggest). Moreover, UK businesses will now need to compete for professionals in the global market place, and most likely pay up. It might not reduce migration and it might cause even more resentment and upset. 

At some point, British politicians will have to fess up to the real state of affairs, which might then allow for a solution rather a temporary fix, which, I have a feeling, would be try to wriggle out of Brexit, one way or the other. A second referendum on staying in the European Economic Area seems a possibility. 

At the moment, however, it feels as if the Brits have staged a mutiny on their ship. The captain walked the plank, navigation instruments are in a state of disrepair and foreign privateers are to be offloaded at the next port (or they can swim to the shore). The remaining crew could then bravely sail on, Union Jack flapping in the wind, into the bright future. 

The Soviets were also convinced that their mighty ship was heading for the utopian workers' paradise. Sadly, it never arrived at the destination.

What have I unleashed? Photo: iStock

— Edited by Martin O'Rourke

Nadia Kazakova is an expert on the Russian oil and gas industry


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