It is being called one of the most momentous political events in Europe since the Second World War and one week later, people around the world are still coming to grips with the implications of the British vote to leave the European Union. While opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the referendum had indicated that the result would be close, the eventual triumph of Vote Leave was unexpected, best exemplified perhaps by the shell-shocked and ashen faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as they presided over a press conference the morning after the votes had been counted. That two of the main leaders of the drive to leave the European Union themselves appeared to be utterly stupefied by their side’s victory spoke volumes about the chaotic nature of the campaign, and the instability it left in its wake. The United Kingdom stands diminished, turning its back on a cosmopolitan future to indulge parochial nationalism, and succumbing to delusions of grandeur rooted in its own post-imperial hubris.

The European Union has long been a bugbear for a significant section of the Conservative Party, with an entire generation of MPs and activists warring with each other over the form and nature of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. For the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party, the European Union has long represented an encroachment on British sovereignty, with laws and regulations from Brussels, and rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, undermining the United Kingdom’s right to rule govern as an independent nation. These concerns have historically been magnified by the belief that the European Union is fundamentally undemocratic, given the limited powers enjoyed by the elected European parliament relative to those allegedly possessed by unelected bureaucrats at the heart of Europe’s institutions. In more recent years, following the accession of poorer Eastern European states like Poland and Romania, Conservative objections to the regulatory framework underpinning access to Europe’s common market, often perceived as being a fetter on industry, have been augmented by anxieties about the free movement of people across the continent and the consequent migration of millions of people to the United Kingdom. In addition to standard arguments about limited, jobs, depressed wages, and the strain imposed on public services, the debate on immigration has usually also assumed a cultural dimension, with the influx of migrants being associated with the breakdown of traditional community life and values at the local level.

By resigning after failing to ensure the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union, David Cameron has become the third Conservative Prime Minister to be felled by the party’s infighting over Europe. Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Cameron’s Conservative predecessors, were both ousted from office by their own party, and Cameron’s own exit is the result of a massive miscalculation. Buoyed by a larger than expected electoral victory in the British elections of 2015, as well as a successful campaign to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom during the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, Cameron sought to kill two birds with one stone by holding a vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union; in addition to finally putting the issue of Europe to rest within the Conservative Party by giving in to one of the Eurosceptic wing’s longest standing demands, Cameron also hoped to attract voters back from the UK Independence Party, a previously marginal political force that had managed to garner over four million votes in 2015 on a platform promising British withdrawal from the European Union. Arguably borne more out of a desire to address the internal problems of the Conservative Party than to accommodate a popular demand for a vote, Cameron gambled that the British public would vote to remain in the European Union. As we now know, the conventional wisdom that governed this decision proved to be incorrect.

There is a kernel of truth to the critique of the European Union made by many conservatives, which is precisely why some on the opposite side of the spectrum have often endorsed pro-Leave positions. On the Left, the European Union’s technocratic ethos and governance has been used to strengthen capitalism and capitalists at the expense of the continent’s working and middle classes, with the punishing austerity imposed on countries like Greece as a condition for continued membership, coupled with the race to the bottom in wages triggered by the free movement of labour, ultimately serving to protect and enhance the interests of economic elites at the expense of everyone else. Following from this, elements of the Left have long argued for fundamental economic and political reform of the European Union, making it more democratic, responsive to the needs of its citizens, and committed to the goals of economic and social justice. Failing this, some agree that exiting the European Union might be necessary in order for nations to reclaim the ability to implement progressive policy agendas.

The contrast between the Conservatives and the opponents on the Left is clear. Where the former wish to assert sovereignty in order to remove the limited protections offered by the European Union (on issues such as human rights and the environment), the latter hope to strengthen these protections through democratic mobilisation. Where the former see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, the latter understand that it is the absence of sufficient state commitment to welfare and public services, as opposed to corporate profit, that underpins the anxieties of a predominantly white working class that has been subjected to thirty years of deindustrialisation, privatisation, and declining wages in the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately, the campaign to leave the European Union chose to make its case through the use of inflammatory and deeply inaccurate arguments about the destructive effects of immigration in the United Kingdom. Building on the work of previous governments and politicians who were content to scapegoat immigrants instead of engaging in the structural reform needed to address the very real problems experienced by working and middle class voters, the Leave campaign successfully tapped into an ugly vein of xenophobia and racism in its march to victory. The Remain side, led by the Conservatives, relied on an argument that emphasised the economic risks of leaving the European Union without offering a progressive agenda for reform. Had they done so, and had they taken a stand against the very economic and political interests that presided over the growing disconnect between average citizens and the establishment, things might have turned out differently. While it goes without saying that not all Leave voters are bigots – many were simply expressing anti-establishment sentiment – the fivefold increase in hate crimes in the UK since the vote took place indicates precisely how dangerous such rhetoric can be.

It is widely believed that Boris Johnson, one of the United Kingdom’s more charismatic politicians, abandoned his friend and ally David Cameron to boost the Leave campaign as part of his plans to ascend to the highest office in the land. Amidst economic collapse, rising racism, and increasing evidence that the leaders of the Leave campaign had no real plans for what to do in a post-EU dispensation, last week’s referendum has also demonstrated the extent to which narcissism, ego, and personal ambition can be destructive political forces.

That there are some parallels to be seen here in Pakistan should be obvious. There is a kernel of truth to the critique of the European Union made by many conservatives, which is precisely why some on the opposite side of the spectrum have often endorsed pro-Leave positions.