Sunday, July 10, 2016

But why did it feel that way?

Soon after the news of the Brexit vote came out, I wrote a piece describing what it felt like. Shock, disbelief, a country I don't recognise, these were some of my thoughts, which seemed to be shared by many of those with whom I am in contact in England, by Guardian columnists, and the like. Since then, I've been puzzling firstly, why these thoughts ... and secondly if they are the right thoughts. 

What were we voting for, we who voted Remain? It's perhaps presumptuous to say “we” because there will be many different we’s but I'm going to make a stab at saying what the we that I belong to voted for.  And the first thing to say is that it was neither the dull economic arguments often put forward by the Remain side; nor was it a vote for the EU that actually exists – the EU that wants to crush the Greek people and hand power to the corporations through TTIP.  Read George Monbiot on this theme: “I’m starting to hate the EU. But I will vote to stay in.”

No, not for what the EU is but what it should be. Equally, for what sort of country Britain should be. A connected and inclusive nation, not an angry island on the edge, in the words of the Guardian editorial two days before the vote. 

This montage encapsulates what I was turning my back on when I voted Remain.

And why was the Leave result so devastating? It appeared to be a vote for the Farage poster that encouraged voters to turn their backs on refugees, for a murky blend of xenophobia, nationalism, humble patriotism, and nostalgia for an imaginary lost age, a rainbow where the malignant merges into the stupid and the stupid merges into the na├»ve. The racist abuse “go home we voted Leave” that has followed the result, strongly reinforces the point.

Now for the hard bit

Those then were the thoughts that motivated a Remain vote and greeted the result. And up to here was easy enough to write. But what follows has been through several drafts and I'm not sure I've got it right yet. Since the vote there's been another analysis. That the large proportion of working class Leave votes in post-industrial Britain, if you’ll allow me to use that phrase, was a howl of anguish against the status quo. Why vote for what is, when what is is crap. I had a message from England after the vote along the lines of, “Is something good going to come out of all this.  I don't see what it is yet” ... and maybe this is it, that the dispossessed have found a voice. But if so they’ve used it to say the wrong thing. Life is bad! Let’s do what the right wing of the Conservative Party wants and see if that helps!  In the words of Fintan O’Toole writing in the Irish Times, it's a Downton Abbey fantasy rebellion of toffs and servants all mucking in together.

But I'm being dismissive again and I didn't intend that. Lisa McKenzie’s Guardian article “Brexit is the only way the working class can change anything” is worth a read. Writing a week before the vote, she says working-class people are sick of being called ignorant or racist because of their valid concerns. Hmm. What do I say about this ... let’s try: undeniably the Leave campaign was directed to the ignorant and racist. £350m a week for the NHS forsooth! So like it not, the burden of proof is on those who voted Leave.

Stupid to be taken in by this?
But the referendum is a chance for the marginalised working class to have their say, goes the argument. No explanation though of how voting Leave will help, or lessen precarity [1] and fear. Indeed the architects of Brexit hope to undermine workers rights many of which are based on European law. See a TUC report from February, UK employment rights and the EU.

Granted, in precarious employment, it's hard to enforce rights. And in no employment, impossible. But handing over to libertarian free marketers? What kind of answer is that? The drift of McKenzie’s article, and similar ones I've seen, appears to be things are so bad they couldn’t be worse so let’s take a punt on leaving the EU, it might be better, who knows. That may not be stupid or racist, but it is reckless. A recklessness born of desperation, it will be argued. Here I stop. I ought to have said something about the various studies contradicting the the view that immigration is the cause of falling wages. If my essay appears incomplete, I can only apologise.

[1] Apparently I haven't been keeping up, because “precarity” is the new word for the effects on workers of neoliberalism.


  1. As a Guardian reader & ex-pat you are perhaps in a somewhat rarefied atmosphere. No mention of: parliamentary sovereignty, election of the lawmakers, the contempt (by the EU) for Mr Cameron when they wouldn't even throw him a bone, ever closer political & fiscal integration when what we (thought we) joined was a trading bloc etc.
    Mr Farage wasn't part of the official Leave campaign & so how you conclude that the result was due to his (much condemned) poster is beyond me
    In my view Messers Cameron & Osborne played a very bad hand indeed & the Leave campaign was an altogether more positive one
    Now we have a situation where Leave won but their leaders are not in power & the Government does not appear to have had a plan for a Leave victory
    The PM often said we are not quitters but promptly quit & incredibly the one Tory "big beast" who hid behind the sofa for the duration is now being touted as the new PM
    Meanwhile Mr Corbyn is being challenged for the leadership of his party so we effectively have no Government & no Opposition
    Harold Wilson who defied the USA (by not sending our troops to Vietnam - lesson there for Phony Blair)said "a week is a long time in politics" & boy was he right
    As you know I live in the Labour heartland of the North East & my own MP (Phil Wilson) was the chair of the "Labour In" campaign. He & other local MP's campaigned tirelessly but were given a good kicking. Politicians were talking but not listening
    Finally I am reminded of good old Dick Tuck who ran for the California State Senate but lost & said "the people have spoken, the bastards"

  2. Ah, come on, see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is already decided, that the next budget will introduce a massive frop in corporation taxes to keep all those companies in Britain, that otherwise might have considered to leave. And yes, it will be financed by raises in income tax, cuts in social services and in the NHS.
    So it all went well, according to plan.
    Not your plan, not mine, but according the toffs that benefit from it.
    What scres the living daylights out of me is that the underprivileged won't learn and that the blame will not be on the Brexiteers, but on the left and on Europe - and the people will, once again, swallow and believe. Who reads the Guardian these days anyway, when you can have The Sun and the free dailies...

  3. I like to think that I vote logically; I believed that all the rational arguments led to remain and that's the way I voted. The logic helped but deep down the real reason was something less tangible, more emotional, a desire to be European, to stand together with citizens from the continent (and Eire) to feel less constrained by borders to feel and be more free.

    I wonder if logic went out of the window in both camps and emotions took over. It might explain why the leave camp voted against their best interests and why the remain supporters feel devastated beyond what might be expected.

    In the wake of the vote I have become interested not why some areas voted leave but why some voted remain. Though it's thought that young people tended to want to remain and the elderly leave, the randomness of the remain hotspots unless one considers community and representation. Areas with a strong sense of self and good representation seem to have been largely remain. Perhaps explains why Scotland (SNP) voted the way it did, the poor rural parts of Wales (Plaid) and places like Liverpool which bucked the poor working class trend of leave. London too doesn't seem to have problems fighting for its corner.