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.