No country for young men?

Conversations with people on the street in Wales help clarify why Britain voted for Brexit. Why weren't MEPs having those conversations all spring?

Anna Hare
12 July 2016

Alex Liivet/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

I’ve had a bumpy political education this past week.

Last Friday I felt like I woke up in a different country. Like I was surrounded by people who thought in a completely different way to me, that the whole population had been quietly disapproving of my lifestyle and beliefs, moving as a silent mass to the right … to the far right. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I felt angry, or threatened by people out and about – how can you think like that?! How could you do that??

One week and a bit later I’ve been talking to people who voted out (thank you lady in the co-op, neighbour with the trolley, ‘M’ on the front desk, geezer in the library, step-father-in-law) and I feel like I understand a bit better. By the way, I’m not trying to change people’s minds (oh maybe I am a bit) but I want to get all the conversations of the last week clear in my head.

Immigration and jobs, hospitals, houses. This is the view that, simply in terms of numbers, we can’t cope with the need for housing, jobs, benefits and that immigration means there’s less to go round. ‘We haven’t got enough houses’, ‘we can’t look after our own’, ‘I’m worried about housing and school places’, ‘maybe my daughter will get a house now’, ‘I work with a Hungarian girl, lovely girl, but she’s only been here for three months and she’s got a job and a two-bedroom flat’.

I know that everyone knows these views. And I know everyone knows the alternative (and I think realistic) view. People coming in and going out of a country is a condition of having a healthy economy. If people can get jobs here … good! Our economy is doing okay! (At least in the cities.) Immigration is a mixed bag. Looking at it purely in terms of costs and payments, you get people who need more in the way of houses, benefits, healthcare; you get employers, you get businesses, you get people who work and pay taxes. That’s how our community works. But there doesn’t seem much room – in the papers, in public discussions of immigration – to imagine this. Too boring? Remain campaign – where were the conversations with British people working all over Europe?

And it is obvious, not just from these conversations, that we simply need more opportunities, training, jobs.

By the way, do we really want a system like Australia, where we pick and choose our most investment worthy immigrants? Smacks of elitism. Who is to say who will ‘contribute’ the most? What is contribution anyway – just earning money and paying taxes? Looking after someone, being friendly, talking to people, making people laugh … are those contributions?

‘I’m not being funny, but what’s the EU got to do with me?’ ‘I hate the politicians we’ve got here. Why do we need another lot in Brussels?’ ‘Do you know how much it costs us to send MEPs back and forth to the European Parliament?’ ‘At least we’ll have less red tape now.’ ‘It was a protest vote. We’ve been left behind.’ ‘Cardiff’s getting better and better – Swansea high street is a mess.’

Well, I know a bit now about the good that EU ‘red tape’ has done: protecting workers from unfair dismissal; defining and defending human rights (women’s rights, children’s rights, safeguards against exploitation); legislation protecting the environment (‘I can’t use my hoover!’) but I wouldn’t say I really knew much before and I don’t remember hearing about it during the campaigning. Which makes me think, who are the EU’s PR department? They don’t seem to be doing a very good job.

Why weren’t our MEPs talking to us before and during the campaigning?

When ‘M’ was working on the EU-funded ‘regeneration’ project in Aberdare, it was getting a mixed reception amongst locals. As well as admiring comments (he was painting signs), he got ‘you’re doing a good job there sir but why didn’t they use some of the lads round here?’ And a teenage boy offering to sweep up for him for a fiver. And some others, a bit drunk or similar, saying they’d like to do something like that (the sign-writing). They were being genuine.

Which makes me think training, training, jobs, jobs…

I still don’t know who my MEP is. Is that me being crap? Who are (were) our ‘bigwigs in Brussels’ as the Metro likes to call them, and why weren’t they talking to us before and during the campaigning? (Tell us about what you’re doing … for training and work!) New roads, a new lido … I’m not sure big, visible changes really cut it. At least not on their own.

If the EU has been trying to even the playing field a bit, helping the parts of Europe that have been ‘left out’, then they have to get people on the ground on board and involved. The focus has to be people: their responsibilities and aspirations first then buildings and facilities. But then I suppose all that takes time …

(By the way, has the EU also introduced banking regulation to protect us from another recession? Why don’t I know that?)

‘What they don’t tell you on the news is that a lot of Muslims are really angry with Britain’. This person is worried about anger within Muslim communities in Britain and sees cutting immigration as a way to shut out the threat of Islamic extremism, which they associate with that anger.

Putting aside the obvious point that EU migrants are of all religions and persuasions, this assumes a) that Muslims are likely to hold extremist views; and b) that extremist views are mainly created outside Britain.

So, some Muslims are angry? No shit. And who can blame them after the amazing free-flow of Islamaphobic rubbish that is regularly pedalled in the papers? Resentment does not mean extremist views.

I have a more sober sense of how things are, including people’s perceptions, and a more urgent sense that things need to change.

Furthermore, there are lots of people in marginalised communities (white-British, Asian-British…) who feel angry and let down, but that does not mean they turn to the kind of violence and uncompromising beliefs characterising extremist views (the far right/Islamic extremism). Of course marginalised communities have much ‘better’ conditions for encouraging vulnerable people to turn to extremist views. How to un-marginalise communities?? How to prevent young people from taking on extremist views?

Surely we’re all frightened by the prospect of violence and even full-scale terrorism (home-grown and worldwide)? We’re all ogling the far-right with alarm. What can we do about it? Collaborate with other countries. Remind ourselves to trust and just. calm. down. Look at the person sitting next to you. Now talk to them. (Okay, don’t. Think about what shoes they’re wearing instead. That’s if you’re a natural social invert, like me.)

This last view is based on fear … fear does not help clear thinking.

Which brings me back to my first observation about feeling like I’d woken up in a strange place. I still think we were better in lots of ways as part of the EU. I am still so sorry that junior won’t have the same opportunities that I’ve had. But I don’t feel like everyone who voted out is plotting some kind of teashops and tractors dictatorship. I’d say I have a more sober sense of how things are, including people’s perceptions, and a more urgent sense that things need to change. (More training, more opportunities, more work. Who is talking to us?! Fight the fear!) On 23 June there must have been a good dose of ‘things ain’t how they used to be’ and a portion of plain old racism, but it is about a lot more than that.

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