People voted to leave the EU because they know that their politics is broken. It's time to fix it.
And so it begins. First, the wailing and the gnashing of teeth and then, the reproaches and the recriminations. It was an act of self-sabotage, a feat of blinding ignorance, a classic case of those unwashed masses not quite knowing what’s good for them. Unfortunately, it’s also a load of nonsense. By and large those who voted leave knew exactly what they were doing. Participants in an unfair fight, this was the chance to finally land a punch that actually drew blood. Disdained by a political circus that barely even bothered to acknowledge the crowd anymore, this was a chance to (really) send in the clowns. Ignore us for long enough, they said, and we’re going to do exactly the same to you, and damn the consequences, because in places like Sunderland we already feel pretty much damned.
In the lead up to the vote, there were very few who actually got what this was about. John Harris of the Guardian was one of them because he actually bothered to tour the country and talk to people in unglamorous places like Nuneaton (66% Leave), Barking (62% Leave) and Hartlepool (70% Leave). On Wednesday he wrote:
“Even those who understand that something seismic is afoot among predominantly working-class voters are still too keen on the idea that they are gullible enough to be led over a cliff by people with whom they would actually disagree, if only they knew the facts. But most people are not really being “led” by anyone. In my experience, Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove et al are viewed by most people with as much cynicism as the people fronting the remain campaign.”
What is now happening… in the UK underlines a tangle of other stuff – to do with culture, belonging and community – that is going to require a completely different level of response.
And the warning signs have been there for a long time. UKIP’s rise to prominence was never about Europe, but two other long-standing issues. First, is the problem of democracy and representative politics in Britain, where an ailing system of grace and favours has been further undermined by the emergence of a political class (professional, bland, career-driven) that often struggle to talk to never mind understand the lives and concerns of many ordinary people. Second, and arguably more importantly, is the extent to which the country is perceived to be changing, often in ways that make substantial numbers feel anxious. Partly this is about the presence of foreign-sounding people on high streets, even in places like Sunderland that by and large don’t have many foreign-sounding people. But the anti-immigrant rants are a symptom of a wider concern about the perceived loss of control in a country that they consider(ed) their own. Say it quietly but these were the sorts of people whose sense of identity, place and community is still bound up with the nation.
And this leads us to another feature of both the pre and post-referendum debate that has largely missed the point. Yesterday I read the ludicrous claim that Europe is the antidote to the poison that is nationalism. Nationalism, for those at the back of the class, is nothing more than a belief system that argues that the world is, and should be, divided into people who share the same broad set of traditions, values and cultural and links to a territory and, as a result, should have their own polity. These beliefs (which are pretty widespread and not just confined to the likes of Marie Le Pen and English football hooligans) have led to bloodshed on a reprehensible scale. They have also generated forms of political representation not to mention feelings of joy (Irish and Icelandic football fans, anyone?) comfort and security that continue to matter to a lot of people, including – I would suggest – many of those who voted leave on Thursday. It may be that the European project has offered a bulwark against more virulent forms of nationalism in recent times. It may also be that newer forms of political organisation are required to deal with wider global threats. But existing frameworks cannot be simply wished away, particularly by bureaucrats operating in little bubbles of cosmopolitan self-satisfaction.
The sociologist Jonathan Hearn has written that ‘national identities, like all identities, are rendered salient when they seem to address personal issues of power over one’s own life”. At the moment, people in Britain, but in England in particular, are feeling a loss of control and a sense of anxiety that is palpable. In response to this they are drawing on a form of identity/community that, at least, gives them a way of making their own lives meaningful. We don’t have to like the fact that sometimes this leads to outbursts against migrants or boorish behaviour in the streets of Marseilles. And trying to make sense of such behaviour doesn’t, of course, mean condoning it. But if we are really serious about trying to offer new political solutions and ways of imagining and being in the world, it means first trying to engage with people and not simply sneering at them when they happen to make choices we don’t agree with. It also means getting a bunch of better narratives about who we are and where we’re going than the current lot have been peddling for the last two decades. These might be a start:
- - Come up with a political system where a small minority of swing voters and a bunch of grandees isn’t able to hijack the electoral process
- - Develop an economic policy that moves beyond a small group of people gambling with everyone else’s money and a whole load of other people stacking shelves and making beds
- - Don’t back a quasi-federal system that ignores the largest population group in said ‘federation’
- - Actually devolve power from London rather than just talking about it
- - Actively challenge inequality rather than building it into social and economic life
- - Offer a narrative of (national) community that is forward looking and acknowledges Britain’s current place in the world rather than continually banging on about the past. Britain is a small island in Europe. It once had an empire. It doesn’t any more, get over it. There that wasn’t so hard, was it?