“One more such victory and I am ruined!” – Pyrrhus
Yes, I was going to catch up on my blogging about Preacher, now some two weeks overdue. But you’ll hopefully appreciate that these last couple of weeks have been a little tumultuous in my country, which overnight on Thursday went from being a peaceable United Kingdom to something more akin to the squabbling factions of Westeros. So I thought maybe I should write something about that.
Let’s face it, none of us actually thought that result was going to happen. Not David Cameron, not Angela Merkel, probably not even Boris Johnson. And I include myself in that complacency, though I did at least vote in favour of the sane option (that’s the Remain one, as I would hope has become clear at this point).
So here we are, in uncharted territory, nobody having a clue what happens now. It’s easy to have the benefit of hindsight, or to blame the result on rampant racism and stupidity. Again, I doubt that racism and stupidity were absent from the disaffected voting to leave the bloated EU. But it’s patronising and offensive for those of us who disagreed with that vote to tar all the Leavers with that brush. I’ve got friends who voted to Leave, and they aren’t stupid or racists. I respected their opinions, and even agreed with some of their reasons (though obviously not that this was the way to deal with them).
The Least Shit Option
Because while I did vote to Remain in the EU, I did so with little real enthusiasm. It struck me then (and still does now) as The Least Shit Option. Even if you’re not a racist or believe the (now abandoned) bullshit about the financial costs, there’s a lot to dislike about the EU. Just ask Greece, Spain or Portugal, choking under the yoke of financial constraints imposed against the will of their peoples to satisfy the needs of the single currency, the European Central Bank and the government of prosperous Germany which wields a disproportionate amount of power over the rest of the organisation.
For lefties like me, there’s the worry that the whole thing is not only lacking in democratic accountability, but seems to be run for the benefit of financial interests and global corporations, the latter of whom are about to benefit from the even less democratic trade agreement known as TTIP, discussed in secret with virtually no public scrutiny. On the other hand, though, there is the (now obvious) point that the alternative is a dangerous leap into the dark which risks dividing the continent back along the feuding lines it had for the last thousand years or so, till that nasty Second World War business resolved us to unite to prevent it happening again.
Trouble is, few people in the campaign to stay in were arguing along those lines, with the occasional exceptions of such as Owen Jones or Paul Mason. No, the Remain arguments showed an establishment absolutely out of touch with the discontent of the majority of their people – they were, in effect, all about money. You know, that thing which vanishingly few of the British population have much of any more.
So, we were duly told of the oncoming fury from the gods of The Market, the loss to the financial services industry in London, and tumbling house prices. None of which meant anything to the disaffected in the North of England, or South Wales, or Devon and Cornwall, who had no stake in any of those things anyway. Abandoned since the Thatcherite project of the 80s carried on by successively more uncaring governments, why should they care about the losses to those doing well? If you can’t afford a house, a tumble in house prices might actually seem like a good thing. And if you feel you’ve nothing left to lose, being told by a bunch of people who have a lot to lose is only going to guarantee the inevitable “fuck you” vote.
Trouble is, satisfying though that might be, it actually does nothing to make their situation better, and in all likelihood will make it worse. Despite commonly expressed sentiments, the lack of jobs in what used to be Britain’s industrial heartlands, the dismantlement of Social Security, the utter lack of houses anyone can afford to buy unless they’re richer than Croesus – none of these things are the fault of the EU, or its bureaucratic regulations, or the immigrants from both within it and without. They are solely, intentionally, the policies of successive British governments from the 1980s onwards, often against the express wishes of the EU. So why vote against your own interests?
Unfortunately, because, while the Remain campaign utterly failed to get why people were pissed off, the ideological opponents of the EU understood it all too well and exploited it to their advantage. When you’re in desperate circumstances, when you feel like you’ve lost nearly everything and there’s no hope in the future, it’s a human instinct to look for someone – anyone – to blame for your misfortune. The Leave campaign, in no small measure made up of those very people who should have borne the blame, took advantage of this desperation to direct that anger where, historically, it often ends up directed.
Which is, of course, ‘the Other’ – anyone different, especially if they’re newly arrived and your community was unprepared for them. Yes, it’s the immigrants, about whom the Leave vote was eventually decided; but it’s also those pesky workshy scroungers on benefits, or those obviously-faking-it disabled people, or the gays getting married, or trans people being allowed to use the bathroom of their choice… anyone, in fact, but the people who are really responsible. The kind of people running not only the Remain campaign but the Leave one too.
That view’s been fostered by a relentless stream of demonising bullshit in our mainstream political discourse, in the media, and gullibly repeated in pubs throughout the land as absolute fact despite no one having actually experienced it personally.
Meet the locals
Nowhere was this more encapsulated for me than in meeting three generations of a working class family in my local pub, on the very day of the referendum. The grandparents, predictably, asserted that they wanted their country back, from the immigrants, and the hordes of Muslims who apparently were running some towns under Sharia law and flying “the Muslim flag” (they didn’t explain what precisely that was, but apparently it was in Luton).
The son, who asserted that many of his best friends were Muslims, had the more nuanced view that the problem was in integrating the immigrant community with those already here, though he failed to notice that this was as much the pre-existing communities’ fault as the immigrants. And the five year old grandson told us the same knock-knock joke several times over.
I’m not saying those people were necessarily stupid, or racist (though they might have been), but that they swallowed the Goebbels-like Big Lie that’s been peddled for years now – “because immigrants”, “because Muslims”, “because the EU”. There’s a difference between being stupid, or racist, and naively trusting the people you think know better. So they, and those like them, got what they wanted on Friday. I wonder if they’re happy with it?
Literally overnight, we went from being a United Kingdom to a rudderless, bitterly divided island, hence the Game of Thrones comparison, with no leadership in place and none on the horizon. Facing an unknown terrifying future with no-one steering the ship.
Seriously, if you thought the EU was running the place before, who do you think’s running it now? Not David Cameron, shamefacedly slinking away from the limelight after losing the most ill-thought-out political gamble in living memory. Not his sly cohort George Osborne, who’s been utterly absent from the media since the referendum despite his (surely dashed) hopes of gaining the Tory leadership. Not the Labour Party, self-destructing even as I write this in the most spectacular and public way possible, or the Conservative Party, doing the same thing behind closed doors.
And certainly not the Leave campaign. Look at the ashen faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove the day after the referendum, as David Cameron delivered a final “fuck you” to the men who’d stabbed him in the back by leaving it to them to actually organise Britain’s exit. It’s increasingly evident that these stalwarts of the Leave campaign (along with more than a few of their voters) never expected to actually win, just to use it as a springboard for future political machinations. But it’s actually happened, and they’re the ones who have to deal with it. Those are not the faces of cheering victors (Farage aside, who doesn’t actually have to do anything about it); those are people who expected to hold a cobra by the tail, got bitten by it, and haven’t a clue what hospital to go to.
So, in the words of the Buffy musical, where do we go from here?
Truth is, nobody knows. Scotland wants out – with real justification, Nicola Sturgeon’s agitating for another independence referendum, which this time she’d probably win. Even that’s not clear cut though. As this legal review document from May explains (see points 70 and 71, p19), there’s a possibility that the devolved Scottish Parliament could block UK withdrawal from the EU, but to do that would be to abandon hopes of that second independence vote, which is sort of the point of the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Or they could go ahead with it anyway, but then the newly independent Scottish nation would have to join the EU as a new member, with all the obligations new members now have. That means signing up to the passport-free Schengen agreement, and abandoning sterling for the Euro, one of the aspects of the EU that everyone agrees hasn’t worked.
But even if Sturgeon could get the EU to drop those requirements (which is pretty unlikely), Scotland’s membership might well be vetoed by Spain and Belgium, fearful the Catalans and the Flemish would take it as justification for a similar independence referendum. Sturgeon’s a canny politician; I doubt she’ll put such a question to the Scottish public until all that’s sorted out, which could take years, if ever. She may look triumphant, but she’s as lost in the morass of international law and politics as the rest of us.
Over in Ireland, there are real fears of the Good Friday agreement being torn up as Northern Ireland faces the prospect of being dragged out of the EU against its will while the Republic remains a member. Sinn Féin are already pressing for their own referendum on Irish reunification, while inevitably DUP leader Arlene Foster is sticking with Brexit despite the wishes of her own people, because she’d rather defy their will than see a reunified Ireland under Home Rule. For those of us who remember when both sides of this argument expressed themselves with guns and explosives rather than cross words, this is a terrifying prospect.
Spain may finally get its wish and regain Gibraltar, which voted 95% in favour of remaining in the EU. I have to feel sorry for the population, who once voted to stay British but have now voted to do the opposite of what the British want. Still, in all likelihood, the one thing we can be certain of is that a diminished United Kingdom will probably get to keep Wales, whatever Plaid Cymru may want.
“I’m as British as Queen Victoria!”
“So your father’s German, you’re half German, and you married a German?”
And what of England? Because, when all’s said and done, this was an English vote, which is why we risk the previously United Kingdom being split asunder. Take a look at the map of referendum results – while Scotland and Northern Ireland are all in favour of staying, the map of England is a few lonely metropolitan islands in a sea of Leave.
There’s already a palpable sense of ‘buyer’s remorse’ in a substantial number of English Leave voters as they woke up on Friday to discover, amazingly, that nothing had changed. They also discovered the blatant lies they’d been sold starting to unravel, as Nigel Farage admitted the much-trumpeted extra £350 million a week for the NHS didn’t exist after all, and MEP Daniel Hannan averred that the rate of immigration was unlikely to change.
Meanwhile, Cornwall, which had voted firmly to Leave, suddenly got worried at the thought of all the EU subsidies it would no longer receive, despite assurances from the Leave campaign that they would (somehow, inexplicably) be protected. All while one of the real obscenities of EU subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy (by which anyone who owns land that might, conceivably, at some point, be used for farming, gets paid a shitload of money) will apparently continue in some way.
So the likes of prominent Leavers Iain Duncan Smith and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre will continue to receive around £150,000 a year simply for having big gardens. Only now it won’t be coming from EU coffers, it’ll be from thee and me, Joe Q British Tax-paying Sucker. Meanwhile, if you wanted that £350m a week, or you wanted fewer immigrants, or you wanted to send back the immigrants we already have, none of that has happened, or will happen, and they’ve admitted that. The UK will likely split up, companies like BMW and Nissan may move their factories overseas to avoid tariffs, the pound has fallen to its lowest level since the 80s, and the only ones who aren’t doing worse are that very same establishment you wanted to stick two fingers up to. Ever feel like you’ve been had?
Faced with all this, what is irritatingly being called ‘Bregret’ is understandable, and may even lead to a second referendum – especially if our rudderless Parliament decides to call an early General Election and a coalition of Remain supporters gets into power. Or the EU may actually concede some reforms which make a second referendum necessary, as happened twice in Ireland. One thing’s for sure – even the ‘victorious’ Leavers are “in no hurry” to invoke the infamous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by which they could withdraw. Because they haven’t a clue what to do next.
“Super race? You’re ‘aving a laugh!”
The one unfortunate lasting consequence, though, is likely to be the unpleasant resurgence of English (not British, this really is an English thing) racism as an acceptable thing to express. Yes, it’s true that not all – maybe not even most – of the Leave voters concerned about immigration were racists. But let’s call a spade a spade (as it were) – plenty of them were.
English racism has never really gone away since the bad old days of the 60s and 70s, with the Notting Hill Riots and the loathsome National Front, But thankfully the racists seemed of late to have realised that, whatever they thought, it wasn’t really acceptable to actually say it, because most people would find it loathsome.
Unfortunately, the Leave campaign played very successfully on all those racist feelings, peaking probably with Farage’s now infamous Nazi-aping ‘Breaking Point’ poster. And crawling out of the woodwork came far more racism than any of us thought was there, coupled with the thought that expressing its views in a national political campaign now made it acceptable to say out loud what they’d previously been keeping in their fetid little heads.
We’ve had increasing levels of ‘Islamophobia’ since the September 11 attacks in 2001 (Osama Bin Laden must be posthumously delighted that we’ve given him exactly the culture war he wanted). So we witnessed inexplicable views that leaving the EU would somehow expel our Muslim population (it’s around about 3%, fact fans) despite the fact that the majority of it was actually born here, and the Muslim immigrants came from outside Europe.
To add to that, since Friday it is now apparently acceptable to tell people in the street to “go home” if they don’t appear “British enough”, or to shove leaflets through the letterboxes of Polish people in Huntingdon telling them to leave the country (thoughtfully translated into Polish on the reverse). I’m still proud of being British, but right now I can’t say the same about being English.
It’s all doom and gloom right now, but I refuse to be daunted, or to give up on this country. Many people I know are talking about leaving, and I understand that – the mentality revealed last week is not one I want characterising the nation in which I live. ‘Brexit’ may yet not actually happen – there could be a change in EU terms, a change in British government, even a second referendum; or international law may simply prove to be too intractable.
But Thursday night revealed a country more bitterly divided than at any time since the English Civil War – rich against poor, England against Scotland, north against south, young against old, cities against provinces. With our political system all but destroyed, whatever fills that vacuum is going to have to try and heal those suppurating wounds, and the first thing we must do is listen to each other. Not just the disaffected listening to us; we have to listen to them too, and understand the grievances that made them feel that way. EU or no EU, that will be the difference between living in a United Kingdom or living in Westeros. To quote WH Auden – “We must love one another, or die.”