Wow, we actually did it. I honestly didn’t think the Great British Public would fall for the Brexit rhetoric. But, collectively we did, and now we’re in a right pickle. All those things that the Remain campaign, and pretty much every economist everywhere, said would happen – well, they’re starting to happen.
In the space of one week, an MP was murdered, we potentially instigated the break-up of the Union, destabilised the largest peace project in the world, screwed the economy, and the Prime Minister resigned. Good job, Britain.
My first act of rebellion (against the collective poor decision-making of the UK public) and coping (with a momentous, yet daunting, political outcome) was to have a Brexit tattoo. I tend to have body modifications to mark major events in my life, a bit like collecting merit badges. I already had the navel piercing, and a replica of the teardrop EU flag going around on Facebook was easy to fashion from it.
But something that we’re all coming to realise is that by acting smart, we actually weren’t so smart. It was obvious to us intellectuals that Brexit was a bad idea. We had the facts, and they supported the arguments made against leaving the EU. We assumed that others would make a carefully-considered rational choice, like we would.
While the public shouldn’t be patronised, we also have to be careful not to overestimate them. Sure there are a ton of thickos in the UK, but that’s only half the story. Intelligent people can be swayed by appeals to emotion and patriotism, convincing themselves that the rhetoric is reasonable. The heart is more powerful than the head of an untrained mind, and there are many emotive goings on in the UK right now. It’s interesting to hear people’s reasons for voting to Leave. There’s much talk of people regretting their vote, but data on actual numbers of “Bregretters” is scant.
So what’s going on? We know that those who thought that leaving the EU would reduce immigration / send everyone back to where they came from were wrong – this was stated by numerous sources in the run-up to the vote.
What about those who wanted to “take back control” and be “free”? Take back control from whom, give it to whom, and what constitutes freedom? “Taking back control” and “freedom” are nebulous phrases, and my sceptical eye saw right through them. Maybe Brexiters found meaning where I didn’t.
From the behaviour exhibited in the last two weeks, it seems that people voted along tribal lines. It was as though Remain was a vote for The Establishment, and Leave would somehow Stick It To The Man. And we had a handy scapegoat ready: immigrants. Yes, those saying that the Brexit vote was about immigration were right, but not quite in the way we expect.
The UK is a terrifyingly racist and xenophobic place, with casual discrimination rife. But that’s the kind of stuff that accumulates, so that any single instance seems minor, and easily dismissable. But Brexit brought that right out in to the open. The anti-immigration slurs, the racist stereotyping, the “just saying what everyone else is thinking” was given legitimacy by the outcome of the vote.
But is this problem actually about racism? Yes, and No.
Indeed, it’s likely that the racists all voted Leave (even if not all Leave-ers are racist), and the event has opened a Pandora’s box of underlying fear & hatred. There had to be latent racism in the first place for things to develop as they have.
However, if you look at the demographic of those most likely to vote Leave, we see that this lines up with some of the most disenfranchised and impoverished people in the country. And they have been targeted with anti-foreigner propaganda by the mainstream media (tabloid and broadsheet alike). Added to this is the class problem of not wanting to be pushed around by one’s “betters” (the proliferation of conspiracy theories illustrates this point nicely). The working classes have had a rough deal from the government in the past, and there is a distrust of those who claim they know what’s good for us (Michael Gove was actually correct when he said that people were “sick of experts”, although he didn’t seem to mean it in that way).
|So, are the poor all a bunch of angry racists? No, of course not. But unresolved social problems have led to a culture where immigrants are an easy target for abuse, and with an absence of relatable voices to counter this, it seems logical from where the poor are sitting. Of course there is huge diversity among working-class people. Those fortunate enough to have a good education, and supportive home environment, might see the world differently (I fell very much into this camp, & it was one of the drivers for me wanting to go to University – I just didn’t fit in mentally and ideologically with most of my peer group). Sometimes age and experience bring the realisation that the Dream Of The Meritocracy is just a dream – that life’s not fair and it might not be one’s fault that their circumstances aren’t great.|
I feel this is one of the greatest injustices meted on the poor – that it is their fault for their lack of social mobility – if only they’d work a bit harder, or aim a bit higher, they too can make it. Sure there are numerous examples of such individuals – and thousands more who didn’t make it. The message coming from higher in the food chain is that they only have themselves to blame, and what can you do with a message like that? You’re doing everything within your power to improve your lot, and it will never be good enough. With no encouragement from the wealthier society, and no way out for most, a scapegoat often is the only route to alleviate the pain of knowing that you’ll always have it rough. Maybe if we acknowledged the struggles of those in the lower social classes, stopped talking down to them, and were honest with them, we wouldn’t have so many uninformed views about immigration.
The UK has been terrible at selling the benefits of political collaboration and immigration to its people, in a way that doesn’t happen in other EU countries. Most UK residents are fed tall tales of Red Tape and Restrictions On Our Liberty, which are a load of made-up bollocks. Immigration is spoken of as if it were a threat, when the truth is that we either have to decide whether to promote growth through immigration, or allow our falling birthrate to accompany a corresponding reduction in output.
This site is incredible [clicky!]; it debunks the Euro-bollocks spouted by the popular press. When you understand the ways that the (almost always) innocuous truth has been twisted to make a good story, our collective impression of the EU begins to look ridiculous. Amazing what a few pesky facts can do.
Our government has historically been one of the most restrictive 1st world countries in terms of personal freedoms. We have governed by carefully allowing the public access to just enough information to present the illusion of liberty, while heavily censoring certain other information. For goodness sake, we put a book on trial in 1960, and we’ve barely moved on from that in 2016! The lack of trust in the minds of the public is a breeding ground for prejudice and conspiracy theories. A lack of control over one’s life begets a search for meaning, and without answers there are numerous rabbit holes to fall down.
So was the Brexit vote about racism? Yes and No. Was it about classism? YES. And until we face up to that, the problem will not go away.