Early on the 24th of June 2016, people woke up to hear that the country had voted to leave the European Union. On breakfast TV and morning radio, the news broke in the dim dawn hours. In ﬁelds in Somerset, those attending Glastonbury festival would have heard a sad voice repeating over hundreds of tannoy systems: ‘the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. I’m sorry’. Elsewhere, celebrations had only just begun.
“Since then, comments on the division of the country have been the predominant feature of our media, political commentary and dinner table conversations alike”
Since then, comments on the division of the country have been the predominant feature of our media, political commentary and dinner table conversations alike.It seems clear that we have grown more divided as a nation. The 2019 election was one of the most divisive and polarising in modern history. Home Ofﬁce ﬁgures released this autumn show that hate crime has doubled in the last 10 years.1 Huge chasms in political ideas have become clear – not just between the two main Westminster parties, but in the towns, cities, villages and communities they represent. Using six years of polling and focus groups, the HOPE not hate, campaign have shown the country is experiencing huge pessimism about it’s future – alongside a sharp rise in extreme Islamophobia and a greater normalisation of far-right ideas.2
As the nation divides, the political concept of a United Kingdom ‘union’ looks closer to disintegrating. The independence movement remains strong in Scotland, after a tightly run referendum. Sinn Fein have publicly called for a ballot on a united Ireland within the next ﬁve years.3 And in Wales, where support for full independence has generally been weakest, new polling has found support for an independent Wales in the EU stands at 33%. Only eight per cent supported an independent Wales last year.4
How do we understand this level of division and disillusionment with the state of the nation?
BREXIT AS THE ‘GREAT CONTEXT’
French philosopher Jacques Derrida famously argued “il n’ya a pas de hors texts”. From the French, this is often mistranslated as “there is nothing outside the text”, but it is perhaps better understood as “there is nothing outside of context”.5 With this, he posited that we do not interpret the world objectively. Rather, our social status, our identity, our politics and feelings are always understood through and within the context of the epoch in which we live.
We can understand Brexit as the great context to the state of our nation today. Such an understanding suggests Brexit has three functions. First, it illuminates divisions that existed before the vote, but which the establishment had ignored, wilfully or otherwise. Second, it has further catalysed divisions that already existed – it has brought them into sharper focus and ensured they are felt more regularly and more keenly. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, it deﬁnes how we understand divisions - deﬁning which divisions and experiences have most meaning, how we understand injustice and the terms on which we understand the problems we collectively face.
Put more simply, Brexit not only exposes and creates divides, but it deﬁnes and colours every interpretation of which divides actually matter, how they have emerged and what we do about them now. It brings certain experiences, identities and ideas to the forefront.
This is clear from how ‘leaver’ and remainer have come to signify not only how someone voted in the referendum, or how they feel about Europe as a policy agenda, but rather sophisticated and complete identiﬁes. Almost everyone in the country, if they close their eyes, can imagine their own stereotype of what a leaver and remainer might look like.
“Almost everyone in the country, if they close their eyes, can imagine their own stereotype of what a leaver and remainer looks like”
Archetypal of this are the typographies mapped out by David Goodhart in his book The Road to Somewhere.6 There he identiﬁes, in strenuous detail, a binary opposition between the working-class, less educated, less urban and worse travelled ‘somewhere’ leaver; and the middle-class, internationalist, graduate and adaptable ‘anywhere’ remainer. Brexit has set the dividing lines of political debate far beyond a single policy area.
“Through the campaign, the dominant issues became immigration and the failure of integration”
THE BATTLE FOR BREXIT: INTERPRETING WHAT HAPPENED
Brexit is not a neutral context. Attempts to explain Brexit are attempts to deﬁne what issues, identities and struggles matter – so are by their nature political. This is a fact more regressive voices have been quicker to grasp. They have been much more successful in putting forward convenient explanations that maintain a privileged status quo, rather than challenge economic and social convention. Of course, this does not come without a heavy dose of irony. If Brexit becomes a way to reiterate an establishment, right-wing or status quo message about the state of the nation, it does so despite having an anti-establishment support base.
We can trace instances of this happening in practice. Two weeks into the Brexit campaign, Ipsos Mori began reporting that immigration had overtaken the economy as the British public’s top concern. Through the campaign, the dominant issues became immigration and the failure of integration. The mind immediately turns to Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, an image strikingly similar to propaganda used by the Nazi regime in Germany. But the weaponisation of the idea that Turkey could join the EU by Dominic Cummings’ ofﬁcial campaign played its own signiﬁcant role.
Since the vote, both the right and the left have conspired to accept migration as an issue underpinning the Brexit vote and, thus, the state of division in the UK. Theresa May’s most famous red line was an end to freedom of movement. Labour met this not with a compelling argument of their own, but by adopting the end to freedom of movement as their own ofﬁcial policy. This follows a long tradition of Labour conceding to right wing attacks on migration – Blair often faced criticism and made concessions on the issues in the 2000s; ‘controls on immigration’ became something of a catchphrase for Labour ahead of the 2015 election, featuring on mugs and other ofﬁcial party merchandise.
Yet, as others have powerfully argued, migration does not sit comfortably as a sufﬁcient explanation for the leave vote. Places with high levels of immigration often voted remain, including some of the most diverse boroughs of London.7 And many places that voted leave have some of the lowest levels of immigration in the country (albeit that a faster rate of change in immigration was correlated with the leave vote).8 Much more relevant as a predictor of a leave vote is whether someone can live a good life in their community, and whether they live in an economically prosperous part of the country – that is, it is far more clearly related to the consequences of austerity and 40 years of Thatcherite consensus.9
This is not the only way that the right has used Brexit to tell stories about the state of our country, deﬁned in ways convenient to their own ideologies. We might easily point to the neoliberal tropes of growth, free markets and unfettered trade that are core to both the establishment leave and remain arguments. If Brexit was driven by discontent with the economic consensus of four decades, that the main remain and leave voices both continuously evoke neoliberal arguments is a bitter irony. As with immigration, it is indicative of how Brexit provides the context to how we understand division, identity and politics in 2019 – and how regressive voices have much better deﬁned that context in a way convenient to the establishment status-quo.
Progressive voices must do better at challenging these views, and in creating their own, compelling stories about Brexit and the post-Brexit world. Accepting and playing to regressive narratives is not a viable alternative. In his piece for this issue, Adrian Kreutz provides a warning to the followers of this approach, through the story of Aufstehen in Germany.
“Many people who experience very real injustices – LGBT people, for example – voted majority remain”
BREXIT HIGHLIGHTS SOME ISSUES AND DIVIDES, BUT OBSCURES AND SILENCES OTHERS
Brexit brings certain issues – working class disenfranchisement or immigration – into sharp focus. But some issues, injustices, identities and divisions defy a simple Brexit framing. They are obscured by a disproportionate focus on looking to understand Britain through the narrow lens of why leave won the vote in June 2016. Many people who experience very real injustices – LGBT people, for example – voted majority remain. As ﬂashpoints like the Birmingham School Protests attest, their experience of discrimination remains very real. Indeed, hate crime against LGBT communities is rising sharply. Yet, they did not vote leave. They do not explain the shock Brexit result. And so, they have not found a place in the debate about what Brexit tells us about the state of the nation.
Others are excluded by over simplistic explanations of why the leave vote happened. Take how many explanations for Brexit have pitted a ‘traditional working class’ vote (leave) against an ‘establishment, middle- class’ vote (remain). But this is a remarkably homogenous account of the working class. It excludes huge sections of this community – such as those who deﬁne as BAME, or who are younger, and were subsequently much more likely to vote remain. It equally ignores that many working class people voted remain, despite – or perhaps as an expression of – the class- based injustice they experience.
Brexit has created an industry in explaining why the leave vote won. It is admirable to look for the injustices that might have inspired a demographic to vote leave. But this has often tended towards oversimpliﬁcations, which silence or exclude certain voices, intersections and experiences. In deﬁning how we go forward as a country, we must not lose sight of this fact.
“The progressive project must turn to reconstructing the country, and our relationships with one another”
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE PROGRESSIVE PROJECT?
The progressive project must turn to reconstructing the country, and our relationships with one another. It must do so in the context of a Brexit vote that has been successfully framed in a way that supports an establishment world view and status quo.
First, this means being much more explicit in challenging over-simplistic and over-comfortable narratives around Brexit. In this issue, Lisa Mckenzie explores how the working class has been oversimpliﬁed and viliﬁed in a Brexit debate with no room for nuance. In his interview with Carys Roberts, Ivan Krastev makes the case for studying the political psychology of support for populism, rather than falling back on purely cultural or economic explanations.
Second, it means taking a wider look at the divisions in the UK and building consensus on what comes next. Naomi Klein and Ed Miliband discuss how the Green New Deal can provide a new, progressive context to construct a fairer and more just society, ecology and economy. Dr Roslyn Fuller makes the case for more emancipatory forms of democracy. Dr Kojo Koram explores whether the politics represented by the Union Jack still serve us, or whether new, more unifying and less nostalgic symbols are necessary. And Leanne Wood and Lisa Nandy write on the case for devolution to create empowered and self-determining communities. These are opportunities to change the context – to tell much more progressive stories about the nation we live in, and want to live in.
This issue of Progressive Review looks to build the array of tools we have to understand division in the UK, and to begin the healing process. And it begins to imagine what, at the end of that process, a more progressive country should look like.
- Quinn B (2019) ‘Hate crimes double in ﬁve years in England and Wales’. https://www. theguardian.com/society/2019/oct/15/hate-crimes-double-england-wales
HOPE not hate (2019) State of hate 2019. https://www.hopenothate.org.uk/research/state-of- hate-report-2019/
McHugh M (2017) ‘Sinn Fein calls for United Ireland referendum within ﬁve years’,Irish News. http://www.irishnews.com/news/2017/05/22/news/sinn-fe-in-calls-for- united-ireland-referendum-within-5-years-1032976/
Shipton M (2019) ‘Support for Welsh independence soars in new poll by YouGov for Plaid Cymru’ https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/support-welsh-independence-soars-new-16911177
Derrida J (1988) Limited Inc
Goodhart D (2016) The Road to Somewhere
Ansell B and Adler D (2019) ‘Brexit and the Politics of Housing in Britain’, Political Quarterly, 90(52)
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