|Posted by Mark Cantrell on June 26, 2016 at 4:30 PM|
Now it’s all over bar the screaming
Brexit has revealed what sort of country we are – and it isn’t pretty – but we only have ourselves to blame. We were too relaxed about rampant inequality, writes Mark Cantrell
BRITAIN is a divided and troubled country after the Brexit vote – but that’s nothing new; it was already coming apart long before David Cameron ever decided to play Russian Roulette with the future.
True, the noxious campaign has inflicted damage, left scars that may never fully heal, but on the whole, Friday’s bitter result merely revealed the divisions and fractures that already existed in our unequal, austerity-mauled society.
In or out of the EU, that damage was already there, grinding down people’s lives and hopes and futures, and building up to an explosive pressure.
The Brexit vote serves as a wake-up call, but it has also – quite possibly –served notice on our ability to tackle the myriad social problems born out of a decades-old programme of de-industrialisation and economic restructuring, combined with the indifference of those on the ‘winning’ side of change.
Underneath the gloss of a young, trendy, middle class creative economy, whole swathes of working class Britain – created, sustained over generations, given shape and identity by manufacturing industries deemed obsolete and redundant – were effectively left to rot.
When they were noticed, if the shiny metropolitans of this new Britain noticed them at all, that is, they were cast as bothersome relics of a bygone age, peopled by troglodytes incapable of comprehending the modern world.
We have sneered at them as ‘chavs’ and ‘scroungers’, called them ‘feckless’ and ‘thick’, othered them to the point of being subhuman. They were trouble, basically, and the victims of their own ineptitude little deserving of sympathy, still less of empathy and understanding.
All told, large expanses of modern Britain have been left in little doubt: they do not belong, they are not welcome. As a society, for too long, we have epitomised a ‘bugger you, Jack, I’m all right’ philosophy, while paying lip service to a progressive social conscience.
Well, in a way, we’re now paying for that easy going attitude we had towards social exclusion and our society’s growing inequality.
Politicians, of course, have long talked-up the importance of promoting social justice and social mobility, but their actions belied the words. All told, the political class has taken a crowbar to the fractures and prised them ever-further apart.
Cameron began his Prime Ministerial career in 2010, as head of a Coalition Government, talking about ‘Broken Britain’. The ‘hug-a-hoodie’ Compassionate Conservatism didn’t last long, though.
The policies his governments have pursued only served to intensify the divisions and the inequalities fracturing our society. Meanwhile, the day-to-day dramas of national politics since then have served to fuel perceptions of an out-of-touch elite only interested in the squabble for power, with scant regard for the experiences of those living with the consequences of these policies, off-camera and out of mind.
Austerity has taken its toll. Public services slashed. Welfare reform has caused real hardship and even destitution – people have died – and it has fostered a culture of suspicion and fear.
It’s difficult to comprehend, perhaps, for many of us not subject to the regime created by former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, but claimants now must live in something akin to a totalitarian police state, rather than a democratic society that provides for the well-being of its citizens.
Indeed, to all intents and purposes, people on benefits have effectively been stripped of their status as citizens, long before any of them took a hand in stripping us of our EU citizenship.
Meanwhile, zero hours contracts, low pay, a famine of secure, meaningful work, have served to add insult to injury when employment – the rewards of hard work – no longer provide sufficient income to escape the judgemental authority of a JobCentre functionary.
The flipside is a culture that bombards us with images of extravagant wealth and the bombast of power and privilege: executive pay runs rampant; bankers strut around like 2008 never happened; scandals over Sports Direct’s employment practices burn into our conscience; BHS crashes and burns; we have financial scandals and tax dodging corporations, tax havens; allegations of electoral fraud; all suggestive of an era where the ‘haves’ can do as they please, and the rest of us can hang.
We were in a mess long before the referendum campaign invoked the demons of ‘Little England’ nostalgia, racism, and enervated class contempt; all it did was allow this simmering stew of rot to boil over.
More could be said about Government policies – Labour and Conservative – and the role they had in contributing to this sorry mess, but that kind of post mortem would entail a book. For now, it’s enough to say that a combination of Tory animosity and Labour indifference has, over a generation or more now, slow-cooked that poison stew. Now we all have to eat it.
Real political leadership and vision has been lacking from all the mainstream political parties for a long time. Their respective constituencies have been taken for granted, their local machines left to atrophy, national focus placed on ‘swing voters’ and marginal seats in their battle to win control of the House of Commons, essentially withering their grass roots.
Inevitably, this has taken its toll on the health of the body politic, local and national. Over time, it has reduced channels of representation, deprived people of a sounding chamber where their voices can be heard, sucked the air out of representative democratic processes, and left a vacuum waiting to be filled.
Now, we are left with a vacuum right at the heart of the political arena, as leadership falls further into disarray. Maybe we’ll be British and muddle through somehow – or maybe we are embroiled in a situation that just can’t end well. Your guess is as good as mine.
All together now
THE fallout from Brexit continues. Rather, the descent into madness. As these words are written, blame is being hurled around left, right and centre; recriminations abound; a coup is in the offing against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as a slew of shadow ministers resign. The political class is falling apart and governance is going with it.
Cameron of course has passed the poison chalice of Brexit to his successor whoever that might be. The man wanted to secure his legacy, go down in the history books, and walk away triumphant. Instead his staggering miscalculation has assured he will be remembered as the biggest political fuckwit since Neville Chamberlain (although that’s being a tad unfair to Neville).
That the cocky, self-styled ‘man of the people’ has been brought down by his own political ineptitude will be no consolation for those left with the repercussions of his strange career suicide. Cameron will be okay, though, whatever happens next; he’s a rich man, and if he can cope with the humiliation of being labelled a molester of pigs, then he can come through this. The rest of us are unlikely to be so lucky.
The pretenders to the Conservative throne, meanwhile, appear to be rather less enthusiastic about Brexit – and the Tory leadership – now that they have the spoils in their grasp.
Ironically, and tellingly, having won its campaign, the leave camp is falling apart – its pledges and claims are being disavowed and denied; it offers no clear plan for the way ahead. They don’t even appear to have fag packet with some scribbled directions.
In the wake of the referendum result, it seems clear that many of the Brexit camp leaders – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith – are somewhat concerned about the mess that’s landed in their laps. It’s easy to imagine that on Friday morning, they uttered a collective cry of: “Oh, shit! That wasn’t supposed to happen. What are we going to do now?”
Indeed. Nigel Farage aside, it seems clear that the chiefs leading the Brexit campaign didn’t want to win. Not really. They just wanted to stick the knife into Cameron and George Osborne for their own political advantage. Well, they did that – shame they had to shank the UK and Europe too.
Let’s be clear, the EU Referendum had little to do with the EU, or with immigration, or with ‘taking back control of our country’. For sure, those issues motivated the votes of millions of people on Thursday, but the essence of this whole affair was nothing more than personal political ambition. This was a faction fight – assisted by UKIP – for control of the Conservative Party.
We have all become collateral damage in a power struggle between groups of public schoolboy chums, but in the end it was the ‘proles’ that called the fateful shot. Now, that really wasn’t supposed to happen.
They’re not like us, you know
A cry of small-minded xenophobia; pathetic little Englanders scared of the big wide world, with all its glorious diversity; that’s one way of looking at the Brexit victory. But is it correct in its assumption, or just a continuation of the aloof disdain aimed at the ‘losers’ in Britain’s social and economic transformation these past 30 years?
The reasons people voted for Brexit are many and contradictory. Efforts are still underway to analyse the verdict and make sense of it all. We all have our pet theories, and prejudices when it comes to apportioning blame, but it may be many years before we can come to some kind of rational consensus on what happened on Thursday.
As it is, we find evidence – real or perceived – of generational divides, splits between rich and poor, urban and rural, metropolitan and small-town, black and white, north and south, declining industrial heartland and up-and-coming new economy hub; university educated and non-graduate; professional and manual; between those who see immigration as a bad thing and those who welcome it; it’s a veritable mix of ‘them and us’ factions.
One thing seems certain in all of this: the white working class (a term patently devised to discourage people of any ethnicity from identifying with this class) will be singled out for accusations of xenophobia. ‘It’s the thick, white, racist, working class oiks, festering in their sad little deprived post-industrial towns, that had to go and ruin it for the better class of people’, as it were.
Racism certainly exists within the working class, but it doesn’t hold the monopoly on that kind of bile. There are plenty of racist Little Englanders in the middle and upper classes too. They had a vote too.
Tragically, Brexit appears to have emboldened the racists out there, whatever their social class. In the scant days after the vote, we are hearing of more and more racist incidents and attacks. It is scary to consider where this might go, if we don’t get a grip on things.
Let us hope – no work to ensure – the racists crawl back under their stones soon, but we don’t further the anti-racist cause by targeting our ire at some racists, while ignoring others, on the basis of the acceptability of their social class.
To do so is just a revitalisation of the same old tropes of innuendo and contempt that has become too much of a defining feature of modern Britain, a continuation of the scorn aimed at those who didn’t quite fit into New Labour’s notion that “we’re all middle class now”.
A xenophobic little Englander mentality was undoubtedly a factor in Brexit, but there were plenty of other factors too. The result is not a failure of the working class, or an expression of its prejudice per se; it’s a result of our failure to create an inclusive society, an expression of our prejudice towards those who are not middle class like us. We have broken the mirror, because we did not like what we saw, and we now blame our reflection for the shards.
Let them eat cake
SOME commentators have described the Brexit vote as a working class revolt; there’s certainly an element of that. The vote was as much a slap in the face to an aloof and uncaring Westminster elite as it was to faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.
If so, it is the revolt of a class that has never really recovered from the defeats – and the painful aftermath – endured way back in the 1980s. Whole communities, then, endured the indignities and uncertainties of industries shutting down, of mass unemployment, of being labelled the ‘enemy within’ by a strident Government as Thatcherism embarked on the long-term mission to transform Britain.
Not only did these communities endure economic decline, but the institutions of working class life themselves were unravelling, leaving them increasingly voiceless and dismissed, sidelined and left behind. Weakened trade unions, a Labour Party first cowed, and then captured by a new vision for Britain’s tomorrowland that had little place for the class that remains the bedrock of the party’s electoral viability, has left them few advocates in the squabble for a place in this brave new world.
The working class has endured 40 years in the economic, political, cultural and social wilderness – and not entirely in the metaphorical sense either. Over that time, as already mentioned, they have suffered slurs, innuendos, cheap jibes, and been dismissed as irrelevant to the national experience.
Voiceless and powerless, fragmented and largely leaderless, what efforts they have made to fight their corner has been met with powerful resistance and ridicule. They have been made figures of fun and contempt; fodder for cheap, throwaway jobs, or a welfare ‘burden’ for the hard-working taxpayers of ‘respectable’ Britain.
And this was before the 2008 financial crash that heralded the programme of cuts and austerity that has only served to turn the screw on communities already faced with grinding hardships. Since then, the grim ‘prole-baiting’ on display in British culture has only worsened too.
We have become meaner, less tolerant, resentful of those not like us – and that’s within the context of indigenous Brits (of any ethnicity), so it doesn’t take much for this to leap across to newcomers to these shores (again, whatever their ethnicity).
Sooner or later, something had to give. A revolt? Perhaps, but maybe we ought to call it a riot; a peculiar kind of riot since it took place in the polling booth, but a disaffected slap in the face to the status quo, all the same.
People pushed too far lash out unpredictably, irrationally. Desperate people do desperate – often stupid – things. Sometimes, people trapped in impossible circumstance may come to feel that the self-destructive act is the only sensible course to take. So it is with Brexit, a sizeable proportion of the areas that voted to leave benefited from EU regeneration funding – they have cut off their nose to spite our face.
Maybe. Or maybe they felt they had nothing to gain – and certainly nothing to lose – by pulling us into the quagmire that such communities have themselves endured for decades. ‘Left behind’ Britain gained an unexpected opportunity to even the score – and seize a little payback, to hell with the consequences.
We might be aghast at such a selfish act – and it is selfish – but is it any worse than walking on by and ignoring the plight of those already caught in the quagmire of diminished, deprived communities? Sadly, we have taken our affluence, our options, our choices, our pleasures for granted, and – whether individually we intended to or not – have systematically denied them to millions of our fellow Britons.
Let them eat cake, as Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said. No, we’re not that generous. All we had to offer our dispossessed was a plate of shit. And you wonder why they threw it back at us?
Now all we have left is the recriminations. If they are not actually racist, these Brexiters, then they are most certainly stupid; the working class ones, naturally, are the most moronic of all. And so perfidious Albion descends into pitiful Albion, the laughing stock of the world.
Hurt people lash out. Many remainers – socially progressive types or not – are pained by this verdict and so they lash out with this name calling. As such, it’s the least of our worries, really, but perhaps a little pause for thought here is apt – many people were hurting before they took to the voting booth. Maybe Brexit was just them lashing out… a desperate, last ditch cry for help.
Okay, if it makes us feel any better then they’re just stupid; let’s just write them off, as we have been doing for so many years already.
But on the scale of these things, it’s not quite as stupid as Cameron’s folly in initiating this sorry state of affairs. Nor is it quite so stupid as those who voted leave as a protest vote, only to express their horror and regret that their vote actually helped unlock the door to a Brexit. Really, that is stupid. You idiots!
So, we find ourselves in a mess, wondering what’s going to become of us. We wanted to take their country back, that’s something both sides in the EU referendum had in common. The tragedy is, we were trying to take back something we’d already thrown away a long time ago.
Take our country back? We’d have to find it first. This has not been our nation’s finest hour. But we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
26 June 2016
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"What have we done?!"