Friday, 24 June 2016
No, me neither
Unlike the very distinguished professor who said to me 'it's never crossed my mind that there could be a Leave vote. Do you really think there might be?', at least I have the freezing cold comfort of being right this time. I learned my lesson during the last election, the result of which confirmed that neither I nor anyone I know is of or understands the bulk of the British electorate. I have students of most political shades and we do occasionally speak of these things but on the whole they're firm supporters of the Weather Party: politics is like the weather in that it's uncontrollable and happens to them whether they like it or not. So I don't get much of an insight into the general public that way.
I'm also enmeshed in a web of political fantasies: I hang out with Communists, Irish and Welsh nationalists of the nice variety, trades union activists, historians and philosophers. The Britain I carry around in my head has two sides. There's the nuclear-armed Imperialist murderer/American lickspittle with all its freight of fears and prejudices, fuelled by the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Express, resenting human rights, foreigners, benefit scroungers and sniffing out paedos on every corner. Then there's the Britain of Paine, Wollstonecraft, William Morris and Walter Crane, Tolpuddle, William Price, Rowan Williams, Robert Owen and the Co-operators, the Lancashire mill-workers who starved rather than handle slave-produced American cotton, Edith Sitwell, Ivor Cutler, the International Brigadiers, the Commonwealth (despite the Irish unpleasantness), the Levellers, the Chartists, Suffragists, Peter Tatchell, George Formby, John Peel, satire, Cable Street, The Miners' Next Step, Kinder Scout, cricket, the Clarion Clubs, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg, Speakers' Corner the Left Book Club, the Guardian, the Kindertransport, Clement Atlee and the NHS, CND, The Field Mice, hunt saboteurs and the Ramblers' Association, trades unions and queuing politely and apologising to people who've walked into you. Basically the side of Britain that doesn't see Abroad as somewhere to be invaded, feared or patronised.
Today it's hard to see that second Britain, the eccentric, open-hearted, generous, funny, radical and welcoming group of nations. I always assumed that its spirit lived on, that the people of the South Wales valleys for instance would remember the hundreds of thousands who marched for their jobs and volunteered to die in Spain for democracy, or the Welsh who struck and wrote and lobbied and committed acts of civil disobedience for their language, their homes and for peace. I was wrong. I cannot see the Tolpuddle Martyrs in Dorset's vote to leave the EU, nor does the spirit of the Pankhursts live on in a country which has decisively decided that it doesn't want any human rights, thank you very much.
What do we have to look forward to? In my immediate surroundings, the loss of European colleagues and students, of access to that sophisticated network of thinkers, ideas and resources, let alone funding. Environmental protection will go, as will employment protection: it's all just 'red tape' after all. Our food will be further adulterated, the air will go foul, the poor and the black will find no refuge and our former colleagues in the EU will have no sympathy at all for this self-inflicted wound.
There's a tiny bit of me that thinks Britain had it coming: never having adjusted to being a second-rate power after losing its imperial possessions, it never tried acting in the collective interest, never tried to play a constructive role, couldn't act as anything other than a wrecking ball in the EU. What surprises me is that the other countries didn't have a referendum on throwing out the UK. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for Britain to learn a little humility, and with the loss of Scotland, perhaps the tiger will be tamed, having lost its embarrassing job as America's sergeant-major. However, these unworthy thoughts won't help the people of Britain, particularly those Out voters who will be the first to suffer when EU development grants and subsidies are withdrawn from the Valleys and the Northern English ex-industrial heartlands.
How did we get here? It's tempting to suggest that the Brexiteers are prejudiced Know-Nothings, but I'm a utopian socialist: I believe that the majority of the people have the capacity for greatness given the right conditions. I don't blame Nigel Farage and his little band of red-faced blazered petit-bourgeois golf-course revanchists. They're a symptom rather than a cause. The cause is the complete abandonment of political vision and trust by the British left. The right has always had two faces: backwards-looking social conservatism of the kind espoused by grassroots UKIPpers, and hardline free market neoliberalism. They've always been completely honest about what they want from the electorate. The conservatives want a society in which everyone knows their place and weirdos (women, foreigners, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, trades unionists) basically anyone who wouldn't be welcome to dinner with David Archer) do what they're told. The neoliberals don't care what colour, sex or gender you are as long you also don't interfere with the distribution of money from the poor to the rich through the financialisation of the economy.
So that's the Right: completely honest. Then there's the left. It had a good 1940s: the war demonstrated that collective effort could bring about good things: defeat of the Nazis, the NHS, widespread nationalisation of industries that had failed in the private sector. It occasionally spasmed back to life: Wilson's Open University, for instance. But on the whole, the Left utterly failed to develop any vision of the post-industrial society that the Right was busy making real. The Right occasionally made gestures in the direction of social conservatism, but it was essentially happy to trade mass employment and high wages for increased shareholder value. That's how we got a Chancellor who said that high unemployment was a 'small price to pay' for low inflation, a Labour Prime Minister proud that Britain had the worst worker protection in Europe, and a legislature made up of landlords and tax-evaders passing laws to make the UK a tax haven.
What did the Left do? Did it (like William Morris) imagine a bright future based on socialist values and kindness to all? It did not. The hard left deluded itself into thinking a revolution was just around the corner, the soft left imagined conspiracies around every corner and the Third Way Blairites and Clintonites gave up entirely and aimed to do nothing more noble than soften the edges while having no critique at all of neoliberalism and the new imperialism. Convinced that the working classes were all paranoid racists, they acted on those assumptions, until we got to the point of Labour – once the protector of the poor and huddled masses – selling mugs promoting crackdowns on immigrants.
How were the people so fooled? The neoliberals were quite happy to misdirect blame from capitalism to immigrants/Europe/whoever while they got on with seizing our water, phones, railways, health service and anything else not nailed down. The Old Right genuinely believed it, and the press – from the screeching Mail to the apparently balanced BBC – either promoted these discourses or allowed them to go unchallenged. Just look at the way welfare benefits and refugees were replaced by benefits cheats and illegal immigrants, scroungers, benefits tourists and the rest.
What I and my friends on the left entirely failed to do was set out both the scale of the economic problem and optimistic, realistic solutions. Labour got used to treating the working class as an embarrassing, lumpen bunch that would do what it was told, but that it avoided meeting as much as possible (not true, of course, of many dedicated individuals) rather than as a source of strength, ideas and inspiration. Such assumptions have a habit of coming true. Into the void came the peddlers of poison: the Tories who should know better and the UKIPpers and assorted fascists who probably don't. They promoted easy solutions and obvious causes and Britain fell for them. It's a commonplace in religious studies that the decline in organised religion doesn't lead directly to atheism: it leads to the mushrooming of 'alternative' spirituality, from Prosperity Churches to crystal healing. I think it's the same in politics: if you deprive people of agency, if you treat them with contempt, they will abandon you and they will listen to those peddling simple, relatable lies.
Before I voted, I asked myself some simple questions. Would my students be more free out of the EU? Could the same be said of my friends who work in call centres and Amazon warehouses? Would my friends under the care of the NHS get faster, better treatment? The answer to all these things was 'no'. Britain hasn't voted from freedom, it has voted for corporate sovereignty, governed by a group of people who see their job as delivering the people to the corporations.
There's a lovely country out there, full of wonderful people. I and my friends simply forgot that it needed water and sun and weeding to keep it alive. While we neglected the garden, the slugs and weeds quietly got on with their job.
Be nice to someone today. It's all we have left.*
*Well, I also have an Irish passport. It might come in handy.