by Chris Jarvis
Britain’s EU Referendum was a messy, unpleasant affair. Events that took place, the way campaigns were run, the rhetoric of certain advocates on both sides taught many lessons about the state of Britain. The referendum, and its subsequent result, have served as an amplifier for some unsettling and disturbing aspects of our politics and society – from racism and xenophobia, to the desperation and disaffection felt by people and communities across the country. All of these have had substantial coverage and comment in the press, as politicians and columnists have lined up to blame anyone and everyone – the political class, migrants, the Leave campaign, Jean Claude Juncker, Tony Blair.
‘A nation divided’ has become a clichéd phrase used to quickly and lazily summate the situation – fissures between Brexiters and Remainers, between the metropolitan middle classes and the northern working class, between rural Britain and the cities, between migrants and those born in the UK. We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. These tensions have been a simmering undercurrent in Britain for some time. Leaving the EU didn’t cause any of this. People shuffling along to ill-kept community centres and churches to place a cross in a box didn’t radically alter the make up of our society or how its people interact. It only served to shine a light on what was already taking place.
These tensions have been a simmering undercurrent in Britain for some time. Leaving the EU didn’t cause any of this.
Many have also sought to explain the result of the referendum not in terms of its literal political meaning or outcome, but instead through the lens of a protest vote – an attempt by the voting masses to kick some sense into the political establishment out of touch with the public, their lives and their concerns. We have long discussed and debated the disconnect between politics and the British public. We point towards the rise of minor parties, declining party membership, and woefully low election turnout as evidence. The Iraq War, the expenses scandal, the lack of genuine political choice, our electoral system, the financial crash, the existence of a political class born into wealth, nurtured at public school and Oxbridge before mischievously climbing the ladder of special adviser through to parliamentarian – all have been used to compile some kind of analysis.
It is no longer sufficient, if it ever was, to argue these divisions and disaffections are down solely or even mostly to differing values, competing ideologies or separate visions of what our world should look like. In reality, political debates are no longer a question, if they ever were, of people with different views or interests on an issue discussing the relative merits of a range of positions and solutions, and addressing the views of their adversaries on the same terms. Instead, we are presented with arguments that have no interaction or overlap. The language of neither side ever intersects.
Take a look at the dominant debates within the EU referendum.
The Leave campaign spoke without end of ‘taking back control’ – whether that be control over borders, our lives or our country. Implicit within this line of argument was the assertion that there existed Golden Age where the good British people ruled over their own lives, that this was unjustly stolen from them by meddling Europeans in Brussels and that it was possible to return. Fundamentally this was a question of autonomy, of democracy, of power.
The language of neither side ever intersects.
Far from addressing any of the often genuine concerns many people have of decisions being taken on their behalf by people they don’t know, or of a lack of ability to decide on some basic aspects of their own lives, the Remain campaign (with some notable exceptions) largely chose to ignore it. Rather, their focus was on the economic benefits the EU brought and would continue to bring to Britain – jobs in abundance, stronger businesses, cheaper food and flights. Europe put more money in your pocket and leaving it would take it out.
Well, what happens if you felt like you had a reasonable amount of control over your life in the first place? If you thought migration controls were sufficient as they were, if not too restrictive? If you thought that sharing power with other nations was not a matter of losing control, but strengthening it? You weren’t going to vote for the side that was telling you we were powerless.
Similarly, what if your life experiences just didn’t let you buy the rosy picture painted by Remainers? If you didn’t believe we were in land of plenty? If you couldn’t see how through our partnership with Europe walking into a job was as easy as walking to the corner shop? Why would you vote for the status quo if it didn’t work for you in the first place?
This style of political debate, where politicians and campaigners talk only on the grounds of language in which they themselves are comfortable, knowing they start from a position of strength on a particular issue or strand of a discussion is becoming pervasive.
Manifestations of this have dominated the heated arguments between supporters of Owen Smith and those of Jeremy Corbyn too. Smithites reference electability, competence and power. Corbynistas reference principles, democracy and trust. Team Smith ignore their saviour’s role in the coup against Corbyn, refuse to answer questions on his positions on PREVENT or Trident, and pretend not to hear accusations of implied sexism and homophobia. Team Corbyn dismiss accusations of incompetence, sidestep a lack of media strategy as conspiracy, and place their fingers in their ears as people allege bullying and intimidation in the party. How will one side ever convince the other if they cannot even begin to agree on what terms of debate are relevant? How can they ever be reconciled?
How will one side ever convince the other if they cannot even begin to agree on what terms of debate are relevant?
The EU referendum and the Labour Leadership elections are simply microcosms of the rest of British politics. We see the same trend running throughout. Conservatives speak of long term economic plans and national security. Labour speaks of austerity and social justice. Greens speak of sustainability and progressive alliances. All of them are nestled in their comfort zones and none of them speak openly to each other and seek to win new support. By doing so, our politics only becomes more polarised. Without activists both within party politics and outside of it taking the plunge and fighting battles outside of their own natural territory, it will only get worse.
Framing politics in this way is undoubtedly polarising, but it is also profoundly alienating. Not only are we speaking in languages so divorced from those we seek to debate with, we’re speaking in languages that are devoid of meaning and incomprehensible for the vast majority of people – people who have never shared a political article on Facebook, who have never attended a public meeting and who close the door whenever a smiling canvasser arrives wearing a coloured rosette. What do the words ‘social justice’, ‘long term economic plan’ or ‘sustainability’ mean to most people? Virtually nothing.
In post-Brexit Britain, the politics of the future will be the politics that is brave, that is bold, and that steps out of its comfort zone and takes argument and debate head on, rather than shying away. And it is the politics that tears itself out of the halls of Westminster and speaks in a language that is common to all. For those of us on the Left, that is our mission, should we chose to accept it.
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