So we’re not quite taking back control, it would seem. Leave campaigners presented Brexit as the country’s emancipation from the European Union’s oppressive shackles. A chance to forge a more prosperous and optimistic future away from an institution that had anchored the country down.
There is a growing embarrassment and pessimism at how the country is being perceived by others. There is anger too, at the politicians here and in Brussels for being deliberately difficult. The European Union is a set of institutions with growing signs of possible decay. Brexit could have unleashed a tidal wave of nationalist movements pining for their own nation-states to engineer exits and cause the EU to disintegrate. We should not be surprised at all that EU politicians are guarding their own interests fiercely at the expense of ours. This was and is to be expected.
Brexit should only reflect poorly on the Conservative Party. Those who pushed it to unify splintering party structures, and those who regarded sabotaging the country’s economic future for as worth it if it levered them into where they wanted to be. Theresa May has been a bundle of memes and jokes, one incompetent disaster to the next, but there is enough empathy, or should be, to recognise this is not a mess she called for. This was the mess laid out by the likes of David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others. They have all mostly run. Patriotism is many things, but one thing it demands is selfless altruism for those you share a home with. These politicians did not once try to guide the country onto a better path but left the mess for others. Ironically, they are usually the first ones to evoke messages harking back to Britain’s glory days.
There is a now real chance of another referendum but there are still few indications a second referendum will create unity rather than further fraying our social fabrics. Even fewer that Remain have learned lessons from the past. It is the same story of warnings, statistics, berating Leave voters and sneering at English patriotism. Our tune is badly disconnected from the rest of the country.
Firstly, perhaps we should stop being surprised that people do not always vote the way we want them to. Something like Brexit was coming. There are numerous reasons as to why, not least because the deliberate decay of our manufacturing sector and the battering of trade unions by Margaret Thatcher emphatically diminished working-class solidarity. It weakened and atomised entire communities as well as removing the dignity of work. Working in the mines was dangerous but there was meaning and pride laced in it because it was tied in the community. It evoked bonds of solidarity and local pride. Much of this has been eroded and many regions have rusted as opportunities have shifted chiefly to London.
But people are not just materialistic. There is a real sense of cultural and social dislocation right down to the absent sense of community. The closing down of pubs, libraries and community centres have contributed to that through the decline in shared spaces and the civic institutions that tie us together and foster bonds of solidarity, reciprocity and community. We don’t know our neighbours anymore as we once did. That is due to the impermanence and insecurity of capitalism, and how it demands constant change and movement. This is the society of bullied tenants, underpaid workers and exploited families. What, after all, is the point in knowing your neighbour if you know there is a good chance you won’t be staying there for too long? People are these days just less likely to have long-term stakes in their communities. Immigration ties into this through the commodification of migrant workers and treating them as expendable.
Furthermore there is a difference between explaining the dangers of an isolationist Britain and sneering at those who draw on the past to revive British strength or demonstrate fierce faith in their nation to pull through. Some Remain campaigners have moved on from almost wanting the country to fail to prove Brexit was wrong to ridiculing patriotic faith in Leave voters. Why then should Leave voters suddenly change their minds? To them, England is home, not the EU. In fact, to most of us it is like that too. England is to be criticised, and sometimes it is too bleak and wedded to bad customs. There’s too much racism and little focus on alleviating poverty. But it is still England, still home. The EU is not. It’s a supranational institution, hardly something you can attach romantic notions of patriotism to. Britain, with its myriad of identities, its history, its towns and cities, is where the heart is. People want the best for it, and to not see it mocked and diminished. Both by the failing government making a mess of the negotiations, and those who sneer at them for expressing a quiet affinity with the nation they call home.
This relates to the other problem of statistics do not beat stories. This is something the left-wing writer Owen Jones has often articulated well as a damning weakness for progressives. Voters are less likely to be moved by reports on how migrant contributions increased the country’s economy than they are by how migrant labour proved an essential backbone to the NHS during its early days, or how they enrich our communities socially and culturally. Talking of migrants as numbers rather than as neighbours, only provides a cold and emotionally detached presentation of how beneficial they are to our communities.
Does this mean Remain cannot win or should stop trying? Absolutely not. There is a real economic necessity to Remain still ensuring we do not completely sever ties with the European Union. Those on the left wishing to pursue a socialist model of Brexit will find going it alone is extremely unlikely to work. But if Remain wants to win, it needs to change how it talks about England, Leave voters and the contributions of migrants.