Words, words, words…
I’ve read the Economist on Brexit, and now the New Statesman. I’ve browsed Daily Mail and Telegraph headlines, watched Panorama. Read the Guardian. Skipped through The Week. I’m gutted and I’m glutted.
A few conclusions, and that means, inevitably, more words.
I remain (in every sense) passionate about the European ideal, about being open and open-hearted toward the world, about influence gained by working with others rather than influence lost by retreating, and pretending we can win friends from behind closed doors.
There are so many narratives out there. One is a narrative of gloom. Reaching wider than Brexit, there’s a sense of a failing world, of which the EU, China, Russia and a USA enthralled by Trump are all aspects. The philosopher, John Gray (writing in the New Statesman), is a good example. ‘We have to throw away the old progressive playbook.’
‘Not for a moment,’ would be my reply. But an acceptance that the progressive road is a rocky one, and for every step forward there might be two steps back – yes, that we must accept.
(Gray is closer to the mark on Labour: ‘Leading Labour figures have denied that the party’s stance on immigration is central to the collapse of its working-class base.’ Look to de-industrialisation they argue. But they’re avoiding ‘an inconvenient truth’.)
Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Remain side, felt so deeply a week last Friday morning. Anger, resentment, betrayal – on the Leave side, building up over many years.
On the Remain side we need to be wary of our language, and our emotions, and our surprise. At the same time we can be scornful of the likes of Libby Purves laying into disconsolate Remainers: ‘liberal and lefties weeping into their lattes.’ You don’t have to be liberal or leftie – you just have to European, and an optimist, and open in outlook.
It’s been helpful to run through a few of the reasons given by ordinary people explaining their reasons for voting to leave, on Panorama and elsewhere.
Immigration: ‘no room in schools, not safe in our jobs … a weaker economy a price worth paying… racism shouldn’t be used as a smear against the voiceless.’
‘The bosses love foreign workers… The housing situation is the UK is abysmal… Now to be poor is a sin… One million migrants into Germany…’
We can, on the Remain side, argue for ever that immigration has a substantial net benefit to the UK economy, but there’s no doubt that free movement between countries with different working conditions, radically different levels of pay and welfare benefits has impacted directly on the lower-paid and less-skilled. Free movement is an important (but arguably not a necessary) principle for a free market, but it’s caused significant dislocations. Yes, we should have anticipated this and provided the necessary health and education infrastructure. But we’ve been in a recession, and our focus has been elsewhere….
While there is no gainsaying the impact on jobs and pay, the experience of specific localities has been written up and wilfully exaggerated. This is where UKIP and the Mail, Sun and Express come into play. The fear of immigration, the supposed threat to our national character, has had a major influence nationwide, and helps explain the Leave vote in areas with low immigrant populations. Addressing dislocations caused by immigration will have little effect on this element of the Leave vote. Fear easily becomes prejudice and runs deep. And aligns with a disdain for the political class – also encouraged by the popular press.
There’s another narrative we heard on Panorama – the disappearance of the old shops from the High Street – as if this was a consequence of the EU. So much has been shovelled together and the EU was the first and easiest target – there are no such easier targets in general elections.
Beware referenda – populism is not ‘as it is being used today a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand’. (John Gray.) Rather it is a chance for the population at large to vent its anger. And there are out there many skilled operators who know how to exploit that anger for their own purposes.
Try de-industrialisation as an argument with ordinary people. Immigration is much easier. Put the two together and muddle it with the loss of sovereignty argument and you have a potent mix.
(To return briefly to de-industrialisation. The impact of China and global trade hardly gets a mention. And yet cheap imports have driven industrial decline more than any other factor. Trump talks up the issue but it hasn’t featured in the referendum debate. Instead we’ve had a focus on the EU as the source of all our ills. If we seek to revive our industry we should be working with Europe and not stigmatising it. The problem lies elsewhere.)
‘I would love to see the break-up of the EU. Nation states should be free from the voluntary shackles offered by cynical, deceitful, anti-democratic, sneering, control freaks.’ ‘The EU is doomed to fail.’
OK, I’m on the side of the cynical, deceitful… Much of that language one could apply to the manipulators of opinion in the popular press. (Far from cynical, many of us are idealists – but our idealism is not rose-tinted. More than ever now it has to be practical.)
Deceitful, no, but, yes, the perception that Brussels has reached out too far is widespread, and many who voted to remain share that view. The EU is not doomed to fail. But cutting back on EU directives, worrying less about harmonisation, would be wise. Will the EU pick up on that message?
A comment from a Leaver on the left: ‘…we shall set our own agenda. We shall be able to keep our public services and not be forced to privatise them, and if we chose we can renationalise our industries…’
An awful lot from across the political spectrum can be stuffed into one pot. Many will be disappointed.
And finally, from another source, The Economist, we have the liberal agenda: ‘…liberals need to restore social mobility and ensure that economic growth translates in to rising wages… battling special interests, exposing incumbent companies to competition, and breaking down restrictive practices’. Yes, I agree, but that is a long process, and in truth we’re unlikely ever to get there, and en route there will many, maybe too many, casualties, and if there’s one message from all this, from Brexit and all its other manifestations in Europe and the USA it’s that
we have to look out for casualties.
We are in a crisis moment, at a turning-point. The new world we saw emerging after the fall of the Berlin Wall has turned a little sour. A new liberal, open dispensation seemed to be within our grasp. Instead we’ve seen the old hierarchies reinforced, new hierarchies emerge, new elites alongside the old, with aspirations to culture, to learning, to the good life, on the one hand – and a liking among too many for extraordinary ostentation…
… while the rest of us look on and maybe we aspire to achieve for ourselves, or we shrug and disregard, or we envy, or we disdain. The new order has brought radical disparities of wealth, at the same time as earnings as a percentage of capital have reduced. There’s a widespread sense of being left behind – a sense of a brave new post-war world disordered and old verities overturned.
For us true believers, we must continue to aspire, to work together, to put our trust in the younger generations – but we must address directly and immediately and with wisdom the big issues we’d turned a blind eye to for many years.