The EU membership referendum has detonated social change and revelation that goes much further than even the enormous act of simply leaving the EU. It has demonstrated how thin is the veneer of pluralism and civilised democracy. It has revealed, what some of us always knew, that England* is a racist society squirming for so long under the repressed narrative of entitlement. The referendum lifted this repression with devastating consequences. It has revealed how people can be manipulated through their own primal prejudices to endorse actions that are not in their own self-interest. It has revealed how people vote habitually and without thought and often against their own priorities.
Racism was the primal prejudice that was manipulated in the case of the EU referendum. It is not unique to the UK. It exists in all societies. It is encompassed in a narrative of entitlement that has particular relevance in a former colonial power. There is a sense in which the referendum was about taking back control. It was, as I have argued in earlier blogs, about taking back the right to object to things that ‘political correctness’ had removed and the EU is, not unreasonably, associated with the removal. In particular, the single market had repressed the narrative of entitlement.
The English do not object to immigration so long as the immigrants ‘know their place’. This is the narrative of entitlement. There is a large minority that has an emotional need to feel more entitled than newcomers that have different names, different skin complexion, speak a different first language, and have a different religion (or indeed have any religion). So long as the newcomers can be insulted with impunity, and are seen to be second class citizens, they can come and live here and work here. There are jobs the English do not want to do (or Cypriots don’t want to do in Cyprus) so they can be very useful. But they must know their place. This has been my experience of living in England since 1954, with a dark skin, foreign name, and ability to speak another language.
It is not about immigration numbers. It is about the right to determine who comes to live in England. To arbitrarily exclude and remove some without the need to give reason. It is about power and where this power resides. Everything is about power and where this power resides. The EU created a class of foreigner that had the same rights as the Englishman. This really would not do for a large minority. It undermined the narrative of entitlement. By focusing on this repression of the narrative of entitlement the populists were able to persuade enough people to marginally reject EU membership. They did so even though the losers in economic terms will ultimately be the very people who enabled the referendum result. Such was the brilliance of the populist anti-EU campaign.
The anti-EU position cuts across traditional party lines in a peculiar manner. The majority of declared Labour voters favoured Remain and still do so if the polls are to be believed. Yet the Labour leadership, and the manifesto at the last general election, clearly stated the intention to ‘honour the will of the people’. The continued support at the polls for a Labour party committed to leave the EU by people who would prefer to Remain has puzzled many. It would seem that having a Labour government trumps EU membership for these people. The implication is that they believe that ultimately the worst consequences of leaving will be offset by a Labour government. Alternatively they vote habitually and without much thought and maybe hope that somehow with a Labour government we will not actually leave. They are of course deluded but there many of them.
There is a significant minority (I include myself in this) that look upon this with alarm and confusion. Are people really this stupid? It is now dangerous to walk down many roads chatting in a foreign tongue (something my wife does all the time to my alarm). Overt racism is no longer socially unacceptable for many. For those of us in the hard Remain camp there is a new social divide. It is not wealth or education but how one voted in the referendum that differentiates us. Increasingly how one voted at the last general election is also becoming relevant. Continuing to vote for a Corbyn led Labour party is also becoming a social division. Society has been riven by the referendum and it is a much wider chasm than I think people grasp. There may be trouble ahead…
*I deliberately refer to England and the English as this seems to be a uniquely English phenomenon in the UK. My experience with those that identify as Welsh, Irish, and Scottish has been quite different.
I posted the question of the Labour voter on a comments page and this was the response. Make of it what you will:
Many commentators in this and other newspapers seem to think that there is only one issue in politics – namely Brexit. However, that is simply not the case for the majority of the electorate. I am a Remainer and the Labour Party policies are those that resonate for me. I wouldn’t consider voting for another party. As for Jeremy Corbyn, he voted Remain and has stated he would again (unlike May who refused to say how she would vote). Labour’s policy is to remain in the customs union and the single market, although they can’t use those exact words yet for fear of alienating a section of their potential voters. Their plan is to let the Tories self-destruct first.