Postmodern Politics: Thoughts on the Brexit Referendum Campaigns
So it’s done. We’re leaving the EU. While many Remainers are still clinging to the possibility of some sort of ‘Breversal’ (not least because last week’s referendum has only "advisory" status), it is hard to imagine how the politics of ignoring 17 million votes could work. The issue now is how to make Brexit work, in the face of all the political turmoil as well as the very real possibility of the breakup of the United Kingdom itself. There’s no way of knowing how at this stage—because both of the main political parties are being riven by infighting, recrimination and a crisis of leadership. It all feels like a bit of a mess.
There was a broad consensus that both referendum campaigns were disappointing and divisive, even before the vote took place:
- The Remain campaign seemed complacent and lackluster, never really gripping the imagination with a vision of what we could be, never really grasping the concerns of those outside the London Bubble. Instead their main thrust seemed to be, "If we leave, we’re doomed." They overplayed their hand in "Project Fear," as it was dubbed. This was coupled with the complete failure of the Left to mobilize their constituency to vote Remain until it was too late.
- The Leave campaigns (there was more than one, and they refused to work together) descended into the lowest depths of demagoguery and propaganda. "You can’t trust pesky foreigners" was the main concern they articulated, whether the foreigners in question are those Eurocrats in Brussels (the capital of the European Union) or the immigrant spongers on our shores. Trust us instead to run our own affairs. Which is why it has come as a huge shock to many citizens that the Leave leaders clearly didn’t have "a plan" for how to exit if they won. It would be hysterically funny (worthy of The Thick of It and Veep) were it not so serious.
This is not the place to evaluate the relative merits of staying in or leaving the EU (and I want to be very clear: good arguments have been made with integrity, wisdom and insight on both sides). Instead, my concern is the campaigns themselves, because, I suspect, there are uncomfortable resonances with other countries, on both sides of the Atlantic.
If there is one word to encapsulate what we as a nation have been through, and where we now find ourselves, it is "suspicion." It is frightening. But it is a topic explored in depth in my recent book A Wilderness of Mirrors (Zondervan 2015), and I kept seeing and hearing things that appeared to illustrate precisely what I had been considering.
The Leave campaign made three primary claims, focused on concerns for our economy and population levels:
- By leaving the EU, the weekly £350 million EU fees can be reassigned to our National Health Service (NHS).
- By leaving the EU, we can cut immigration numbers.
- By leaving the EU, we can prevent another 5 million immigrants who would come after Turkey and 5 other nations join.
Astonishingly, in the vote’s aftermath, all three claims got dialed back almost immediately: If we want continued trade access to the EU, we would still have to pay substantial fees. Leaving will not make it easier to control immigration numbers. If and when Turkey joins the EU (which is anybody’s guess), such a huge figure plucked out of the ether seems nothing less than scaremongering.
Fear of the Other
The best Brexit arguments revolved around matters of national sovereignty and the accountability of leaders. The EU clearly falls short on many such fronts for those who value democracy. But these did not play a significant part in the Brexit campaign.
The EU is incredibly complex (inevitably) and in a globalized world where interconnected countries negotiate the rules for trade, human rights and more, national sovereignty can actually be a difficult idea to parse. So when the soundbite battle-cry is "Let’s Get Our Country Back," it’s hard to resist seeing it as a base rabble-rousing appeal to racial or cultural purity. At its heart, there lies a fear of the "other," of those who are different, of people "who are not from around these parts."
The challenges of living in a multicultural, globalized world are many. The notions that immigration can be wholly blamed for our challenges, however, and that leaving the EU will solve them, are simplistic reductionism. But when many were asked why they voted Leave, the fear of immigrants "stealing our jobs" was a genuine factor. This is not to indict all Leave voters, of course. Their reasons were understandably varied, and concerns about the numbers, rather than the reality, of immigrants hardly constitutes racism. But the Leave campaign clearly stoked the voters' fears, which is why it can hardly be an accident that hate crimes have dramatically risen since the vote.
Blame for the Pain
One of today’s most pervasive and corrosive manifestations of the culture of suspicion is the conspiracy theory. This is the idea that skulduggery is afoot behind locked doors, that we are the victims of the plots of the powerful and so should never believe what the powerful say.
Now, globalization has caused many casualties in the west, especially for manufacturing and industry jobs. But that was barely mentioned by the Leave campaign. Instead, our EU membership was blamed. "If we had more control, we’d be able to stop it," went the theory. "We must wrest that control back."
Anyone who challenged that line was dismissed as a mere stooge of the system, or someone who undermined the British bulldog spirit. The fact that a broad Remain consensus existed amongst economists (shock! horror!), politicians, scientists, creatives, business leaders, journalists, historians (etc. etc.) only served as grist to the mill. They’re all in it together! Michael Gove (one of Leave’s key leaders) even said at one point, "people in this country have had enough of experts." As if rank ignorance was preferable! Of course, what he really meant was that he had had enough of (the huge numbers of) experts who disagreed with him.
Effect not the Truth
The Brexit campaigns appealed to the working class, who have generally been the losers from globalization’s great game. The irony, though, was that none of its leaders have much experience with the working class' struggles. They are hardly the plucky, Churchillian Davids taking on the monolithic EU Goliath—they are themselves various representatives of the UK’s wealthy elite. This is no revolution by the people for the people. It feels like a front. Which all serves to undermine public trust in leaders even further. It seems they had no concern for the truth of their words, only the effect. In true spin-doctor style. And they got the effect they (appeared to) want.
A week on, the Leave campaigns’ arguments now look flawed; their agendas opaque (though Boris Johnson clearly used it as a bid to become Prime Minister, albeit a doomed one); their plans non-existent. People feel we’ve been duped. This is not to deny that there may well be benefits from Brexit in the longer term—in fact, we can only hope there are!
But there seems little doubt that the campaigns themselves were corrosive. They leave our society more fragmented and vulnerable than ever. Which is precisely what suspicion does.
What we need now is a politics of truth-telling, integrity and transparency, and leadership that inspires cohesion within our diversity, amid the challenges of a globalized world. It’s a tall order. But it’s essentially what Bishop Stephen Cottrell appealed for in a speech in the House of Lords last Monday, even to the point of calling for a Government of National Unity. Otherwise, this corrosion won’t just stop at the breakup of the United Kingdom. It will drip down into our very neighborhoods and tear them apart.