The Ghost of Brexit Present. Val Whittington
Brexit is entirely the mess that everyone I interact with thinks it is. My problem, and I am convinced it is a problem, is that the people with whom I interact and the papers I read, encourage me to believe it and I think I am right to believe it. The day after the vote, I managed to have a stand up (sitting down) row with my head of department who voted to leave. He is not stupid – he is head of philosophy. His most stinging retort to me was to ask whether I actually thought (like all those old paranoids of the left always do) that the people were duped? Were they all so stupid? Can so many people all be stupid all at the same time? Are we really staring into the hard face of impenetrable ideological hegemony (a kind of dense heavy water stupidity) steering the masses towards doom?
I hope the answer is no. While some have been duped, and some have not fully grasped the implications, I was reminded throughout the campaign of the voices I had heard on tv of people saying they’d rather be poorer, if it meant they could take back control. Control of what and how, was of course never quite clear, but the fact they felt they had no control of it was perfectly clear. The day after, a woman being interviewed, asked if she was worried about the markets and the pound replied that as she had nothing to lose to begin with, so it made no difference to her. A friend’s son – cajoled to the poling station told his mother on leaving – ‘I voted out. I just wanted to see what would happen.’ – Trained as an apprentice carpenter – he’s doing odd jobs and building work unrelated to his training. It may get a bit worse – but when you already live with it being bad, worse doesn’t seem so unbearable. … I have at least one friend told me it was about the costly incompetence of the EU NOT Europe and although he voted out he calls himself a European.
I suppose now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of the party, but which one? Labour is taking its usual mashing in the press and I have heard (in the card shop near to where I work) that nobody knows who Corbyn is and did you see him at the memorial and wasn’t it a disgrace – and deep deep deep down inside – I really don’t feel that worried about comments like that.
There is an opposition, but it is not the one that is stumbling around looking for a leader to bring about a safe re-election for edgy MPs. The opposition is everywhere. It is made up of the people who voted for Brexit, and the people who cried when the vote was lost. These are the opposition I need to know… I feel I have woken in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the voice of Christmas Present is beckoning to me to ‘Come closer and know me better’. Like Scrooge, in the middle of the night waiting for the next ghost to appear, what exactly am I thinking, sitting here in my nightshirt, with my threadbare political theory to keep me warm? Well…. as the times are out of joint, so is my narrative and I am taken back to where I came from. Christmases passed…
The working class family I grew up in and the council flat we moved into and the Scottish heritage that was drilled into me as I grew up in the supposedly affluent South. My highly literate working class mother, who left school at 14, read everything and knew more than I ever will, whose favourite book was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and who had grown up in poverty of a kind I cannot imagine, at a time before the NHS, when in a few weeks, several children died in her tenement including her baby brother of diphtheria, who knew a woman who made her children ‘pretend to eat’ sitting at a window so people would think they had food, who had no shoes and in the twenties ran around in bare feet in the street, I think of her. On the day of the vote, her younger sister now 84 struggled to vote, supporting my 83 year old uncle, so crippled by Parkinson’s it must have taken them an hour to get to the polling station. He fell over on the way back. And, because they are Scots, of course, they voted Remain. They had not, in the earlier referendum, voted for independence. What is it, distinguishes them from the ‘Little Englanders’ – the powerful alliance now in hand of the petite bourgeoisie and the ‘undeserving’ hardcore poor who voted for Brexit: the golf club devotee, white van man, the settled British migrant communities, and the decimated Welsh valley unemployed suddenly united? I long for George Orwell to come back. The Lion and the Unicorn featured in a Guardian article the Saturday after the vote and seemed to be about another country entirely. This is an extraordinary time of bitterness. Suddenly all the postwar promises have been derided and spat upon, the NHS and social care has been largely already auctioned off to the very lowest bidder, the welfare state is now renowned for lack of care, the education system has been twisted into producing politically acceptable pass rates providing ‘funding units’, aka students, for a cadaverous higher education. Teachers across the system, are crippled by the constant domestic abuse of impossible targets, overwork and endless criticism so brilliantly internalised, that they often beat themselves and their colleagues up without the need of managers to encourage them to it. So where can I point my finger? Who or what can I turn on, so as not to see the old hags cackling over my rags and bed curtains by next Christmas?
Well, again Dickens has it. The old myth of Victorian England that dogged us then and dogs us still, though we were ‘sinners’ then, today we are much worse. We are losers. Perhaps the pain of losing the referendum is a small echo of what those others who voted for Brexit felt before the vote?
We have been poisoned and duped by that old Victorian Evil: Meritocracy. Poisonous, because many who succeed actually come to believe they’re worth it. It absolves all who succeed of any responsibility towards those who don’t…. Brexit is, in part, the result of a disinterest in and distance from the people left behind – both morally and spiritually in the case of the little Englanders, but materially, in the case of the rest.
I think it will change. The constitutional solution, if we find it and can do it – well – all well and good – but it won’t ‘solve’ the problem of the scared, the disaffected the angry and the left behind. It could make it worse. The problems are so clear that with shameless optimism I believe that activism will develop in unexpected ways, given a generation of intelligent and well educated young people, who feel thwarted and are financially in the same boat as the have nots. They have been given the big cause of their generation and it’s right under their feet. I’ll join them before I sign a petition for a re-match, or turnout to oust Jeremy at the next ward meeting, because whatever is new in politics will start with them and whatever it is, I hope it will prove to be a stronger defence against a resurgent fascism, of both left and right than the listing ship of fools in Westminster.
Valerie Whittington is a DPhil student in Social and Political Thought at Sussex, researching the Quaker concept of Concern. A solicitor, she won the Law Society prize for achieving the highest mark on the LPC course at UWE, and now practises in criminal and family law. She completed the Masters in Social and Political Thought at Sussex 2013. Her dissertation on the thought of Habermas and the role of juries won that year’s Gillian Rose prize.