A lot of individuals have thought that from the day after the referendum. A few bright souls thought that when all of the “information” made readily-accessible by the popular media was about immigration, sovereignty, and “taking our country back” from the Leave camp, and all the feels and fluffyness about “solidarity” and “needing migrant workers” from the Remain lobby.
Not to mention that slightly awkward, elephant-on-the-side-of-a-bus “promise” about the NHS being funded with the money Britain would no longer be paying in membership fees…which everyone has now rather shame-facedly admitted, err…isn’t going to happen after all. Terribly sorry, chaps, but what’s done is done. No use crying over spilled milk, eh?
Brexit will be one of the biggest mistakes Britain has ever made – not because leaving the EU is a terrible, awful, soul-destroying thing that we should never, ever do, and not solely because of the rise in intolerance, bigotry, and far-right ideology that seems to have been stirred up by the referendum, but because of the impact it will have on those people who most believed in its potential, who were most likely to vote for it, who had the highest hopes for life without the EU.
Liberals tend to get rather tetchy when you mention the disenfranchisement of the working class and those in poverty, whether relative or absolute. “They’re not disenfranchised – they’re allowed to vote, so they can’t be!” It comes across very much like a child stamping their feet in rebellion at an adult truth.
But being “enfranchised” is about far more than simply “being legally allowed to vote.”
Being enfranchised is about being listened to, and having your concerns taken seriously.
Being enfranchised is about believing that the government of your country, even if they are not the government you voted for, will at least try and act in your best interests.
Being enfranchised is about believing that the government of your country, whether you voted for them or not, has the ability and the desire to lead the country as a whole – including you – to a better, brighter, richer tomorrow, where there is more money in your pocket, and more opportunities open to you.
When you’re poor, whether working poor or reliant on welfare because of unemployment, chronic illness or disability, or long-term care responsibilities, the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom has made it manifestly obvious, over the past seven years, that they are not governing for you. They don’t care whether things get better for you, and they’re certainly not going to put the effort into making them better.
In seven years, the consistent, deafening message from the Tories to the working class, the low waged, the unwaged, the disabled, the carers, has been: “You don’t matter.”
Meanwhile, others – political Parties, businesspeople, media corporations – have come along and whispered “But you would matter if we weren’t having to keep all these foreigners and looney lefties happy, with their halal food and their gender identities. It was good before they came along, wasn’t it?”
And, because education has been chronically underfunded for years, and because history has always been dismissed as “Boooorrrriiiiinnnnggggg”, unless it involved a field trip somewhere you could run around for a bit and then buy five quid’s worth of sweets, all the while getting the whole day off school, because people believe the internet – which is dominated by 18-35year olds – can tell them everything, people believed the lie that “everything was better before, wasn’t it? Before women started getting uppity and demanding jobs and rights. Before all these foreigners turned up, not speaking English. Before people started having sex changes, and wanting to be treated like human beings.”
Before devices like washing machines, tumble dryers, and vacuum cleaners meant that cleaning a house only took a couple of hours, during which you could get on with other things, rather than an entire day.
Before having a car of your own was taken to be an inalienable right.
Before foreign holidays were easily accessible even to those on a low income.
Before employers were required to ensure the basic welfare and well-being of their workers.
Before owning your own home was even the glimmer of possibility for many working people. (What? You thought council houses used to be built just because the government thought they looked nice? No: it was rare for working class people to ever own a house. Most working class families would live in council housing. Single working class people usually took “lodgings” – a rented room that included basic meals and cleaning.)
Before credit – and the opportunities and possibilities it brought with it – became readily accessible.
Before it was even considered that a young person from a working class family might go to University.
Before people diagnosed with cancer believed they had a chance of surviving.
Before the richest 1% paid less than half their income in tax.
It wasn’t better or worse “before” – it simply was. You lived, you worked, you did your best, you died. Some people were happier than others, some people had it harder than others.
It was no different “before” to the way it is now, even though people were denied basic agency because of their sex, mental capacity, or disability. Even though “awkward minorities” didn’t exist. Even though we weren’t part of the European Union.
But, when a country is told by silver-tongued politicians that “it’s the future that matters!”, it will inevitably lose touch with its past. As memory begins to be lost to increasing age, as our bodies and brains cull everything back, what stands out are the brightest times, the times we were happiest. You don’t even have to be getting on in years to experience this misleading focus on the good times. Geoff Dyer, in The Colour of Memory, had it right:
“And the sky was that impossible blue that can never really exist except in our flawed recollections of events: the colour of memory.”
The people who will be most harmed by the decision to leave the European Union, and the rights and protections it affords, were most likely to vote for that decision because a long history of the working classes being raised to “respect their betters” means that accepting that an elected government could be acting against the interests of a section of its society would cause such massive cognitive dissonance – the mental distress that occurs when observable and verified facts contradict deeply held personal beliefs or opinions – that it is literally unthinkable – the human brain is remarkable for its ability to shield itself from discomfort and distress: it’s why we struggle to understand mental illness: it is fundamentally wrong for a brain to allow itself to feel torment, pain, confusion, and conflict. It is why we often prefer to believe that individuals experiencing mental illness are just “lazy”, “oversensitive”, “navel-gazing”, or ” simply need to get out and spend some time in nature” – that’s the brain neatly dodging the cognitive dissonance that would arise from acknowledging that we can’t rely on the soundness of our own minds. That our status as functional, stable human beings can never be taken fully for granted. It would be horrendous for our brains to have to deal with that reality, so, flexible little hellions that they are, they create a reality in which mental illness is a deliberate, individual fault, a failure to make the right choices as regards actions and lifestyle.
It’s the same with Brexit: our brains can’t handle the fact that our government could decide, of its own volition, to act contrary to the interests of an entire demographic – to deny those people affordable, accessible health care through the systemic dismantling of the NHS. To deny them viable, stable employment, which would support a modest standard of living, by closing down traditional industries, and refusing to invest in up-skilling and re-skilling to the demands of emerging sectors. To deny them a stable, safe home life, by not acting to limit the greed of private sector landlords, and refusing to pass legislation that would ensure rental properties were fit for human habitation, and by refusing to control the unsustainable, destabilising growth patterns of the private-ownership housing market. To deny their children the opportunity to progress above and beyond the limitations of their families’ socioeconomic situation, by removing the financial support that was available to their generation in order to facilitate University attendance. Therefore, our brains tell us that none of this is, in fact, the case: our government wants to help us, but “all these others” are getting in the way, and saying that they need things first, that they’re more important than us.
A lot was made of the fact that the majority of those over 60 voted Leave, with accusations of callousness, unthinking selfishness, etc that sullied everyone – especially those levelling those accusations.
My father, who sadly passed away in 2013, would have been 65 at the time of the Brexit referendum. Although I know, from conversations we had when I was growing up, and as I was figuring out how the whole “being an adult” thing worked (or didn’t!), he would have voted Remain, he had lived through the same thing many Leave voters of his generation did: the rationing that continued long after the end of the Second World War. The memory of parents and grandparents of the austerity of the War years. The reliance on what you could provide for yourself. Such an experience, especially in childhood, will often create an adult with a “scarcity mentality” – the belief that there simply isn’t enough to go round – enough food, enough fuel, enough money – that, if people keep taking, or being given, it will run out, and people will be left with nothing.
My father was fortunate – he was a deeply curious, deeply intelligent man, whose job involved a lot of “down time”, during which he could pursue his intellectual ambitions. He was an only child, and both his parents had died while he was still in his teens. He therefore had only his wife and one child to provide for and pay attention to. He lived within cycling distance of any place of work, and thus was arriving home tired from a physically demanding job, but not exhausted from a long commute on top of that. He had also had to leave Ireland and come to the UK when he was just 19 years old – at a time when shops still displayed signs reading:
No Blacks, No Gypsies, No Dogs, No Irish.
He knew, therefore, that things could always be a lot harder than they were. He overcame his upbringing, mostly – his “scarcity mindset” revealed itself in a refusal to get rid of books or tools. Even if he hadn’t read a book or used a tool for decades, he would hang on to it, with the words “I don’t want to find myself needing it, one day, and not be able to get hold of it again.”
Whether people are able to overcome unhelpful beliefs is largely dependent on the other demands placed upon them, and what counter evidence to those beliefs they encounter.
It is not a personal failure if unhelpful beliefs aren’t overcome.
Was the Brexit referendum a mistake? Yes, because the groundwork to prepare for it wasn’t even acknowledged, let alone done.
That groundwork would have been investing in re-skilling and up-skilling so that the British workforce was equipped and qualified to pursue jobs in emerging sectors, with a reasonable chance of success, and therefore didn’t feel that employment opportunities were being “taken away” as long-established sectors began to decline in prominence.
It would have involved teaching schoolchildren languages such as Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, and Farsi, to prepare them for a future where trade was predominantly with emerging economies.
It would have involved honest discourse about how many of our traditional industries – farming and fishing, for example – and how many of cultural and infrastructure projects, were financed in full or in part by EU money, and how the British government would fund those things were that money to be withdrawn.
It would have involved full and frank discussions about the national debt, whom Britain owed money to, and what the plans were for paying off those debts, as well as how and why they were incurred in the first place.
It would have involved discussions around what work migrants generally do, how much revenue that generates for the wider economy, and genuine dialogues between the government and British workers about why those jobs did not seem to be being filled by the latter category of individuals.
It would have involved discussions about what Britain’s responsibilities as a member of the EU were, and what rights Britain and its subjects enjoyed as a result of the fulfilment of those responsibilities.
Was the Brexit referendum a mistake? Yes – because it should only ever have been advisory.
The result that was returned in June 2016 showed one thing clearly: that a significant number of British citizens felt threatened, and believed no one would listen to them unless the status quo was drastically altered.
Under an advisory-only referendum, that result could have been addressed – the feelings of certain groups that they weren’t respected, that they lacked opportunity and influence, that they weren’t being listened to – could have been addressed.
That won’t happen now.
The government will devote its collective energy to the details of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, and all the ramification chickens that seem to be coming home to roost as a result of that, and it won’t even enter their heads to talk to the people who feel ignored.
When you voted for “Brexit at any cost”, you voted for your government continuing to ignore you, to not listen to you, to not respect your voice, your agency, your concerns, your identity.
And you gave them a reason for ignoring you, which they didn’t have before.
You gave their dismissal of you a legitimacy it absolutely does not deserve.