The summer of 1968 was known as the ‘summer of love’, long-haired hippies with flowers in their hair. Fifty years later the summer of 2019 could be known as the ‘summer of hate’; never has the country been so divided, never has mutual hatred been so extreme. Indeed if we were living in the 17th century, the last time England had a civil war, we would be reaching for our halberds and those chain things with spiky balls on the end.
How did Britain get to this dreadful state of affairs? What happened?
These are some reflections from a @NottPeoplesVote campaigner who was one of those hippies.
Britain is used to political analysis based on class, with a political system arranged around two parties orientated on class. But the 2016 referendum on EU membership exposed a division in society which isn’t reflected in those parties. The Tories are a coalition of nationalists who voted to leave the EU, and business interests who voted stay in. The Labour Party is an alliance of urban liberals who voted to stay in, and the northern working class who voted to leave. This means that if a general election is fought on the issue of Europe and the referendum result, many voters will not know whom to vote for.
A better tool of political analysis is geography. The fact is that to be born in many places in Britain today is to suffer an irreversible defeat at the moment of birth. People who grow up in these places come from a background which used to equip them for reasonably well-paid skilled and unskilled jobs. Children left school and went to work in the same industries that had employed their parents, for example as a Scunthorpe steel worker. But with the growth of global capitalism since 1980, those well-paid jobs are gone and as Bruce Springsteen told us, ‘they ain’t coming back.’ There are new jobs of course, plenty of them, but they’re crap jobs – unsatisfying, insecure and low-paid. They don’t fulfill the role of the old jobs, they don’t offer a sense of identity or community or self-worth. They are ‘precarious’ jobs and the people who have them are not known fondly by that old Marxist term ‘the proletariat’ but as the ‘precariat’.
There was no government strategy to help this precariat, to replace those good old jobs; that was left entirely to the free market. As a result parts of the country began to be left behind and the white working class abandoned. Neither Labour nor Tory governments had anything to offer them except social benefits, paid for by the taxes of people in the rich parts of the country. In addition young people felt forgotten and deprived by a society which seemed to be run exclusively for the benefit of ‘baby boomers’ (the author is one). Those born since 1990 judged, correctly, that they were for practical purposes living in an non-political economic system; they thought about jobs, and paying the rent, and student debt and whether they would ever own a home of their own, but they didn’t see politics as having anything to do with these issues. Why? Because for them the economics of the British system was the same whatever political party was in charge. Tony Blair, David Cameron, it made no difference.
The Referendum of 2016
Into this cultural, social and political powderkeg was thrown the burning match of Brexit. And not surprisingly when Remain campaigned to stay in the EU using rational economic arguments, it failed miserably. Making economic arguments to people struggling to get a decent job – people who feel oppressed by economics – is bound to fail. They will simply tell you to fuck off. And that is what they did to the procession of non-political ‘experts’ who told them that Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster – Barak Obama, Christine Lagarde, Mark Carney, the IMF or the OECD.
The other side, the Vote Leave campaign, didn’t make this mistake. They didn’t appeal to rational economic arguments, they appealed to emotion. They came up with the nebulous but strangely seductive slogan, ‘Take Back Control!’. It was an adman’s slogan, like ‘Because You’re Worth It!’ or ‘It’s the Real Thing!’ It meant nothing but you couldn’t get it out of your head. It infuriated the economists and rational experts of the Remain campaign, but it worked. To people who were baffled, bewildered and disorientated by facts, emotions were more important than economics. And just to confirm this unpalatable truth, let us remind ourselves of the facts in a quick ‘Brexit cost benefit analysis’:
- Bankruptcy and unemployment
- Impoverishment through rising cost of living, falling value of £
- Loss of public services and certain damage to the NHS
- Loss of the environmental and labour protection standards gained through EU membership
- Loss of international security apparatus safeguarding the lives of Britons
- Necessity for the creation of a large new British bureaucracy to facilitate Brexit .
- Serious erosion of Britain’s power and influence in the world
- Serious risk of the United Kingdom’s breakup, starting with Scottish independence.
- Substantial reduction in tax for millionaires and other rich people
On the basis of this no-one should have voted to leave the European Union in the June 2016 referendum.
But thanks to the cynical exploitation of emotion, over 17 million people did.
Brexit and its legacy
What can we say about the effects of Brexit? Beyond the immediate chaos, Britain is likely to experience a severe recession. And ironically the primary victims of that recession will be those traditional working-class Labour supporters who voted Leave. Even working class voters who voted Leave and still want to leave, broadly accept this. They know it will be bad but there is a sense that somehow it will be worth it. ‘Take back control!’ continues to work its evil magic. Instead of pointing to any possible advantages, they invoke sentimental notions of the British people in the Second World War and the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’.
A far more serious effect is that thanks to the xenophobic nature of the Leave campaign’s message, the well of British political discourse has been poisoned and the the taboo against racism broken. People who spent years quietly muttering that ‘Enoch had a point’ now feel free to speak openly. A darkness has descended over politics in British towns and cities, and this is a direct result of the 2016 referendum result.
One thing is certain: very few people who opted for Leave thought we’d wind up in the awful mess we’re in today and very few of them imagined the increasingly fierce resistance of the Remainers which now characterizes the civil war atmosphere of the ‘summer of hate’.
What to do?
Britain is now divided into four groups:
- Those people who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and 3 years later still believe they made the right choice.
- Those people who voted Leave in 2016 and after 3 years education on the value of EU membership and the cost of leaving the EU, have changed their minds and would now vote to Remain.
- Those people who voted Remain in 2016 and have changed their minds and would now vote to Leave.
- Those people who voted Remain in 2016 and still believe they made the right choice.
These groups divide further into those who want us to proceed with Brexit with all speed, regardless of our future relationship with Europe, trusting in our ability to survive on our own, like Victorian Britain, in splendid isolation, still trying to rule the waves.
And those who recognize and accept Britain’s place in the world, a world where only big players survive and little countries on their own get crushed by the powerful forces of global capitalism. A world where the people who decide whether you keep your job in Nottingham or Swindon don’t live in Nottingham or Swindon or even in London, but sit in board rooms in Tokyo, Shanghai, Munich or San Francisco. In other words, people who want to stay in Europe, a team player in a strong team.
Those who want the first course think we should follow our Prime Minister, all join hands and take a monumental leap in the dark. We should hope for the best and that the famous Dunkirk Spirit. But what worked in 1940 won’t work in 2019; we have no external enemy like Hitler facing us and much more importantly, we are not united. We are divided and torn by mutual suspicion. Some of us will leap, but many – 16 million at least – will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the darkness.
Others think the solution lies in a general election and the operation of Britain’s class-based political system. A government will emerge with a working majority and the honour of parliament will be restored. But as we have seen, the operation of the traditional party system cannot solve the Brexit problem which cuts across the British political and cultural landscape with frightening new fault lines and fissures. Whatever the result of a general election, deep and festering resentment would continue and the ‘summer of hate’ could well turn into an ‘age of hatred’.
Others still prefer a second, much more informed vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. Many people oppose the idea of this Peoples Vote on the grounds that the result of the June 2016 referendum is somehow cast in stone and cannot be overturned, even if it is acknowledged that the referendum itself may well have been compromised by fraud and malpractice, because to do so would be a denial of the democratic rights of the 52% who voted to leave, a denial of the ‘will of the people’. They say this would lead to irreparable and unbridgeable divisions in British society, lasting for generations, etc. etc.
But voting in an election, any election, cannot by definition be undemocratic. Voting in a Peoples Vote may be an inconvenience for those who voted Leave in 2016 and still believe they made the correct decision but it is not a denial of their rights. It is however a denial of the rights of those who have changed their minds over the course of the last 3 years and 3 months. Those people who now know a great deal more about the European Union and Britain’s place in it, and want the chance to vote again, this time to stay in. For those Leavers who say ‘nobody’s changed their mind, and even if they have, they are Remainers of 2016 who now want to to Leave’, to them the supporters of Peoples Vote say, ‘Let’s test it. What have you got to lose? If you’re right Leave will win by a bigger majority. Remainers will be convinced by the legitimacy of the vote, they will shut up and go away’. In reality they will probably emigrate but that is not the point; the point is that if Remain is correct people who have changed their minds and now want to stay will have their day. That is democracy, it cannot be anything else.
The world today faces seemingly insurmountable challenges and existential problems, far and away the most important of which is climate change. By comparison with the destruction we are wreaking on the earth’s natural systems, Brexit and the arcane notion of British sovereignty is of miniscule importance. As Humphrey Bogart once told Ingrid Bergman, it doesn’t ‘amount to a hill of beans’. Every one of the problems facing the natural world – plastic in the ocean, carbon in the atmosphere, the relentless loss of species – can only be solved at a broad international level with nations working together. Trying to do anything on your own, as a single nation – the idea implicit in the Brexit dream – is doomed to failure and ridicule.
Looking back at the hippies of 1968, they appear naïve, unrealistic and, yes, faintly ridiculous. Their ‘love-ins’ and protests against the Vietnam War just the froth of teenage exuberance on the top of a society which was still fundmentally staid and conservative. But they had one thing right: they understood that love and international co-operation across borders beats the petty nationalism of the sort which Brexit represents. The Peoples Vote doesn’t mean we will have to wear flowers in our hair but it does mean we admit we are human, we make mistakes now and then, some of them serious, and some times we need a couple of attempts to get it right.
By Peter Lyth, Nottingham People’s Vote campaigner