by Stephen Durkan, via XXY
I voted Remain on June 23rd, 2016, and now I am ashamed of it.
Weird, is it not? Especially since, being Scottish, I should be trumpeting my own intellectual and spiritual superiority over the fascist morons, the xenophobes and all those other knuckle-draggers.
So why am I ashamed? To explain, I need to take you back to the day of the referendum.
It was raining, of course. I had accepted that I was going to cast my Remain vote with as much enthusiasm as Boris cast his. I trawled through the endless opinions on Facebook, and I began to feel uneasy about the comments I was seeing from fellow Remainers. There were two comments in particular that caused me to pause. One was from the usually brilliant science writer Ben Goldacre, who wrote a long, self-righteous, patronising and downright insulting post explaining how the Leave campaign was using language for ‘losers’ and how Brexiteers were intentionally harming families economically – which, of course, he has no proof for (as a science-minded person, he should really know better).
The second comment was from the band Fat White Family, who were stating that everyone should vote Remain so that they don’t have to get a visa when travelling through Europe. This completely ignored the concept of the good of wider society, as if there really was no such thing – we are all Thatcherites now, even (or should that be especially?) the rebel poseurs of Rock and/or Roll. This contempt coupled with selfishness was replicated in various other comments sprayed across the social media sphere, and it got me thinking: am I on the right side? I shrugged it off and cast my vote whilst reciting the words ‘And here’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson’, and I forgot about it.
The next day I woke up, and it had happened. It was a shock that nobody saw coming and there was a dark haze descending as people realised the future is completely unknown. The pound was falling, the government was dissolving, and you would have been forgiven for thinking that the world was swallowing itself whole. But we should have seen this coming; because this is what happens when you ignore vast swathes of the working class for twenty-five years; sooner or later, they will encroach upon your comfort zone, and the wall we have built that insulates us from the profound cracks in our society will eventually be breached. The correlation between how well-off an area is and its referendum decision is startling (at least in England and Wales it is). For many people who voted Leave, there has never been any hopes or any dreams, the future has always been unknown, and life is constantly covered in fog. This vote provided them with a chance to make themselves heard in a way no other recent election had.
The reaction to the vote completely solidified that niggling feeling of doubt I had about my Remain vote. Leave voters were called fascists, morons, and all sorts of other disgusting insults. The tone of self-righteous superiority was suffocating, the calls for a second referendum were exasperating (we like democracy, except when there is a result that we don’t like – how very E.U. of you!), and then there was the over-the-top romanticisation of what is essentially a bureaucratic trade and labour deal that serves corporate interests far more than it does the ordinary people of Liverpool, Leverkusen or Liege. People were shedding tears for a union that plunged the entire nation of Greece into a depression for the sake of a few German and French banks.
The E.U. had suddenly acquired an almost religious power. The fact is that for towns like Oldham, Boston and Merthyr Tydfil, large-scale immigration and globalisation does not mean multicultural community groups, Portuguese cafes and discussing cultural differences with your student friends from Sweden and Belgium. To these people, who have struggled with the decline of their industrial jobs, it means constant flux, it means change they did not ask for, it means losing things, and it means more people to compete with for the jobs that were already thin on the ground. But no one since the referendum wants to confront this. Indeed, as Ben Goldacre suggested, these are the ‘losers’; the people who are mocked routinely by clever-clever Oxbridge comedians on panel shows and sitcoms, the people who have to put up with their towns being the butt of jokes, the people who have been systematically ignored as the sophisticates turn a blind eye and refuse to look up from their iPads in the local Starbucks to see the suffering that may be necessary to provide us with these vapid pleasures.
The inequality gap has grown so wide that there are students in London who genuinely cannot fathom why a poor young person living in Rochdale might not see the benefits of a gap year travelling around Eastern Europe. And why should they be able to understand the poor? They have absolutely zero reference points they can consult to understand the plight of the working class in Britain. They are more likely to empathise with a Brooklyn hipster than they are with a Burnley plumber.
And of course there are racists, I am not denying that, and the rise of racist incidents should be challenged with no compromise from all sides. But this animosity comes from somewhere, and it seems to me that most people do not want to understand and empathise, they just want to treat these people like some sort of inferior species who should be excluded from the democratic process (as our friends at Fat White Family helpfully suggested). Of course, these people are uneducated! That is what happens when you have to work fifteen hours a day just to scrape by and pay rent – there is literally no time to read a Guardian article and then recite it as fact to your friend on the way to the restaurant. Poverty and constant stress have an effect on people’s brains and on their outlooks.
The Scottish rap artist (yes, they do exist) Loki made a video explaining that people who lived in deprived communities are living in an environment of constant stress and thus will be more antagonistic towards immigrants as they watch their libraries, their community centres and their high streets all disappear for no clear reason. The propaganda pamphlets (or tabloids, as they are most commonly known) seize upon these vulnerable people and bombard them with scare stories about the immigrants. This whirlwind of disaffection, manipulative tycoons and the profit motive has created a breeding ground for hatred and fear. Surely our hostility would be better directed towards the rich white men who are benefiting from the misery of the ‘losers’. I refuse to attack the weak. It is a habit that we have grown far too accustomed to – we blame the poor for being poor, the homeless for being homeless, the disabled for being disabled. Our favourite TV shows victimise poor, untalented and desperate people; we have been well-trained by the media, yet we attack those who have fallen for anti-immigrant scare stories at the same time. I am ashamed. I feel it in the marrow of my bones.
So what is it going to be? Do we want democracy or do we want the self-selecting intelligent vanguard deciding for the rest? Are we going to drift further into some sort of social apartheid where poor people get driven farther and farther out of cities and become secluded in ghost towns with the lines of communication between them and the educated middle-class cutoff? Or are we going to speak to each other? There is no easy answer to the multitude of problems we face now. However, I do believe we should be opening ourselves to some difficult questions that lead us outside our comfortable bubbles. We have to understand why people are angry about immigration and we have to fix our fractured communities.
What certainly will not help is demonising large sections of the population who already feel like they are being attacked from all angles. If you push people far enough, they will have no choice but to push back. Let’s talk. Let’s listen to the other point of view. Let’s try to understand where they are coming from. Let’s admit it is possible that we might be wrong about some things, that we might be recycling what we hear from our own biassed sources. If we do not liberate ourselves from our comfortable groups, then there is a hard rain that is a-gonna fall. The bubble will burst. And you (yes you, Fat White Family and your ilk) will have a lot more than visa applications to worry about.