As I started this post I was standing at my local leisure centre watching my son’s gymnastics class. We were in Leeds, and judging by the voices around me, I am surrounded by people from at least three continents. This includes, of course, a significant proportion of people from what I can (for now) call the rest of the EU. It’s always been a nice, friendly place, the leisure centre, even while the worst excesses of the nasty Leave campaign were playing out, and happily it still is. People standing around united by the fact that they are just parents chatting, drinking overpriced machine coffee, and waiting while little Callum/Magdalena/Julianna/Jasvinder practice balancing on beams, jumping, vaulting and the rest. The only real division is between those who see it as a bit of fun, and those who take it far, far too seriously. At the end, when one of the children gets to be “star gymnast of the week” everyone claps and smiles, regardless. For me, it’s Britain at its best: diverse people concentrating on the experiences that make us the same. I don’t want this sort of thing to end, and I’m worried now that it will.
Given my general political and professional leanings, it’s safe to say that my mind on Brexit was made up from the outset: remain. The job of the Leave campaign was to try and convince someone like me that they were right and I was wrong, but nothing they said ever rang quite true (turns out I was right on that front), not to mention based on too much guesswork. What was clear, however, was that it was largely based in abstract, fear-based nationalism. I’ve said before, I don’t really care for that kind of thing, and, as with religion, I find the negative, divisive impact of notions of national identity far outweigh any benefits.
And the Leave campaign was about nationalism. The campaign played on fears of immigration that are stoked by the nastier ends of the UK media. It’s easy to blame the media, and while I lay plenty of blame at their door, let’s not forget that they are only peddling their stance based on what they think will sell papers: and a diet of Princess Diana conspiracy theories, cures for cancer, and skewed headlines on immigration based on cherry picked data does, apparently, sell. There is, as the referendum showed, a big market for prejudice. This fear of immigration is most easily exploited in those places where direct experience of it is rare, or where local socio-economic difficulties leave individuals looking for a scapegoat. And sadly, the family with the funny name and foreign accent is a much easier target than a complex financial system exploited by the wealthy.
Richard Dawkins argues in The God Delusion that moderate religious belief essentially gives a mandate to extremism, because when it comes down to it, the moderate and the extremist believe in the same basic concepts. This means that the moderate individual cannot fully condemn every aspect of the extremist’s behaviour. Something similar applies here. The votes of what is probably a moderately nationalistic (flags out for football and the Queen) but ill-informed and worried majority have now granted a mandate to the nastier xenophobia and racism of the far right. The British Leave voters have essentially said “it’s ok to be racist”. I heard first hand of a friend being told to “fuck off back home” despite the fact that they were born in the UK and is of southern Asian origin. It wasn’t the first story I heard: it seems racists were pretty much saying it from a few hours after the results came in, having been given the blessing of the British populace.
The campaign was built on fear of immigration, on the demonisation of immigration. There was the tacky and vicious appending of Iraq and Syria onto a map of countries wishing to be part of the EU, for example, not to mention UKIP’s awful, terrible poster.
“No, no,” I can imagine them saying, “Not at all. We were voting against the undemocratic processes of the EU.” This is also a ridiculous argument. For one, however things pan out, our lives will be affected by the EU, and we now have absolutely zero input into what happens there. What makes this even more ridiculous is that the upper houses of our parliament is entirely unelected, not to mention unrepresentatively dominated by rich white men, a proportion of whom are there purely because they are leaders of an organisation representing a minority religious viewpoint. I’m not saying that any of these people do a bad job, mind, but they are unelected. Oh, and did I mention the small fact we are a monarchy? So we really have little claim to be protesting about democracy, particularly as the next Prime Minister of the UK will be taking office without having been elected to it.
And it’s not just about my job either. Brexit is going to take years to work through, and in that time people will still continue to arrive in the UK and need ESOL. In fact, the biggest challenge for ESOL now is how much it will get squeezed as the government looks to save money in the face of the inevitable recession brought about by Brexit. Nothing to do with there being fewer immigrants, thanks, because even if migration from the EU stopped completely, people will still keep coming from the rest of the world. So potential ESOL students and the whole debate about language education will continue.
I voted remain because I liked being in the EU. Because it is flawed (what government isn’t?) but you can’t fix it if you’re not in it. Because I didn’t believe in the Brexit campaign. Because I thought we did have a future in a united Europe. Because I thought it would benefit my children. Because I don’t trust a single soul in the Houses of Parliament anyway. Because I think EU membership did benefit this country, in terms of stability, diversity, economy, and in terms of society. We are far poorer without the EU, I think, and in many ways I have lost faith in this country, and the people who live here: not because the referendum showed that people are worried and badly-informed, or too easily influenced by a nasty popular press, but because they thought that they could endorse prejudice and racism as the answer to their problems. This is not my country any more, I just live here.
(Normal service will resume next post, but for the time being I just needed to work through something.)