A Change of Plan
The initial plan for this Twelve Ten edition was a few pages of lightness and summer feeling: fun stories and snapshots that were all about sunshine, holidays, and faraway places. Then the UK government decided to stage a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy for all the world to see. Or as one famed British author calls it: The Summer of Contempt began.
History in Real-Time
We’re always witnessing History in real-time.
A terrible war is being waged not far from here, and terrorist attacks are repeatedly perpetrated all across the globe. That is very much History and it is far too real, which, I believe, one should not forget for a moment.
Then there is the fact that the United States of America are, at this moment, going through a painful process of self-reflection, not to mention the US Presidential Election looming at the end of the year. An election everyone outside the USA seems to be anticipating with a mixture of bafflement and genuine worry. Again, History in real-time.
Even so, what happened on July 23rd – just three weeks ago – feels a bit different to your usual ‘historical event’. Probably because events unfolded day by day, opening the lid on the inner turmoil of an age-old union, a deep-seated rift that was known but seldom so clearly seen. Also, it is rare to see a powerful government have a full-blown meltdown, which is why I would like to use this space for a short walk-through of what’s been happening so far.
This is no political analysis. The following are observations made over the past three weeks since, simply said, “something pretty big just happened here”. The EU and the UK three weeks ago are not the unions we have now. That in and of itself is worth looking into.
Wait – what just happened?
Ask a Silly Question…
The UK’s EU Referendum and the Vote to Leave by a small margin of 52% (Leave) to 48% (Remain) was followed by something quite unprecedented: political pandemonium. What has come to light is
a society that clearly harbours deep pits of resentment
a union split right through the middle
an electorate that seems to be utterly confused, ranging from bafflingly ignorant and comically bamboozled to righteously furious and horrified, not to mention those who are either obstinately or insidiously triumphant
and a political establishment recklessly at war with itself.
It is clear today, July 12th, that by next Wednesday the UK will have a new Prime Minister, Theresa May, who seems very adamant on seeing Brexit happen. What this means for the two Unions in question – the European Union and the United Kingdom – remains to be seen.
Why so interested?
Leaving aside the fact that we at von reuth work and live in the EU, there are many people very close to the team that are directly affected by Brexit, whether within the UK or mainland EU. Added to that, simply witnessing the Referendum and its aftermath has been, for the lack of a better word, fascinating. In the way tornadoes and erupting volcanoes are fascinating. Really: What a meltdown. Words like omnishambles are frequently used. “What a disaster” seems to be a common phrase, both online and offline, not to mention “You could not make it up”. There seems to be a growing consensus that if the Brexit aftermath were not so serious, it would be highly entertaining, another reason why a short chronology seems worthwhile. The following is a motley crew of snippets, soundbites, a few articles and, at the end, some commentaries, all of which aim to sketch what has been happening.
One more thing: the referendum and its aftermath have caused a lot of anxiety and strife among those close to us here at von reuth. So, if you do feel like commenting, please remember to keep it civil. There’s enough unpleasantness going on already.
How to Not Make Friends and Confuse Everybody
1. You Brexit, You Fix it
After it was clear that Leave had won the Referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron tendered his resignation. To the shock of everyone, the Leave Campaign especially. Boris Johnson, as has been noted in numerous news outlets, did not look happy. Or, as The Guardian’s Andrew Rawnsley put it: “As the old saying goes: they broke it, now the Brexiters own it. Which may explain why, as mournful as David Cameron was in defeat, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove looked even grimmer in victory.”
2. Um, sorry, we didn’t actually mean that…
Two very memorable promises of the Leave Campaign were
the reduction and strict regulation of immigration into the UK
the UK’s weekly £350 million EU contributions “could instead be spent on the NHS” (the National Health Service)
Nigel Farage of the far-right UKIP persuasion immediately distanced himself from the £350-million-a-week “mistake“, while Tory MPs openly admitted that “free movement could result in similar levels of immigration after Brexit”.
This hardly 24 hours after Leave won the Referendum.
Also, there was no plan. There genuinely was NO PLAN. Savour that for a moment. The Leave Campaign campaigned aggressively to win, yet had no plan for what to do if and when Leave actually did win. The Treasury did not have a contingency plan either. Bear in mind, this EU Referendum was David Cameron’s brainchild and a part of the general election campaign that made him Prime Minister just over year ago.
So, after the dust settled, it was clear: Leave winning was not what was supposed to happen. A bit of an internal Tory bust-up, yes, but not actual – History. Why else did neither side have a plan?
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, lost no time to show that, never mind the UK, Scotland would not be taken for a ride (again). As she put it herself: “The context and the circumstances have changed dramatically. The UK that Scotland voted to remain within in 2014 doesn’t exist anymore.” What Scotland can and will do remains to be seen. It has become very clear, though, that the Referendum wasn’t just about leaving one Union: it was also about the future of another, much older one. This, however, was not really mentioned when the Leave Campaign bellowed it was time to “take our country back”.
4. “Roastbeefs, I like your deadpan humour. But now stop!” (French Twitter user)
“[Pro-Leave Tory MP Ian Duncan Smith:] “We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities.” Well, thanks for clearing that one up.”
John Crace is known for his scathing take-downs of books and people, and naturally found plenty to work with Post-Referendum. His most damning conclusion may yet be that the Leave Campaign’s motto was little more than “Liberté, Égalité, Stupidité”. Do read his piece. After all, it begins with: “It was one of those mornings when there were so many car crashes at the same time it was hard to know where to look.”
5. No Laughing Matter
John Crace shows the farce of it all, yet it’s not really a laughing matter when you consider what Sarah Childs, Natasha Blank, and Yasmin Weaver put together in a Facebook album of Post-Referendum Tweets. The album shows the real danger of the Pandora’s Box the Tories & their Leave Campaign – in unison with the far-right UKIP – opened far too willingly.
The album is called Worrying Signs and is freely visible on Facebook. The three young women want to show just what nastiness has been legitimised by the clearly xenophobic and at times blatantly racist Leave Campaign. Add to that the fact that the British police force have issued a statement of a 42% rise in hate-crimes after the Brexit results, and Childs, Blank, and Weaver were spot on in their worry.
6. Yes, Minister – Why Britian joined the European Union
Britain would not be Britain if it couldn’t see the dark hilarity of a preposterous situation. The more days passed Post-Referendum the dryer the (gallows) humour got. And then someone dug up this gem from the BBC archives and the re-posting and commenting began:
On Standing Up and Being Counted
And Realising That’s Actually What Happened
On June 24th, one day after the Referendum, Google announced that hours after the results were announced there was a 250% spike within the UK Google searches for the phrase “What happens if we leave the EU?”
World-wide bafflement and derision ensued.
Shock, too. How could this happen? How vote to leave the EU, a powerful single market and a global political force, without knowing what leaving actually means? It defies reason, but it did happen, so I searched for answers. Here are two articles, one from the Independent and one from The Guardian that pointed to possible reasons why.
1. Wait – my vote counts?
There is a video embedded in the Independent article where a young man freely admits he “didn’t think [his] vote would matter too much”. That is frankly bewildering. The whole point of democracy is that every vote counts. Win or Lose, every vote counts – especially when margins are so slim, which no one can predict with certainty, hence why every vote counts.
The whole point of being able to vote is voicing your opinion and the decision you want via the ballot-box. And yet the young man – and many others like him that have been interviewed since – genuinely believed their opinion, not to mention what they want, didn’t count anyway.
A certain amount of recklessness and/or bitterness is a given when you’re convinced what you do or say really doesn’t matter anyway. What that says about the political climate and education in the UK is both illuminating and disheartening. It also explains the genuine shock-horror reactions of many Leave-voters when Leave actually did win.
As to the article itself, where a young voter explains why she voted Leave, there is this statement that is striking:
“There was no way I was going to let the leaders of all the political parties, Tony Blair, big business, or President Obama bully me into a vote. […] The In campaigners on social media were dismissive and obnoxious. It doesn’t help to call everyone who is considering voting to leave racist. Think next time before you post a preachy status telling everyone else how to vote, because they might not actually respect your opinion and could be inspired to do the exact opposite.”
Two things stand out in the article: one is a certain “stuff you” attitude, and another is the fact that the voter felt bullied. But first the “stuff you” attitude.
From protest-votes to “I’ll show you lot”, there seems to be a groundswell of resentment that was voiced via Referendum, never mind the “buyers remorse” many feel now that Leave actually did win. Where this resentment comes from is something that became clearer as the meltdown continued, which will be considered in the commentaries further down this page. What is so baffling, though, is how both the head Leave Campaigners (Johnson, Gove, Farage etc.) and quite a number of Leave voters never expected to win. Imagine that: campagining aggressively without expecting anyone to believe you so much you would actually win the whole thing, by a slim margin or no. It is beyond fiction.
2. Fear & Power
The Referendum, as it looks like, was supposed to be no more than a bit of a political fisticuffs in front of the pub. A bit of a kerfuffle, maybe a night at the station with black eyes and bleeding noses all round, maybe a bruised rib here and there, but nothing actually damaging. Now, suddenly, the Law is coming down on everybody like a ton of bricks. There is the real threat of a life-sentence and everyone is surprised the law actually – works.
It also shows something more disturbing: an attitude that relies heavily on other people being more economically sensible than yourself. Granted, blanket racism accusations are dangerously counterproductive. That is agreed. However, to flip off a nation, two unions, all your neighbours, and the globe, while relying on others to act on their sound social and economic sense seems hardly mature. Yet, this seems to be the main momentum of the Leave vote. That and a sense of being bullied to stay.
Bullying is no laughing matter and the fact that this young person felt bullied should be taken seriously. The Remain Campaign was very clear on its “If you vote Leave, disaster will happen”, dire warnings that were unanimously decried as Project Fear and scaremongering by the Leave Campaign. Ok. Seen from this young voters perspective, though, the warnings of the Remain Campaign seemed to be exactly that: Project Fear and scaremongering. This makes a bit more sense if you consider who was for Remain: by this young voter’s words, the Remain Campaign was filled with people and institutions she experienced as threats to her social health and economic safety. A sensible warning from that end would hardly be seen as an actual warning.
Humans tend to fight back rather violently when they feel cornered. Couple that with the obstinate “stuff you” attitude from before as well as a sense that “what I vote for doesn’t really matter anyway”, and people end up voting entirely against their own interest – the young Leave voters in the article do show definite signs of worry. The the sub-header of the article is after all “What have we done? If I could take my vote back now, I would”.
It is a genuinely sad state of affairs but it is the case, which brings me to the The Guardian article that gives a sense of just where this deep-seated resentment comes from.
3. The Consequences of Neglect
“Stafford, Cannock, Wolverhampton. Different towns, same message: “There’s no decent work”; “the politicians don’t care about us”; “we’ve been forgotten”; “betrayed”; “there’s too many immigrants, and we can’t compete with the wages they’ll work for”. Nobody used the word humiliation, but that’s the sense I got.”– Mike Carter
The article “I walked from Liverpool to London: Brexit was no surprise“, says it all really. It’s a disheartening glimpse into the consequences of serious social neglect, decades in the making. The resulting deep social resentment is no trifle, and the Leave Campaign tapped into it unchecked via the staple Id-riling rhetoric of “It’s all Johnny Foreigner’s Fault”. This also meant that the real culprits – the successive UK governments, whether Tory or Labour – got away fairly scot-free. If it’s immigrants and the EU’s fault, then who better to solve the problem than One’s Own Government? Thereby completely ignoring the fact that it was that very government that started the awful ball rolling 30+ years ago and never really tried to stop it since. It is an ingenious political trick, and quite a few fell for it.
This puts the onus on the entire political establishment, Conservative and Labour, to finally do something constructive, which is probably why Westminster had such an incredible meltdown. It’s not clear that it has ended yet either, even if Theresa May will be the new Prime Minister come next Wednesday.
It is difficult to believe that this new/old government will change its political habits of 30+ years in record time, especially with an opposition that seems more intent on imploding than opposing. True, the heat has definitely gone up. Even so, it is very possible that those who felt so humiliated before the Referendum will be in for a really bad time Post-Referendum since, once outside the EU single-market, global market forces apply and they are not known to be… nice.
4. “Indusrial Dishonesty”
This started with Prof. Michael Dougan’s comments of the “industrial dishonesty” of the Leave Campaign, a video that quickly went viral. Before continuing reading, though, I urge you to look into the very first comment (Brenda B.) and its follow-up comments underneath Prof. Dougan’s excellent explanation. The following is a reflection on what happened in that particular comments-section.
In an attempt to understand Leave-voters line of argument, I read through quite a bit of Brenda B.’s comments section. After a while, I came to the following conclusion: the Remain Campaign had tapped into the same Class Resentment the Leave Campaign fed on in its “It’s all Johnny Foreigner’s Fault”-ballyhooing, only without consciously realising it and to very negative effect. Here’s why:
5. Social In-Group Knowledge
Reading the Brenda B. comments and replies there was one thing that stood out: a lot of commenters were taking their Social In-Group Knowledge for granted. Social In-Group Knowledge in this particular case would be, for example,
institutional funding is generally very complicated, as in, you’d be amazed just how crazy it can get;
international institutions like universities and their funding can be byzantine – you need to know the system to know where the money goes;
50k are actually peanuts in this regard.
Now, why is this important? Because it is unwise to think that the labyrinth of institutional funding is something everyone knows about, let alone has experienced first-hand. Not everyone is well-versed in institutional funding and its commonplace problems. Why I consider this kind of know-how part of a Social In-Group is that, generally speaking, those who work for and with these institutions, (or grew up with people who worked for and with these institutions) know what they’re facing when they hear “apply for funding” (“Oh God no”, would probably be their first reaction…) For those who do not have this access, this knowledge is not self-evident.
It would explain many a Remainer’s reflex answer – “Are you an idiot?” – to Leavers’ claims: the Remainers, as a group, seem to be well-versed in a culture of political and institutional understanding and debate that are clear signs of a particular class. Yes, class. If anything, the resentment that’s boiled to the surface via the Referendum is very class-based. As Mike Carter’s article above shows, a large part of British society was simply left behind during the last 30+ years and so did not have the access to all the benefits and privileges of EU-membership. Rather the contrary.
The fact that this is a home-grown problem rather than an EU one – though exacerbated by EU directives – is neither here nor there for those who are genuinely suffering. As one interviewee after all said, “we can’t compete with the wages they’ll work for”. Never mind the reasons, the simple fact of not being able to compete is the case for this interviewee. On the other hand, as one Independent commenter (nosedcoloredglasses) writes:
What I do know is, if you’re rich or old or live in London, it won’t matter if you’re in or out, you’ll be alright Jack anyway. If you’re poor and young and live in middle England, it won’t matter if you’re in or out, you’re screwed, and the reason you’re screwed has nothing to do with the EU, it’s because Westminster has ignored you for 50 years, and will continue to ignore you unless you vote for different kind of politician.
5. Knowing vs Explaining
So, it looks like the Remainers made many Leave-voters genuinely feel their (historically class-based) ignorance and powerlessness. Considering the demographics of those parts of the UK that voted Remain and those Leave, there seems to be both a regional and a class divide – generally speaking, that is.
This is why it would make sense to say that Remain tapped into the same age-old antagonism and resentment that Leave tapped into. It is likely also the reason why many Leave-Regretters feel equally betrayed by the Remain Campaign, since said campaign acted as if the whole of the UK was equally educated and so did not break the message down in an understandable way – and that is understandable for everyone, not just those who already knew anyway.
Explaining a complex issue means explaining it in a way so that those who genuinely don’t understand can follow. “Yes, Captain Obvious, what a newsflash,” you might think. After this Referendum, though, it looks like this actually needs repeating. Understanding how much of what you know is common knowledge and how much isn’t is actually not that easy. There are many things one considers fantastically obvious (personally and as a social group) that are genuinely news to very many other people.
In Brenda B.’s case, the BTL comments jumped on the implication of her statement (that Prof. Dougan is basically arguing to his own benefit and so really can’t be trusted) while what she factually said – the University of Liverpool receives EU funding, as does the chair Prof. Dougan once held – is not factually wrong (this was before Prof. Dougan posted the explanation regarding the 2006 chair and its funding).
In the context of the Referendum, though, what Brenda B. ended up communicating was “Prof Dougan is disingenuous, don’t trust him”. The commenters, all from the same social group by the sound of it, promptly pounced, since what Prof. Dougan says and communicates is pretty sound advice.
What makes the Brenda B. thread particularly interesting, though, is how trolls were roundly ignored à la “we have no time to waste on your nonsense, this is serious”. So, step by step, less irate commenters started to explain why what Brenda B. was posting was offensive: by breaking down their argument so far that anyone willing could easily follow, and so making a very clear case for Prof. Dougan’s explanation.
Certainly, by the time calmer commenters started really explaining, so many others had vented their rage against Brenda B. that she first got obstinate (her point after all was not factually wrong) and finally went quiet since she was faced with the understandable ire of an entire social group that collectively showed their class privilege in a rather uncouth way.
Think about it, many Leave-Regretters at one point started asking: Why didn’t you tell us? Many Remainers scoffed, “You idiots, we did!” Though clearly not in a way everyone could understand. It’s a hard and harsh lesson in social dynamics and communication, but also a pretty damn good one – what you say and what you end up communicating can be two very different things.
Even so, for all this talk and play-by-play, the UK will have a new Prime Minister next Wednesday. Let’s see what happens next.