I have a theory that the fault for our recent fratricidal psychodrama – otherwise known as the EU referendum – lies squarely on the shoulders of one individual.
No, not David Cameron. Or Nigel Farage. Or Norman Lamont. Not John Major, Margaret Thatcher, or even her predecessor Edward Heath. It’s not even a member of the Conservative Party.
It’s Nick Clegg. Nick Clegg is the man to blame. Nick Clegg, and the Cleggmania sparked by his earnest appeals to camera during the televised leaders’ debates, splitting the centre-left vote at the 2010 general election. Nick Clegg who formed a coalition with the Conservative Party, which enthusiastically plunged the country into five years of destabilising austerity. Nick Clegg, whose mismanagement of the referendum on electoral reform buried the issue for a generation. Nick Clegg, the multilingual former MEP, who took on Nigel Farage in two EU debates in 2014, and lost. Nick Clegg, whose Lib-Dems were thereafter decimated by the UKIP insurgency in the elections to the European Parliament a few weeks later. Nick Clegg, whose collapse in support saw his party lose 49 MPs in 2015.
Calamity Clegg. It’s all his fault. He’s the Gavrilo Princip of the EU referendum.
Of course, I’m playing devil’s advocate. It’s easy to apportion blame for circumstances outside of our control, to seek out some other-figure who is the Machiavellian architect of our downfall. From a specific individual, a minority group, a race of people, corporate entities, or multinational institutions, figures of hate are all around us. Sometimes we know they’re there, even when there’s no discernible proof. It takes no great leap of imagination in branding someone a cheat, a liar, a racist, or a group of people scum. But these are the base positions we have retreated to with unfortunate ease over the course of this referendum.
Take Nigel Farage, the Brexit bogeyman. Imagine if Nigel had perished when his plane crashed on the morning of the 2010 general election. A pleasing thought, no? We wouldn’t be here, would we? UKIP’s future would have mangled in the undercarriage of that plane. UKIP would, in effect, be history.
And yet here we are, six years on, voting on an issue that Nigel and his party have continually pushed to the forefront of national political debate. A single issue pressure group masquerading as a political party – a Government in waiting if you will – which refused to give up on the seemingly lost cause of leaving the EU. He and his fellow members rode out accusations of racism, fascism, misogyny and dubious hygiene to get exactly what they wanted: a referendum on EU membership, and chaos in the Conservative Party.
UKIP is the proverbial thin end of the wedge. It is the tail wagging the dog. It is the lottery-winning larger lout.
Entering the polling station it was tempting to vote for to leave the EU in the hope that this would sound the death knell for Nigel and party. Deluded and self-defeating, of course: Nigel’s already thought of that. Like John Carpenter's The Thing in a sports-blazer, he’ll metastize into some grotesque form or other. If he can survive a plane crash, he can survive anything. Perhaps he did in fact die, and he’s back from the grave to lead his legions of the swivel-eyed undead into Government, sustained by a diet of Lambert & Butler, pints of Spitfire and the brainstems of the babies of Brussels bureaucrats.
There I go again, deploying the language of hate. Don’t blame me, blame Twitter. Social media facilitates comment without moral responsibility or the fear of physical recrimination. If ever there was an exemplary showcase for the corrosive influence of Twitter on informed and reasoned debate, this referendum was it. Let us ignore for a moment the fact that some of the vitriol is uncannily akin to that of the last general election, or the Scottish independence referendum. We have short memories and we like it that way.
As widely reported, this was The Most Bad Tempered Political Campaign in Living Memory. Civil war across the political spectrum, but most notably within the Conservative Party, where Cabinet member faced off against Cabinet member. Putting Humpty Dumpty together again will take more than some newspaper and a tube of Bostick. Given this trend we’re on course for a full scale ground war by 2035.
We've also had to deal with the cognitive dissonance of observing sworn enemies like Gordon Brown and David Cameron once more uniting behind a common cause. Or even finding oneself agreeing with a Prime Minister who, just over twelve months ago, I happily wanted to punch in the face.
Away from the bizarre platform-sharing and blue-on-blue bloodletting that so fascinated Kuenssberg, Peston et al, grassroots social media interaction spiralled into divisive dialectics. No space for nuance. No time for discussion. No room for conciliation. You’re either for us or you’re against us. And if you’re not for us, you are a cunt. For us or against us. Leave or Remain. Thanks for voting. Now fuck off.
When a celebrity or cultural icon dies, through social media it is possible, for the briefest moment, to feel part of a transnational community united in grief. When a MP is shot and stabbed to death in cold blood in her constituency, we somehow remain a community united in hate. After the initial shock, both campaigns moved to appropriate her death in some form, either by using it for political capital or to accuse the other side of using it for political capital. The murder of Jo Cox was a tragedy for which fringe elements of the Leave campaign bear considerable responsibility. Yet, her Princess Diana-style deification in death by Remain left me feeling equally uneasy, wondering: would she have wanted any of this?
When feeling is running so high that a voter feels the only way to make his voice heard is to shoot his Parliamentarian, it’s fair to say that something has gone fairly awry with our representative democracy. Yet Britain First, like the BNP, or the EDL, or the myriad other radical right wing groups which masquerade as proponents of working class solidarity, have found fertile ground in areas long neglected by our political class.
Watching John Harris’ ‘Anywhere but Westminster’ piece from the Potteries, the attitudes of locals towards immigration depicted by his film reminded me of the time I worked in Stoke-on-Trent. Riding in a van one afternoon, one of my co-workers pointed to a woman in a niqab and said ‘there’s another one of those black postboxes’. His comment wasn’t delivered with any degree of venom or aggression, it was casual in its denigration. He had an image of himself as a proud son of the Potteries, at this stage deep in decline, and saw in the veiled woman a symbolic threat to his heritage.
In places like Stoke-on-Trent, the response to issues relating to the free movement of people has not suddenly hardened over the past few months. It is a latent and endemic issue that has been festering for decades. Areas already blighted by industrial decline find themselves on the front line of shifting geo-political realities, the neoliberal consensus and austerity economics. Remain has failed on every conceivable level to construct a convincing narrative to contend the time-honoured anti-immigration mantra, ‘they took our jobs’. As a counterpoint to the relative anonymity of social media, the referendum has provided a platform where a spectrum of concerns and hatreds can be voiced unreservedly. Whatever the outcome tomorrow, Vote Leave and Leave.EU have set light to a powder keg.
How do we account for those of a more affluent persuasion who are voting to leave the EU despite enjoying the benefits membership has brought for the past forty years? Before I moved to London – regarded as the blueprint for an idealised brand of British multiculturalism – I lived and worked in south Cheshire, the antithesis of London’s metropolitan melting pot. My hometown, Sandbach, is as white-bread as it comes. You could count the number of black, Asian or mixed ethnicity children in our secondary school on one hand. Our local MP was Anne Winterton, who eventually lost the Conservative whip after making a racist joke at a rugby club dinner. She thought, not necessarily unwisely, that she was in good company. She might have been on safer ground at the local golf club.
My grandparents and parents generally voted Conservative, and there was a latent strain of casual, if not explicitly cruel, racism expressed when I was growing up. For my family, the gradations of racism have, I hope, diminished with each successive generation. My son is one of five white children in a class of thirty, and for him, and his parents, this is the new normal. But then London is unique in that respect. Yet even in London the picture is far from rosy. Housing shortages, depressed wages, falling standards of living, the casualization of work contracts and the push-pull of ghettoization and gentrification have placed huge pressures on median to low income families in the capital. Its not difficult to imagine what life is like outside our great conurbation, yet many members of our political class fail to do so.
I moved to London in a bid to escape the cloying attitudes of the provinces. Those who stayed put developed a reactionary echo-chamber which rivals the liberal-minded echo-chamber Londoners enjoy. This, to some extent, would explain why those operating in the Westminster bubble have struggled to get their heads around the strong anti-EU sentiment outside of London. Harris’ films in particular showed an Estuary-accented Labour MP knocking on a series of Potters’ doors to be informed, in the sharp vowels of the Stokie, that they would be voting out. The leader of the local leave campaign, by contrast, was a Potter born and bred.
Fuelling their decision is a mantra – Take Back Control – which is completely bogus. This will not, as some right wing factions clearly hope, rewind the history of our island nation to the pre-Windrush, Imperial era of Rule Britannia. It is a fairytale, not to mention a temporal and logistical impossibility.
Nor will it return sovereignty to our shores. The very notion of taking back control is an impossible dream, a McUtopia. There are too many global pressures acting upon the country for us to be able to go it alone. All the evidence points towards the disastrous economic effects of doing so. Other than peddling nonsense about the cost of EU membership, Johnson and Gove and co have not come up with any semblance of a credible plan for what happens once we leave. Yet still the Brexiteers lurch in that direction.
In effect, the rhetorical tone of the entire Vote Leave campaign is predicated upon the instant gratification and incentivisation that has blighted British politics of late. In this sense, it is business as usual. Want to be a millionaire? Play the National Lottery. Want to be famous? Go on Big Brother. Want a luxury cruise? Get a platinum credit card. Sick of immigrants? Vote to Leave the EU.
Identity and nationhood are nebulous things, encompassing the sublime Bleakean lyric or the chant of the neo-fascist football hooligan. Clearly being proud to be English, or even British, does not mean being proud to be racist, but it’s a wafer-thin line and one increasingly crossed or erased. Will Self’s slightly hysterical observation on Channel 4 News last night that all racists will be voting leave was criticised by some as being outrageously fatuous, but that doesn’t diminish its accuracy. Why would a racist vote to preserve a relationship that brings him or her into more contact with the very people they fear, distrust or are disgusted by?
Much of contemporary Britain’s cultural and political malaise stems from the position of English as the global lingua franca. Its hard to say this without sounding smug or like I'm demonising the working class but were more of my compatriots prepared to learn a second or even a third language, and not bask in the futile glow of self-imposed ignorance, perhaps we would see an equalisation in the bi-directional flow of people to and from our shores. We need to recognise that we are all British Europeans and members of the global community. These are not, and nor should they ever be, mutually exclusive strands of identity. They convey and confer upon us a degree of civic pride and global responsibility. This responsibility extends to each individual's contribution to the political life of this country.
This is why we should stay part of the EU. That is why I voted Remain today. Because, in the final analysis, I too agree with Nick. Even though it’s all his fault.
A little over 48 hours since the nation went to the polls. We have voted for the unthinkable. We are coming out of the EU. We are turning our back on Europe, turning our back on internationalism and diplomacy for the insular politics of a country terminally incapable of looking beyond imperialist past. The immediate consequences have been brutal: $2tn lost from global markets, the departure of David Cameron, rumours of a coup within the Labour Party, a further Scottish independence referendum looming, a call for a referendum on Irish unification, Spain moving to reclaim Gibraltar, the EU speedily ushering us out of the door. Despair among the 48% who voted to stay. Recession and mass redundancies looming. Anti-immigrant sentiment formenting. A bloodbath.
In the long term, who fucking knows? Clearly nobody knows anything: not our political elites, not our political commentators and journalists, nor our traders, certainly not the bookies, and definitely not the electorate. Ignorance has won this referendum. We have been plunged into political and economic uncertainty to a unruly coalition of the unwilling: the fringes of the radical left and radical right, middle England's senior citizenry and the working class of our depressed industrial heartlands. And people willing to believe the bullshit of a tumour in a sports blazer and an Eton-educated fool with a pudding-basin haircut. An ill-informed, poorly educated and bloody-minded electorate voting on instinct and identity, and media-driven misinformation over immigration.
Who think that taking our country out of a union which guarantees investment, trade deals, human rights, clean energy, subsidies, funding and jobs is the best - and only - way of sticking two fingers up to the establishment. Who have determinedly trashed the future of countless young people - including my own two small children - because they're older and think they know best. Because they don't like people who don't share or represent their small-minded, shrill-voiced, self-indulgent worldview.
Fuck off Europe, we're all voting out. It makes you proud to be British.