A Tale of Two Countries

jack laytonby Jack Layton

I’m writing this monthly piece at 7pm on Monday 27 th June, already this (long) weekend we’ve had enough news stories to happily keep a full time professional journalist occupied for a month. Let’s briefly recap where we’re at:

– UK has voted to leave the European Union, 52% to 48%

– David Cameron has resigned as Prime Minister (with new Conservative party leader to be announced by 2nd September)

– The value of the pound against the dollar has hit a 30-year low

– The FTSE100 has dropped in value by ~5.5% (~3,50 points) from Thursday afternoon

– South Africa’s JSE FTSE has dropped in value by ~6.5% (~3,500 points)

– The UK’s credit rating has been downgraded from AAA to AA status

– The Leave campaign has quickly back-pedalled on two central tenants of its campaign (suggesting £350m should be spent on the NHS, and stopping free movement of labour)

– Hilary Benn was “sacked” by Jeremy Corbyn, prompting a slew of resignations from shadow ministers and the calling for Corbyn’s resignation

– The EU has indicated that Britain should activate Article 50 as soon as possible, and that negotiations (formal or informal) would only begin then

– There has been a sharp increase in racial abuse across the UK

– Several MPs have suggested ignoring the referendum, and holding a vote in Parliament instead

– Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, has threatened to veto the UK’s decision based on Scotland’s unanimous decision to remain part of the UK – another independence referendum is highly likely

– Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has suggested London should be part of the EU negotiations

– Also, a tragic honourable mention to the fact that Jo Cox, Labour MP and Remain supporter, was murdered in the run up to the vote on 16th June

In short, it’s been a busy four days. #Brexit, in the immediate short term, has been as damaging as the ‘project fear’ of the Remain campaign suggested it would be.

It’s difficult to know where to begin. With the cacophony of voices on Twitter and Facebook, it feels as if this result has been analysed and commented on from every possible angle multiple times. I’ve read pieces on the racial components, the lies from Johnson Gove and Farage, the questions it raises constitutionally, the state of our political discourse, the message it has sent to the international community, the effect on the US Presidential elections, the implosion of Labour, the civil war of the Tory party, and of course the stark revelations about gross social-economic- cultural inequality that exists in the UK.

The only safe thing to say is that this referendum has shook the political landscape to its core, and is in all likelihood going to define the terms of political engagement for at least the next decade.

So rather than repeat less eloquently what you’ll have read elsewhere, I’m going to fall back on the amateur journalist’s key weapon, anecdote. But particularly from my albeit rather privileged location of Kentish Town, London. Where I have experienced first hand two central concerns I’ve had with this campaign, poor political discussion and incapacity of the left.

One of my central frustrations with this campaign has been the pedalling of mis-information. As I wrote in a previous article on here, democracy is great but it rests on the voters being well informed, and having space to deliberate the different decisions. As the campaign went on I was increasingly convinced that this was not happening. Be it the blunt associations that the Leave campaign made between the £350m sent to the EU and the NHS, or the projections put out by the Treasury of economic Armageddon in 17-years time. I do not blame the electorate for feeling they didn’t know what the facts were.

This was bought into sharp relief for me this afternoon as I went for a swim. In the pool I couldn’t help but overhear two fellow simmers discussing the referendum. I quickly realised that they were in support of Brexit. From what I could hear they were mainly concerned about migrants coming to the UK to claim benefits, inevitable because apparently their countries ‘have no water or nothing’ and we are too generous in putting them up in council housing ‘straightaway’. The prejudice aside, it was clear what a vote for leaving the EU was based on – little more than gut instinct and tabloid headlines.

It is impossible to say what the reasons of the 52% were for voting leave, but I think it would be fair to suggest that not many would pass http://www.fullfact.org without substantial critique.

The fact that such a site is needed to comment on what politicians say in their speeches should in and of itself give pause for thought at the kind of political discourse we have in this country.

I am fed up of reading liberal political commentators say that the people have spoken –that’s democracy. Yes, but there are many shades of democracy, and democracy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Democracy happens within socio-economic structures, relies on access to information, space to discuss and debate, as well as how people engage with institutions.

If I wasn’t so tired and downhearted after the last four days, I might be able to rouse enough energy to write a hyperbolic piece on this being the least democratic exercise in democracy ever undertaken in this country.

My second anecdote comes from an event I attended on Saturday, Reclaim Our Spaces, organised by Just Space and The Spark. It was the coming together of community groups who are interested in improving the social, economic, and spatial equality of London. It was a heart-warming day, just what the post-Brexit blues demanded. There was lots of very earnest discussion about what local communities can do to improve their stake in the city.

However, much of the discussion centred around the need to ‘do something’. Quite often before accelerating into abstract terminology about the need for ‘communities’ to ‘communicate’ and ‘network’ and ‘come together’ and ‘fight back’ and any other number of positive sounding buzzwords.

Which bought it home to me. For many social justice campaigners on the left, discussion does now happen at an abstract level. If this referendum proves nothing else, it is that there is a deep gulf between the lefty-commentariat, and the working class of the UK.

Between those that enjoy the cultural benefits of globalisation, and those that don’t. This rift is articulating itself in the current tussle over the future of the Labour party – offend young Labour supporters that tend to fully back migration; or attempt to engage with the disaffected working class who don’t?

I struggle to see how this rift can be overcome.

Just as Thatcher managed to articulate the central tenants of neoliberalism into electable sentiments about the need for the market, which eventually manifested itself as the ‘there is no alternative’ message. So too does the left need to consider what its message to the general population is, and more than that, what those policies would look like.

At the same time, the people that say we need to ‘do something’, need to actually ‘do something’. If I’d spent as much energy over the last weekend pro-active in my local community (volunteering, joining my local political party, writing to MPs or councillors), as I have been on Twitter, then nothing would have changed – but it would have been marginally closer to changing (now that’s a political slogan to get behind – marginal change now!).

After this weekend I am left downhearted, frustrated, and scared for the future of the UK.

For the first time since I have become politically aware, I feel as if the country has actively chosen to become less tolerant. I have never felt so detached from the majority of the country.

But more than that I do not know what to do about it. There is so much systemic change that needs to occur to improve political discussion. From education, through the media, to the functioning of Westminster. At the moment I struggle to see a sliver lining.

This was very much written at the end of a long weekend – without any of the alcohol, but all of the headache. You dear reader know more than I do at this stage, and I hope things do not look quite as bleak from the other side.

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