Britain after the EU Referendum: So Who Are ‘We’ Now?

[This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on the seismic events triggered by the EU Referendum result. This is my attempt to take a step back and take a broader look at what’s happening.]

The most fundamental question in politics – that comes before “how are we to live together and govern ourselves?” – is “who is the ‘we’ that will live together in this polity?”. 

I do not believe, with Rousseau, that humans were originally noble, isolated, individuals who come together in a ‘social contract’. Nor do I agree with Hobbes that we were likewise isolated, but ignoble, individuals and needed ‘Leviathan’ (government) to force us to live together in some sort of order.

We are a social species – we have always lived together in groups much larger than our immediate family. As Peter Singer so memorably puts it, “we were social before we were human”.

The question is not then ‘should we live together’ but first and foremost who is the ‘we’. Any study of our nearest primate cousins notes first and foremost that who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the group is fundamental (and more fluid than we might think).

The outcome of the UK EU Referendum suggests that the consensus of who ‘we’ are on these islands is now deeply fractured, perhaps irreversibly. There are several, incompatible, sense of who ‘we’ are in competition with one another.

Let’s start with Scotland. We all knew that 45% of Scots had voted to leave our current ‘we’ – the United Kingdom. We also knew that a good portion of the 55% who voted to stay did so to guarantee remaining not just part of the UK, but of the wider European Union. We knew a majority were likely to vote ‘remain’ and if there was an overall ‘leave’ vote it would be driven by the English (and as it turns out the Welsh too).

The consequence of all this is all too obvious. Scotland will leave the UK, probably securing a vote to leave before the UK has finished exiting from the EU.

And yet this consequence – this absolutely obvious result – barely flickered in the debates about ‘remain’ or ‘leave’. Neither side took it seriously. It was as if the English said ‘we don’t really care what Scotland thinks, or whether they stay or go, and we’re not even going to talk about it.’ In a sense the English were redefining ‘Britain’ as simply England (with maybe the Welsh tacked on).

Some might argue it was always thus. Maybe, implicitly, but today we know for sure the majority of the English couldn’t give a toss about the Scots remaining in the UK. When the Scots do leave no-one should be in the least surprised.

I will leave aside Northern Ireland for the moment but just note: the problem of the Border, or the peace settlement, was almost totally ignored by all sides. Since Friday there has apparently been a rush of Northern Irish citizens – Catholics and Protestants – to apply for Irish passports. Like Scotland, the ‘we’ is changing.

If Scotland was the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ in the referendum campaign ‘immigration’ was the dog that snarled, howled and bit like a rabid pooch on steroids.

We have been told for years by the right-wing media, the Tory Party, and others on the more extreme fringes that ‘we’ are being ‘swamped’ by ‘swarms’ of migrants. True, it wasn’t always the EU – the Irish, Afro-Caribbean’s, and Asians were all the target of this bile before it was turned on the Poles and Romanian’s, and Turks (who aren’t even coming).

The (dark) genius of Nigel Farage has been to link immigration and the EU in the public mind: all our problems are caused by immigration; the EU lets it happen; let’s leave and “take our country back” – from the EU bureaucrats and the migrants down the road. It seeks to redefine our ‘we’ in very unpleasant directions. No-one can be sure how far the new ‘we’ will go in redefining ‘us’ – and ‘them’.

Of course migration is a net benefit to ‘us’, but that is ‘as a whole’ and ‘on balance’ – there are benefits and disbenefits and the latter are real and not just the fantasies of racists. Migration has been unevenly distributed – geographically, and in the labour market – and governments have generally failed to address issues where there have been ‘pinch points’ rather than just having ‘one size fits all’ policies.

Most of the progressive left-of-centre have dismissed any talk of problems due to migration as racist – e.g. Gordon Brown and the famous Mrs Duffy incident. Labour’s current leader barely mentions migration and blames all our ills on austerity and inequality.

All this has allowed UKIP and other forces to become the champions of ‘taking our country back’ where the ‘our’ bit is crucial. It has mobilized a large reservoir of nativist feeling that wants to go back to pre-mass migration Britain, nay England.

Britain has been moving on balance towards being more diverse, tolerant, and accepting of ‘the other’ – but again this has always been ‘on balance’. Whilst some parts – London, Scotland, other large cities like Manchester – have become more accepting of a more diverse ‘we’ large swathes of the country have not.

Many of us (mea culpa) thought that the British ‘we’ was at last becoming less insular from our European neighbours. Two million Brits live – working or in retirement – in other European countries. Millions more holiday there regularly. Being in the EU had steadily slipped down people’s list of concerns.

What the referendum has revealed – above all – is that the people living on these islands (Britain and Ireland) do not have as strong a sense of a shared political identity as we thought. When we watched the London Olympics opening ceremony many a teary eye thought we did. Many of us still do. Fifty two percent may be a bare majority, but it is not everyone by any means. But today the Olympics opening ceremony feels like an eon ago.

That past really was a different country, or at any rate feels like it today.

3 thoughts on “Britain after the EU Referendum: So Who Are ‘We’ Now?

  1. I look forward to reading this series of posts, and especially the coming one on Northern Ireland (which to my mind is the most worrying and least thought about consequence of Brexit). The critical border issue aside, the fragile peace engendered by the Good Friday Agreement HAS to change, and in one of three foreseeable ways: 1) a united Ireland (pissing off the Protestant Loyalists); 2) ‘Brexiting’ with England (pissing off the Republicans); or 3) independence from both (pissing off both the Republicans and the Protestant Loyalists). I’m certainly not a constitutional scholar, but I can’t see how this can end well for Northern Ireland. And if tensions are rekindled, we only have ourselves to blame.

  2. The problem, it seems to me, is that what we are seeing is the culmination of a long process of “rehabilitation” of the English white working class identity, together with the insular knee-jerk patriotic values that go along with the identity politics. Having grown up in the 1960s and early 70s in the East End of London, my childhood was full of that particular identity. The politics is sentimental about a certain image of the past, largely built out of the legend of the Blitz Spirit, but also created around a deference for the monarchy and military service, despite how much white working class men moaned about National Service while doing it, in hindsight many of them seem to have decided it was a good thing to inflict upon their own children. I’ve lost count of the number of times my mum used to trot out that “when I was a kid we never had to lock our doors” nonsense and used to talk happily about the local bobby giving bad kids a clip round the ear. It was a hugely deferential worldview, the Queen at the top and “real toffs” running things, fondly imagining that there was some bizarre bond between the toffs and the workers, with the middle classes being obstructive and exclusionist in the middle. Of course, it was all rubbish, but people believed it.

    In the 70s, that world started to break down, helped by the social changes of the 60s, which were either good or bad depending on your age and level of education. Unfortunately, the complexity of modern life, with the requirement for a more educated and flexible work force has led to a yearning for these simpler times, including the casual racism, misogyny and homophobia which were deeply embedded into everyday life.

    Me, I was lucky to become educated and I fled the East End as soon as I could, and I’ve never wanted to get dragged back to it. Unfortunately, we appear to be heading for a bizarre reinvention of “Passport To Pimlico” life that is being spread across the entire country.

  3. I’d be curious to see figures on how British citizens who were born overseas voted. A picture is often painted of the “we” you refer to as white English, but I come from a community of Indian migrants who overwhelmingly voted leave, and also know families of migrants from Poland who voted leave. In discussions we’ve had they generally see the problem as the EU, not Europeans, and see British values and political sovereignty as cultural assets that unite people who choose to live here, rather than seeing EU political systems or potential global governance as the only way to bring diversity together.

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