By Dani Porter
As many others are likely feeling right now, I am stunned. I barely have the words, or perhaps too many words, to know where to start on this very bleak, dispiriting day. There is much I could say on how I feel this is a terrible decision for the UK electorate to have (marginally majority) voted for, and on the very real and understandable fear over what it might mean for our futures – our financial security, our freedom of movement, our (dis)unity and our communities. I too am sad, reeling, dejected, angry. Really angry, actually. But this has led me not just to look outwards, but also reflectively.
I remember discussing the potential rise of the right within the working classes with a friend of mine several years ago. Intelligent, grammar school-educated, distinctly middle class, he didn’t agree with my views, nor with my protestation that he didn’t understand because it wasn’t his background so he couldn’t see it. It was my background. And I could. There is a growing dissatisfaction and a blame culture as a consequence, I was trying to explain. That wealthier elites prey on this and encourage the working classes to loathe someone ‘beneath’ themselves, leading to effective and self-regulating scapegoating. My feelings about this have deepened over the years, while simultaneously becoming a more urgent conversation, notably brought to the fore by Owen Jones’s book Chavs: The demonization of the working class. You know the argument, it’s a now familiar one: first welfare scroungers to point the finger at and then immigrants – target groups, basically, for the disaffected to level their frustration at. It’s a tactic which has served Conservative and Leave campaign politicians well.
Now, I know the referendum wasn’t simply and neatly divided by class, and that people across all socio-economic demographics will have voted to leave (and likewise remain), however to ignore that class is a factor is naïve, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us feel. The leave campaign ran from a fear-based, ‘othering’ rhetoric, clinging on to abstract concepts of sovereignty, maintaining ‘Great’ British values and of getting ‘our country back’. Of course, in order for that to be successful there had to be a feeling there was something missing within our great land. And there were things, are things. Financial security, lack of or unstable jobs, a weakening NHS, and so on. Problems more keenly felt by those within lower socio-economic groups. Never mind the reasons for those were firstly a global recession kick-started by greedy financiers, and second an axe-wielding Conservative (outright or coalition) government, the leave camp relied on the above tactics to scare sufficient numbers in to believing taking back ‘control’ from the EU would minimise immigration numbers, claw back money from ‘others’ and therefore solve the (supposedly) resultant financial and social ills.
I’ve spent swathes of my adult life bemoaning (honestly, to whoever would listen, sometimes to those who wouldn’t) this political and cultural trickery, a result of which has been this tawdry referendum. Importantly, I did so with a spirit of, if not quite empathy, sympathy for those being tricked. I didn’t blame those getting sucked in by it – the puppeteers were sections of an educated political elite with a rampant, powerful media behind it, after all. Growing up working class, poor, in the South East (the geography of which I think is relevant) during the eighties, I was a proper Thatcher’s child and so were my peers. We really did buy in to the myth of meritocracy. It even seemed to work for me, though let me tell you a working class graduate will, in the main, have a different experience than will a middle class graduate – I promise you. So when someone says ‘it’s not you, it’s those over there who are hampering your Life Chances, go get ‘em’ you start to see how that might become very tempting, and why it might deafen those listening to the reality of ‘actually, it’s us! It’s always been us!’
As I sit here now however, behind puffy and disbelieving eyes, I am finding it hard to maintain my levels of sympathy. Perhaps, after some sleep, the initial feeling of shock abated, this will return. I hope it does. But for now, I am struggling. Yes, I believe that so many have been masterfully swept up in to a xenophobic fervour by manipulative, self-serving politicians and media outlets but, however strong that message, however forceful, however vulnerable those receiving it are, could at least some not have paused for a moment and questioned whether their choices really were about the NHS being over-stretched or EU legislation actually impeding their day-to-day lives, or whether it was actually tugging a little bit on some racist heartstrings? And say to themselves – do you know what? Maybe this is being a little bit racist. And perhaps those who disagree should be calling this out?
I don’t like xenophobia or racism and I especially dislike it when it breaks this island away from what I see as an imperfect but nonetheless safeguarding European Union. Criticism of the left is sometimes that it’s too soft, too cushdy and woolly – don’t blame anyone, everyone has x reason for being a bastard about x… Maybe some of that criticism is fair, maybe the left are too nice? Perhaps left rhetoric would have got further if we were the bullish ones like the right? Maybe my understanding is too understanding. Perhaps if myself and others had stood up to it a bit more we’d have woken up to a different result this morning.
Or is that just giving in, hypocritically jumping in to the vicious ring that is the politics of hate? I don’t know. I hope to wake up tomorrow feeling more positive, if not about this now-marooned island then about humanity more generally. I hope. There is, there is always, hope.