March of the Brexiteers

In these days after Brexit, the Daily Express is an interesting universe in which to while away some time. In amongst the jingoistic claptrap that passes for journalism in this august publication, these are a few of the reader’s comments on a story published recently about the EU funding a refugee centre in Turkey to take some of the migrants from Syria.

“I notice they (the EU) are doing this now, before we do a runner, so they can still get our contribution. I don’t trust them.”

“I think the UK would be better advised to spend the money on ammunition tbh.”

”It would cost a lot less just to sent the blooming lot back. No money for smugglers. No economic refugees.”

“Turkey has NEVER BEEN PART OF EUROPE, and never will be. “Do not let the enemy into the camp”.”

It would be easy to dismiss these outpourings as the ravings of a minority and move quickly on, but this is the Daily Express, a large circulation lower middle class tabloid with conservative leanings. Not generally as ugly as the Daily Mail and not as well informed as the Daily Telegraph. The voice of suburbia maybe. Midsomer Murders and Hyacinth Bouquet.

Which brings me to Ironbridge, a world heritage site in Shropshire, a hamlet that came into its own in the industrial revolution, boasting the world’s first Iron Bridge. During the week it’s a tranquil oasis, the occasional bemused tourist wandering the street by the river, looking for morris dancers. Ironbridge is a half mile away from Telford, a town that was built to take the overspill from Birmingham in the 1970s absorbing the villages of Madeley and Wellington, turning prime agricultural land into a warren of housing estates and retail parks. Telford is a town that voted for Brexit, triumphantly led in that direction by its Tory MP, Lucy Allen; a woman whose sage and considered advice to a constituent asking for facts and clarity in the run up to the vote was “go with your gut, vote LEAVE!”.

At the weekend, Ironbridge becomes noticeably busier, the cafes and restaurants full, the Gorge museum packed and nearby replica Victorian Town Blists Hill doing great business. I’ve lived here for two and a half years now and I’ve noticed something that disturbs me. The crowds at the weekend used to be fairly mixed, white people, black people, old people, coach parties, japanese tourists, asian families, photographers, cyclists, bikers, hill walkers and real ale enthusiasts. If not exactly cosmopolitan, it seemed modern, a place typifying liberal England.

Then something changed. I first noticed it a couple of weeks ago, the makeup of the crowds was subtly different — louder, more aggressive, whiter. The union jacks hung from the shops on the high street to commemorate the Battle of the Somme seemed to take on a new, more sinister aspect — it dawned on me slowly, these were the brexiteers and they were making their presence felt, just as they do on the comments page of the Daily Express.

I started listening more carefully to conversations in the supermarket and cafes — and sure enough, there was a continuous undercurrent of Brexit. People looking for kindred spirits and once finding them, opening the floodgates. Brexit and in particular the words of Nigel Farage, have brought into the mainstream things that people probably thought but didn’t dare to vocalise. And it seems as though this “getting back control” thing doesn’t just apply to our borders, but also to thoughts and words — the brexiteers feel that they have been repressed not only, or perhaps not even by “european regulations” but by middle class political correctness. Now they feel its their turn. There is an outpouring of bile. And its not pretty.

Most people in Telford are not white racists just as not everybody in Islington is a champagne sipping socialist. There are some good people and then there are people who don’t need very much encouragement to become loudly, belligerently unpleasant. But, and right now it’s a very big but, we’re seeing it in America with Donald Trump, we’re seeing it in France with Marine le Pen and here in the UK with the rise of UKIP and the right wing of the Conservative Party, there is a wave of right wing demagogues who are cynically tapping into the hitherto inarticulate rage that fills a segment of society for whom things have just not improved in the last decade. They are doing this in the pursuit of power for powers sake.

The Brexit campaign was just the latest and the most blatant in a string of campaigns conducted in the UK without any regard for content at all. Sloganeering that was as vacuous as it was powerful. For the record the people of the UK voted by a margin of 52% to 48% or just over 1/3 of the total eligible population, to “Take back control, revive democracy, stop immigration and put the money we spend on the EU into the NHS”. The fact that we now have an unelected prime minister negotiating a deal with the EU that will almost certainly deliver no change in immigration is an irony that appears to have escaped the Brexiteers. Because they won. Because for the first time in their lives they have a voice.

As a middle class white liberal I feel that things are moving just a little too fast. That the reality we thought we had just a couple of weeks ago has been replaced with one a lot nastier, one that seems to defy analysis. Events seem connected but its hard to see the connecting strings, like an avant garde novel they are impossible to follow and what appears today to be random, appears tomorrow to have a place in a grander and darker design. The implosion of the Labour Party must be connected to a crowd that gathered in Telford last year urging a student to jump off the top of a multi-storey car park, some going as far as filming the event on their smart phones. The speech by David Cameron from the safety of the commons alleging that the then candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan was an associate of terrorists, similarly connected to the shooting of Jo Cox by a maddened right wing fanatic.

I don’t profess to know any of the answers, but I know that in a world where a globally successful car manufacturer creates a computer program to falsify the noxious emissions data, where global banks are found to be laundering money on behalf of organised crime, where corporate tax avoidance is encouraged by governments engaged in a race to the bottom, where the sixth largest economy in the world boasts the biggest rise in the use of food banks on record, that integrity is a thing of the past. It’s a world where it is deemed necessary to spend billions of pounds on a nuclear deterrent rather than millions on food for those too poor to feed their families in the worlds sixth largest economy.

And my worry is, that in this post truth world, we’re edging closer to something much more malevolent than we know. History has a way of imposing sudden drastic corrections and the kaleidoscopic changes we are living through seem to suggest some such correction is heading this way. In a world separated from truth, anything goes — nobody has told the Brexiteers that they didn’t win, that the only winners will be the politicians and lawyers negotiating the new reality. And I have to wonder what will happen if that penny drops.