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Make-Believe and Make-Do: Britain’s Brexit Fantasy

Put on your rose-tinted spectacles.

By Paul Townsend on Flickr. Shared under (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Well, we have gotten ourselves into a terrible mess over Brexit. The Conservative Party were refusing to release a series of technical notices on the impact of Brexit this week for fear of scaring the voters. This is after we’ve begun stockpiling food and medicines, numerous businesses have quit the UK, and we might need to get the Army in to deliver emergency food parcels (and that’s not even the half of it).

But in spite of the impending doom, a worrying number of people are really enthusiastic about it. Aside from Conservatives with not-so-hidden agendas, there are plenty of ordinary British folk that are absolutely thrilled with the idea of Brexit. In terms of defining them as a distinct category, that’s tricky. While we might want to believe it’s down to education, or age, or ethnicity, the reality is that a decent chunk of the electorate voted for this shitshow, and they can’t all be uneducated middle-aged racists.

Although watching BBC Question Time could have you believing otherwise.

It would be tempting to dissect the reasons why people voted in the way they did, and look for patterns, but this is one question that won’t yield a great deal of insight. There are some logical reasons to reconsider our position in the EU (although none of them are particularly compelling), yet none of these are given as reasons for having voted to leave.

Instead we receive vague musings about “taking back control” and “reclaiming our sovereignty”. That may sound like a stereotype, but it’s one step removed from saying “we get to make our own laws now “ (we already do), and “we’re not part of Europe anymore” (geographers would disagree). These are both variations on recurring themes I keep hearing.

Contrary to popular opinion, we do get a say in EU law — there’s nothing sinister about this process. Via Simple Politics.

I’m not sure who they think we’re taking back control from, or what they think happened to our sovereignty, but it’s clear that most British people, and especially those who voted to leave, don’t know how the EU makes laws or what the EU is even for. There is a deeply held suspicion of the EU and “Europe” that seems to be based on little more than hearsay.

None of this anti-EU sentiment has anything to do with the problems of the Common Agricultural Policy, or the EU’s ineffectiveness at quashing right-wing nationalism in Hungary and Poland. These are both serious shortcomings of the EU, and yet you’ll never hear those brought up as reasons to renegotiate terms. In any case the best way to change the EU is from within, something that we seem to have opted out of.

One truth is that the British have been lied to — not just during the tainted EU referendum campaign, but for the last 40 years — barring the time that John Major was in office in the 1990s. The question of EU membership, which is objectively beneficial to the UK in all areas from the economy to health to education, has been a cause of internal strife within the Conservative Party ever since Winston Churchill signed the Treaty of London in 1949.

That’s right: the Brexiteers hero was Pro-EU. Read this speech he gave at the University of Zurich in which he calls for the founding of a “United States of Europe”:

The British press give a distorted view of what the EU is all about, even the more moderate publications. There is not a single explicitly pro-European mainstream newspaper in the UK. Whereas EU membership is a way of life for most Member States, in the UK it is seen as an imposition upon us, restricting our freedom and dictating what we can and can’t do. Opposition to the concept of the EU or that ominous monolith “Europe” is so great that we consider basic safety regulations and rules on pollution levels and worker’s rights to be “interference from Brussels” or “The Nanny State”.

This is a list of “Euromyths” seen in the British press. This website is held by the European Commission, who evidently find it hilarious that the British believe this stuff. You can even give a rating for how fantastical each claim is!

So that was the background to the public opinion that led to a “Leave” vote, but there’s another question to be answered: why did we even have a referendum in the first place? Everyone in power, and anyone who actually pays attention to the workings of government, society and the economy, knew that leaving the EU would be a total disaster for Britain. It would be like turning the clock back several decades (this is going to be relevant later). But we had a vote on it anyway.

David Cameron’s Brexit Blunder

David Cameron made a promise during his time in opposition that were he elected as Prime Minister, he would hold a referendum on EU membership. In the run-up to the 2011 general election, this promise was included in the Conservative Party manifesto — although Cameron would not act on it until after he was elected for a second term. He attempted to deflect the issue by introducing the 2011 European Union Act, which sought to limit any further transfer of powers to the European Union without a public referendum — making further British integration impossibly bureaucratic.

But still this was not enough to appease the troublesome and rather vocal Eurosceptics in his party. Cameron needed to silence them, as they were distracting public and media attention from the policy issues that he wanted to tackle with what he saw as a trivial matter. And so he called their bluff, holding a referendum that he thought the public would never be stupid enough to pass. Wrong.

None of my circle of friends thought that the electorate would vote the way they did — because they could not imagine the strength of feeling, and the number of people who felt this way, about the EU being the root of all their problems. If we query what the pro-Brexit voters actually want, it doesn’t have much to do with the EU. But for them, it’s a symbol of everything they hate about modern Britain.

Picture Postcard Britain

I grew up in a rural village in the South-East of England, extremely white, and extremely twee. It’s the kind of place where it’s like stepping back 70 years, where everyone drinks ginger pop and plays conkers on the village green. The type of place where casual racism and the village knitting circle are part of the wallpaper. Awful political opinions and a persecution complex are a pre-requisite to moving in. It’s the holiday camp for white people who think they’re discriminated against because they no longer sell golliwogs in the local toy shop.

And I have worked with middle managers who believe the EU is a threat to their very existence, as a symbol of community and cooperation, when they’ve been brought up on hard knocks and grit, survival of the fittest and all that. Their strongly-held belief in a true meritocracy, where straight white men rise to the top, as is the natural order. Anything else would be “Political Correctness Gone Mad”. They think the EU is “controlling” them, preventing them from doing some unspecified thing that’s important for business or conservative values. Too much “red tape”, the inconvenience that ensures we no longer die in horrendous industrial accidents or end up working 12-hour days with no break.

To these people, the EU represents change, multiculturalism, and acceptance of people and ideas they don’t like. They want to take Britain back to the 1950s, a time that very few of them have lived through, but holds mythical status as a golden age when you could leave your front door unlocked at night and brown people hadn’t been invented yet. The whole idea is silly, and millions of people believe in it.

Political conversations with my family do not go well. They subscribe to media that terrifies them into believing that the French are going to invade us through the Channel Tunnel, and that they’ll be arrested if they ask for a half pound of Wensleydale instead of 227 grams. The nonsense they are fed by the right-wing press is incredible and downright offensive, but they consider any evidence to the contrary to be “indoctrination” (yes, I know).

All of this sounds ridiculous, but this is how people think. And there are a lot of them. I thought beforehand that we would vote to leave, but my fellow metropolitan elites thought I was deluded. Unlike many of my associates, I have experienced life outside of the progressive urban bubble.

The Blitz Spirit

Something that marks Britain out as different to other EU nations, and as being really fucking weird, is our reminiscence about WWII. It’s possible that it’s because it’s the last thing we’ve actually won, aside from the World Cup in 1966. The British are desperate for something to be proud of, to claim as their own, and apparently we’ve got it too cushy in 2018 and we should romanticise wartime Britain as something to emulate.

There’s an idea that Britain was going it alone, against the spectre of “Europe” (not the Third Reich, or the evils of Nazism, but “Europe”), and survived the ordeal because of the “Blitz Spirit” where everyone helped their neighbours out, darned their own socks, and lived off of cabbage and dog food for 6 years. This idea is so prominent in our national consciousness, you’d think it was genetic. But there are few Britons still alive that even remember what the Second World War was like — our vision of this legendary era is just that: a legend.

You know what? Britain did survive against difficult odds, and through appalling conditions. There’s good reason to believe that our collective resolve was an important factor in us not surrendering and toughing it out for an extended period of time. But that was a last resort, not the model of perfect living. Those who think it was all sing-songs round the piano haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. Britain was devastated by war: we took on painful levels of debt, we couldn’t feed or house the population adequately, and much of our infrastructure had to be rebuilt from scratch.

Who would want that? Well, the kind of people that love a crisis. The kind of people who think it’s all jolly good fun until it’s their family at risk, their children who can’t have dinner today, let alone the latest games console or pair of trainers. The Blitz Spirit combined with the fantasy of going our own way and maintaining our “independence” has imbued a feeling of invincibility among swathes of the British public. And we’re about to find out that we’re mere mortals, just like everybody else.

Weaponising Wartime

One of the sadder aspects of the media manipulation we’ve been subjected to is the portrayal of the EU as our enemy, overturning what our grandparents fought for in WWII. The animosity towards Eastern Europeans whipped up by UKIP and their allies contributed to this hypocritical attack on both the EU and our older generation — residents of those nations were our allies during the war, and many arrived here as refugees. In recent years they have been depicted as a swarm of migrants coming over here to take our jobs and claim benefits. Turning the elderly against those they fought to liberate in WWII is disgusting.

This is one of UKIP’s adverts, remniscent of 1930s Nazi propaganda.

The misplaced pride in our wartime resilience has been used to stoke up anger and fear by threatening the notion of Britain as a strong, independent force. There are people still living that remember the dying days of the British Empire, and many still cling to that. Some of them have passed down their glory in what we once were to newer generations, so that they reminisce over an era that they’ve never experienced. Progress and the march of time have brought an end to Britain’s tenure as rulers of the world, and so those concepts are in themselves threats to the fantasy that the UK is still a conquering power.

In continental Europe, this attitude is seen as bizarre. I used to feel this way, when I was surrounded by others making these arguments. I had nothing else to go on, and undoubtedly this contributes to the robustness of the pockets of anti-EU sentiment all over the UK. It’s everywhere — growing up I remember when there was any political disagreement with a European nation (especially Germany), or if there was football on, the tabloid media would churn out the WWII imagery and it would be lapped up enthusiastically. We focus so heavily on commemorating our wartime past that we can’t look to the future — but as the victors we don’t have to. Many European countries not only had to rebuild their cities, but their national identity. Rejecting the values their countries adopted during the war was essential for peace and cohesion, but the British never had to do this. And so we’ve been allowed to retain the identity we had as a nation since 1939.

The EU as an institution is seen as a hostile takeover of the UK akin to Nazi Germany. I hear things like “my grandad fought in the war to stop the Germans coming over here” and I’m dismayed — I know how common this attitude is, and it’s easy to see why. In conservative White areas, their identity as British through-and-through feels threatened by closer European integration — even though this is more likely to preserve their safety and identity than cutting off ties to the EU.

Modern European countries do of course retain some elements of their pre-war national identities, but the way of living and governing on the continent seems alienating and too progressive to a nation that has never had cause to question its own identity. Irrespective of the genuine political machinations behind it, the image of the EU we are sold is one of modernisation and of doing away with the familiar, good old British way of things. Personally, I wish we could drag ourselves out of the 1940s and into the 21st Century.

Make-Do and Muddle Through

Our insistence that good old British resolve can get us through anything has really made a comeback since Brexit impact studies started being discussed a few weeks ago. In the face of poverty, mass unemployment, lack of food and medicine, and the shutdown of our transport network, we insist that we’ll be just fine.

We did it in the war; we’ll just grow our own food! We’ll have to stock up on medicine, sure, but it won’t be for long! Getting the Army to deliver vital supplies? It’ll be just like Ocado! Stop talking Britain down — Brexit will be a roaring success, you’ll see!

No amount of facts or reasoning can convince the Brexiteers otherwise — this is not a time of national turmoil to them, it’s part of their identity. They’ve convinced themselves that Britain can do it, and they need to be right — not just to comfort their egos, but to reassure them that they’re not going to starve to death or die of something preventable because they believed a slogan on the side of a bus. Their reliance on old-fashioned ideals about a nation that no longer exists in the same form is a self-defence mechanism, an article of faith they can fall back on when questioned on why exactly they voted to leave a political union that was serving us just fine.

There’s also an element of conspiracy theory about it — that the EU is made up of secretive elites telling us what to do, and they don’t want us to have our freedom. A lot of this is related to theories about bendy bananas and how awful it is we can’t be racist in public anymore. The Brexit vote gave the true believers a means to “take back control”, although what they think we’ll do with it is unclear. It sounds silly, and it is. But conspiracy theories tend to be picked up by those who feel hard done by — and Brexiteers sure think they are the oppressed ones.

The rest of us could stop staring in bewilderment and face up to the real reasons people voted for this. It’s not a rational choice, but a decision made with the heart. For many British people, they don’t “feel” European, and they’ve been drip-fed messages that to be European is a bad thing. This is a matter of identity, not politics. Yes, there are many people who’d happily sacrifice their quality of life and security for a blue passport. And it’s because that’s so ridiculous that we need to pay attention to it — what other horrors will be revealed as “the will of the people”?

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