No, it’s not been a Brexit election. Why would it be?
I have been trying to write and complete more things this year and a result, started a newsletter. I was really getting into the habit of it, writing about films and culture and life and things and then got out of the swing of it because arrrrghhh politics. I was away with some friends in Wales over Easter (and had even started on that month’s newsletter!), only for the thud of reality to hit that Tuesday morning and the news Theresa May had an announcement to make.
An election. May was very clear that it was about strengthening her hand for Brexit negotiations, and unshackling herself from the tyranny of the makeup of the Commons. I was weary as hell, not least because I’d just moved back from a Scotland that still feels pretty Yes/No. But also because it felt a little cruel. Corbyn and Labour were doing appallingly in the polls, there was the vote of no confidence etc etc.
I voted to remain but had long since grown very tired with the hardcore bunch of Remainers, largely congregated on Twitter, who seemed to share May’s stance on what the next general election should be about. People who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Labour after the whip on Article 50 and were describing themselves as ‘politically homeless’.
Perhaps I’m being harsh but I felt very little sympathy for quite a lot of these people, who interact in similar circles to my own: mainly they went to a Russell Group, a lot Oxbridge, moved to London for work (media, creative industries, comedy, “standard”) and they were heartbroken at the result.
I was gutted too last summer, even before the vote itself: Jo Cox’s killing had a pretty profound effect, not least as it felt as though we were unwilling to learn lessons about stoking up far-right sentiment. The results came in and I could hear an orange march down Maryhill Road that weekend; people were finding neo-Nazi stickers on Glasgow Green. I was ready for a fight, the moment Farage said “This is our independence day”. And when I say fight, I mean fight: at the bus stop by Central Station, two Somali kids, siblings younger than me were talking to each other and I found myself surveying the rest of the people waiting to see if they’d get any trouble for not speaking in English to one another. I caught myself — the white men around us mainly weren’t British/Scottish and as I eased out of worrying about my centre of gravity, preparing what to say clearly and sharply without my voice going small, I remembered that I’d never been called the n-word on the street my whole time living in the city, unlike in London and Cambridge — but I knew rightaway that the trust I’d had in other people was waning. I was worried for myself and for others. Things were bubbling and fermenting in that heat, things we’d all known, all of us who’d been walking while black or brown for years, but I’d grown pessimistic and alert at that point.
(To be clear, I have friends and siblings who voted to Leave, something I think my white middle-class liberal friends get kinda twitched out by, so my beef wasn’t inherently people who had issues with the EU, but rather opportunists being opportunistic)
Obviously, one doesn’t remain in such a tense state permanently and it’s not the same now — I’m my normal, chill, relatable, antagonistic, lightly circumspect self on the street and elsewhere. I was perfectly happy for Labour to vote in accordance with its voters, and the rest of the country, rather than kicking up a ceremonial fuss over Article 50. Sure, it was only an advisory referendum, but what kind of a dick do you have to be to overrule what people wanted, especially if/when those people had felt ignored and sceptical it would even be ‘allowed’ to happen?
‘Politically homeless’: this phrase has been turning over in my mind for months. To wake up in 2017 and speak of political disengagement with a level of new outrage and disappointment I saw felt very odd if you were a self-described lefty/progressive/centre-left w/e. Had the past few years not really happened? It was the Political Twitter equivalent of the ‘can I speak to the manager’ complaint: people with the most marginal concerns bellowing the most loudly. And, of course, being listened to more attentively.
Thing is, we lost. Lost the referendum. The referendum was lost. And it was our fault. But it’s done now and the rest, the rest is within our reach of change (bar freedom of movement, which I think is a conversation worth happening — much of the rest seems to hinge on us having a far higher calibre and number of international trade negotiators than I think we can get in a couple of years). I’ve grown rather cold to the anxieties of the Core Remainers (and I’ve no doubt they are legitimate concerns) but I’m working on it after I complained to my Lib Dem friend about smug people being upset about losing their speedy access to charcuterie. It was a lil too witty, a lil too unfair.
The Smug/Remain af intersection on Twitter is real though and what it represents to me is a level of comfort that I as a middle-class person working in the arts, lived in big/intelligentsia cities (so kinda, core group MetroElite on paper) feel removed from. Demanding Labour vote against the bulk of their constituents felt like Smart People sliiightly wishing the vote counted for a wee bit more than the less informed (not loads, mind, just, idk, maybe 1.08x a regular vote). Some of these Smart People took holidays to Cornwall only to return to London and tell me about how funny/stupid they found it, because they could see all the EU placards stuck around — why were they voting to leave, haha, somewhere that was giving them all that support?
This isn’t the Brexit election some quarters were thinking it would be. But that’s because the same people who didn’t really give a shit how many £ks per average family we’d all lose if we voted Leave (how can I lose money if I haven’t got it?) probably don’t have the same risks as more comfortable folk. Which is to say, if you run a small business that’s doing well, this will hurt you. If you’re struggling for work and have been for the past few years, the threat of another recession is like, obviously not great, but, well, can we at least have decent hospitals or housing? And it’s not just internal-feeling domestic things like education and public sector pay that feels more pressing: at least there feels to be a clear difference between the parties on defence and the like. With Brexit, it feels as though there has to be a relatively same-y deal.
It looks as though we won’t get the decisive landslide the Conservatives had hoped for some seven ish weeks ago. (If May does get a slim majority, I vote we call it the Icarus Parliament; early modern history can’t have all the fun with its Parliament of Saints filled with Praise-God Barebones.) And sure, part of that is down to the poor campaign on Theresa May, Nick Timothy and her inner circle have run, but part of it is because people want tangible policies. Be that taxes or levies or class sizes or wages or renting contracts or personal allowances. Brexit is real, but part of the reason the best that can be said is ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and the like is that it’s just not as a bread and butter as say, housing or immigration or defence. Most people will see dramatic changes in their fortunes and aspirations because of those things, rather than perceiving themselves in relationship to the relative hardness of something that feels pretty inevitable.