What are the sociological meanings of last week’s Brexit vote? Before Thursday’s vote I am not sure anybody would have imagined that the referendum over the UK’s membership of the EU would have opened up, or rather made painfully explicit such massive social and political fault lines in British society. Although we knew British society was beset by division, most sociologists would not have recognised the level or extent of division revealed by the referendum result. After Thursday, it is clear that we are living in a Disunited Kingdom. British society is broken and we are living through chaotic times, so much so that it is hard to write this piece and keep up with the pace of events. Practically speaking we have no Prime Minister, since David Cameron is waiting for the Conservatives to find his replacement, and the Labour Party is in a state of complete collapse. Meantime the markets continue to tumble, the leader of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, seems oblivious to the chaos he has unleashed, and Nigel Farage thinks his partners in crime are looking for any way to escape the consequences of the political vandalism they have encouraged in the population. Farage cannot entertain compromise. In his view Britain must play out the full, suicidal, consequences of last week’s decision. Finally, the Germans, French, and Italians have explained that there will be no easy withdrawal from the EU for the UK. In much the same way that they threatened the Greeks with a post-EU / post-Euro black hole, they want to force the British to realise the catastrophic consequences of their decision – there will be no easy way out, no measured withdrawal. Instead they want the UK to invoke Article 50, watch capital flight, and manage economic collapse.
This is where we are now. But what is it that led to this situation? What opened up the radical divisions in British society and how were these articulated around the decision to remain or leave the EU? First, consider geography and geographical division. While London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were solidly in favour of remain, England and Wales clearly voted to leave. Second, the EU result also revealed very clear generational differences of opinion. The young wanted to remain, whereas older people, particularly those over 65, clearly wanted out of the European project. Finally, differences by class were also apparent. While the university educated, who tend to be positioned in the middle classes, wanted to stay in the EU, those without university education, tended to want Brexit. What, then, can we take from these divisions? How can we understand them? In terms of the geographical divisions, it seems to me that the pro-European position of London is easy to understand in terms of first, its multiculturalism, which makes it easier for Londoners to think in terms of European integration, and second, through its privileged position in the British economy that derives from its capital city status. While the pro-European position of London may relate back to its more central situation vis-à-vis the European and beyond this global project, it seems that the Scottish and Northern Irish have somehow been able to continue to think of themselves as European. Perhaps this is because they have never really been able to identify with the more exclusive project of English conservatism, where this refers to conservatism with both a small and capital c. This, I would argue, is the root of the English problem with Europe.
What, then, is conservatism? Although Conservatism is a political tradition with a long history dating back to at least the mid-19th century, I think everyday conservatism is a very different beast. On the one hand, this mode of conservatism relates to the little, or middle, Englanders from the old upper and middle classes who orient their identity around mythologies of England’s green and pleasant lands and situate themselves in relation to a vision of some utopian past that has no place for foreigners. These are the people who metropolitan Conservatives once spoke about in terms of ‘swivel eyed loonies’ who might defect to UKIP and destroy the party’s neoliberal project precisely because their concern with nation trumps their economic common sense. Where foreigners are present in this vision, they are imperial subjects; those subordinate others who put the great into Great Britain in the early modern past. While these conservatives, who would probably vote Conservative in elections, though they may also opt for a more nationalist alternative, such as UKIP, rely on what the late Benedict Anderson would have called the imagined community of English identity, what the referendum result has revealed is that such Conservatives have a curious affinity with the core Labour vote, the old white working classes, on the basis of the latter’s destruction under conditions of Thatcherite / Blairite neoliberalism.
The conservatism of the old working classes, therefore, derives from the destruction of their way of life in the era of neoliberal economy and government instigated by Thatcher and advanced by Blair, Brown, and then Cameron. For the old working classes, who saw their lives progressively destroyed from the 1970s through to the present, the project of European integration has come to represent the age of neoliberalism, the age of globalisation, which has seen them left behind and transformed into a kind of lumpenproletariat without clear identity or obvious future. No wonder, then, that the old working classes in places such as my old home town, Hull, and my new home, North Staffordshire, have found it easy to identify with the imaginary landscape of the British future past mythologized by the Leave campaign. They have nothing else, they have no other future, but one that represents the return to a mythological past, which is precisely also the mythology of the old English middle and upper classes. How else could Boris Johnson, a classic stereotypical upper class toff, the almost cartoonish representative of the English Oxbridge elites, have such wide appeal across the old English classes? The answer is that Johnson, author of a biography of Churchill, represents the mythological past of the English, a past that will never return, but that 'the destroyed' have voted for in droves because they can envisage no other kind of future. Coincidentally the additional advantage of being unable to imagine the future is that it makes more or less anything possible. When there is no future one becomes free to make unrealistic, irresponsible, decisions on the off chance that it might produce something worthwhile. One becomes free to gamble on vandalism.
Moreover, I think this psycho-sociology of Brexit also explains the generational split between those who wanted to remain and those who very clearly wanted out. Where the young wanted a future, and a future that represented moving forward, and centrally moving beyond their current horizons, which could very easily relate to Europe even in its horrendous neoliberal form that has been particularly unfriendly to the young in Greece, Spain, and Italy, the older generations could see no future in Europe because Europe was identified with the destruction of the past and the ruin of the present. While the European future imagined by the young may be unrealistic, because the fact remains that the EU is a kind of neoliberal super-state with no real interest in equality or social mobility, the future envisaged by those voting leave is equally fantastical and even worse because of its complete lack of definition. The Brexiteers have no real plan, beyond some woozy desire to the return to the past and a simpler world where Britain was great, and their lack of realism is now plain for everybody to see. In this way Leave’s vision of the future is senile – a decrepit utopia built on myths of the past. This future past is a future shorn of the mind bending complexity of globalisation, the uncertainty of markets identified with EU bureaucracy, and the anxiety of the foreigner who looks different, speaks a different language, has a different way of life and so on. It is this complex future, a kind of post-human future, where the little man vanishes before the global super-state, which Leave voters rejected in the name of a fantastical utopia of an English future past. However, it now seems that this will prove impossible to deliver, mainly because Johnson, Gove, and Farage, essentially constructed their own rationale for leaving on the basis of the same kind of mythology of the past that will never return. Unfortunately they never really worked out how it is possible to walk away from European and more broadly global integration.
Akin to the working class man interviewed on the BBC who said that leave meant that ‘he had won his country back’, as if a country is something one can possess, Johnson, Gove, and Farage wanted, and presumably still want, to find a way back to old England. I understand their sentiment. At some point in life we all yearn for a return to the past, the simple days of our childhood, but the problem of the leaders of Leave is that they allowed their unrealistic, fantastical, hopes for a return to the past to cloud their vision, and become a political project without a future. I would argue that this is precisely why the Leave project was and remains so poor on detail and a worked out vision of the future. The whole point of its appeal was that its future was not worked out, was not realistic, was not possible. This meant that potential voters could fill out the empty signifier, leave, with whatever memories of a more simple past they wanted to project into their ideal future. In this respect, Leave, Brexit, escape, was an antidote to the horrible endless present articulated by Remain, a neoliberal age without end, where the best we could hope for was that things would not get very much worse. Given this future, the only way to vote remain was out of painful, cynical, realism or a belief that in a globalised world it is better to work with others and try to improve our situation than turn our backs on our neighbours and strike out on our own. Although the cynic in me responds that this is a vain hope, since the EU is a neoliberal super state, I would prefer vain hope than Leave which is, in my view, not about a social future for everybody, but rather anger, violence, and a will to conflict based in resentment.
Finally, we confront the class division around the Brexit decision. Where the university educated, the progressive middle classes, and the new rich voted to remain within the EU, mainly because they have benefited from the transformations that have taken place under conditions of European integration and more broadly globalisation, the uneducated, the old classes, and old money wanted out because the neoliberal destruction of state sovereignty and the turn towards Europe and wider global markers has done nothing for them. Where the former group could reconcile themselves to the EU project, the latter people have turned their back on connectedness. But in the name of what? There is no answer.
The problem of the referendum, then, is that it confronted the British, and most specifically, the English with an impossible choice, though they were clearly not aware of this problem when they made their way to vote. Many people could see no future in Europe, since Europe represented the destruction of old England, and feared that national sovereignty would be further eroded by a European future embodied in the figure of the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee. While the situation of Greece makes it difficult to argue with the bleak economic conclusion, the alternative, Leave, is simply not possible, because first, one cannot reinvent the past in the future, and second, there is no opt out from inter-connectedness, closer European integration, and globalisation today, because proximity is a technological fact, not a choice where one can simply walk away. The desperate attempt to escape from otherness is, therefore, not only deeply unethical, and representative of a kind of psychological fascism, but also impossible. As such, Leave was always a kind of impossible choice, which the French philosopher Jacques Derrida might have tried to capture through the figure of the strike through –
which shows that a word, gesture, or idea cancels itself upon its very
articulation or realisation.
But what does this mean practically? First, the problem negotiators with the EU now face is how to secure free trade without freedom of movement because, of course, what we want is the benefit of contact with others, without having to actually interact with them in any real sense. While the leaders of Brexit imagine that the idea of controlled immigration will solve the problem, I’m not sure this will not be enough for supporters of Leave, because their social and political imaginary is based on a fantasy of an English past completely free of strange foreigners. In many case these people have little experience of immigration and instead voted for an idea of threatening otherness and a vision of the past free for threat, insecurity, and the anxiety of the foreign. The problem for Leave and whoever follows Cameron is, therefore, that the reality of what they will be able to deliver even in the best case scenario will not be enough for those who voted out. It will not live up to the fantasy of escape from the present into a future past where the little Englanders feel safe, secure, and happy. This is especially the case since the economic effects of leave will probably exacerbate the conditions that led to the desire to escape in the first place – poverty, insecurity, and the lack of the ability to imagine a future. But what will happen when leave fails and economic problems start to stack up?
This is where we confront the real danger of Thursday’s decision. Under conditions of globalisation the foreigner is always there. We cannot wish this situation away. We also cannot escape responsibility for other people, particularly when political choices by successive British governments directly contributed to catastrophic situations such as the one in Syria that has led to the current refugee crisis. This is why, I think, Brexit represents a dangerous fantasy because it suggests there is some way to turn away from others and escape responsibility for international situations. Caught in this bind, where we think we can Brexit and turn away from others but the reality of the global situation means that foreigners are always on our doorstep, the problem of the fantasy of escape is that fear, hatred, and racism become more and more pronounced and the threat of conflict becomes ever more likely. If this happens, the result of the failure of leave and the increasing economic problems that will follow is the rise of an ever more virulent form of xenophobic nationalism. This is fascism and my fear is that we have taken the first step on the road towards a very British version of this political imaginary. The additional problem is that this will not happen today or tomorrow, but represent a very slow process – a very gradual, but inexorable drift towards the extreme right that normalises itself in the process of its formation. I could write page after page about how we should oppose this, but my thinking basically boils down to a very simple ethical position - we cannot allow this to happen.