Incoherent and chaotic, Brexit and its aftermath is enough to leave anyone feeling politically illiterate.
Brexit was many things. In renewing the value of democratic participation through its relatively high turnout, it was supposed to revitalise the people’s trust in the democratic institutions of this country. But everything that has transpired since is likely to have eroded much of that and left a strong sense of disenfranchisement.
The negotiations are going into a tailspin and the promises that Leave made during the referendum were empty ones, ones based on tapping into a growing anger that stewed and smouldered quietly for years. Theresa May is flanked left, right and centre by those pushing for a hard Brexit, namely Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. However, it would be an exaggeration to say that Remain are the side with ideas.
For a long time many of us convinced ourselves that Leave won because they punched below the belt repeatedly and there was no referee willing to stop it. They lied and wove lies like a spider spinning its webs. They won because they offered change and Remain promised continuity. And continuity was simply not good enough for entire communities for whom globalisation had left an industrial decay and lost sense of communion and belonging.
Constructing post-Brexit politics is almost pointless because it rests on a final outcome which is lurching in different directions. What it needs is a Britain reminding itself that it is a society, and that comes with it rights and responsibilities.
The last eight years have seen austerity driving people into food banks, families living in poverty whilst in work, homelessness rising every year, hospitals pushed to the brink and the feeling of London leaving behind other cities and towns in its trail.
It was a miscalculation on Remain’s part during the referendum to sing repeatedly about all the good the European Union had done for the country when to most people it felt like all the benefits were channelled into London. Leave tapped into this working-class resentment that had been spread first by Margaret Thatcher’s closing of the mines as Britain transitioned from manufacturing to the service sector. Throughout the New Labour years, inequality was simply not addressed as widely as it should have been. Taking this into account, Brexit always seemed like a possible endpoint.
The warnings about Brexit are necessary but framing it as if the years that preceded Brexit were fine will simply be interpreted as elitist rhetoric. It’s possible that, should Remain push for another referendum, they use the exact same rhetoric, warning about the disasters of a No Deal or leaving the Single Market altogether. Perhaps, the Remain camp would argue to remain in the EU itself. Anything that does not seek to address the deep insecurities in the country left partly by globalisation will not see anything other than Leave consolidating their grip, or a narrow win for Remain that leaves a deeply fractured society.
But knitting together a sense of social solidarity requires an understanding that unity isn’t simply created when material wealth and security is shared. Investment into homes, hospitals, jobs, schools and welfare is important but a sense of community isn’t just built upon these bricks. They depend on a sense of shared cultural values, history, identity and language.
Globalisation has weakened the sense of community and nation, the feeling of patriotism, and reduced us to atomised beings supposedly linked only by our humanity. It’s the sort of ‘one human race’ liberalism that refuses to understand human psychology and history, to understand that community matters. But Brexit has now shown us that it does. That’s why many Leave voters reject the undeniably rational arguments about overturning Brexit because for them there is also a cultural rationale behind supporting Brexit.
Often, the far-right have used ethnicity as their reasoning for voting Leave. But people can look entirely different so long as they share to some degree, the same values that provide us with a sense of belonging, meaning and identity. Globalisation is irreversible, however much the nation-state defenders would like to think it isn’t.
What Brexit has showcased to us is that there is resistance to it happening on a fast and unchecked scale if it contributes to the loss of community and the crucial facets of one. Constructing the sense of community requires an agreement that it is both economic and cultural, but the left tends to disregard the cultural as an indicator of a society while the right completely disregards the need for economic security at a household level.
Post-Brexit politics has to be about finding a way to bring people back together. If supporters of Remain do not understand that, they will always be left wondering why no-one wants to be part of a supranational institution.