Come the hour, comes the man – or woman, but it’s not as snappy a proverb. The fallout from the Brexit vote to leave the European Union looks like it is only just starting to gather strength. The latest overnight news is that Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has sacked the shadow foreign secretary, Hillary Benn, because he was plotting to revolt against his leadership.
With Boris Johnson aiming to lead the Conservative Party, and become the next Prime Minister, after David Cameron’s resignation, the other proverb that comes to mind, but perhaps one that is less welcome, is: ‘may you be blessed to live in interesting times.’
There are underlying fault-lines that have become apparent in this maelstrom of claim and counter-claim. And while those on the right would frame this as a debate about personal liberty or national pride, and those on the left might frame this as a debate about capitalism’s time running out, there are other forces at hand that also need to be considered.
I’ve discussed in a previous post how this is a debate about the old and the young. There is a clear rift in the expectations of those over forty and those under forty. Those that remember life before Thatcherism, and those that have only ever lived with the European outlook.
There is also the divide between the so-called ‘heartlands’ and the urban areas. The vote to remain was embedded in Scotland obviously, but also in the cities of England. While the vote to leave was founded in the shires and counties, the smaller towns of England that are furthest away from the urban lifestyles of the emerging urban economies.
The Observer’s editorial today’s asks:
“So what about globalisation? How have free markets benefited the steel worker put out of work by the EU-sanctioned dumping of cheap Chinese products? Seen from Wearside or the Welsh valleys, booming London and the south-east, with its Monopoly money property prices and £70 a head restaurants, resembles Goldrush City, a foreign and hostile land.”
The last time I was in central London I hated it – to use a phrase I thought it was full of arrogant and self-entitled chancers. So these anxieties are being felt elsewhere and have been deeply engrained as form of indignation and resentment for some time.
I wonder, perhaps, if there is another divide, one that is less visible, but one that has shaped and formed these outlooks? Is this a divide between those who use traditional media to keep themselves informed of what’s happening in the world, and those who use social and emerging media to find out what is happening in the world?
The tradition of mass media has not disappeared, despite what Facebook, YouTube and Twitter might want us to think. Newspapers, television, and to a much lesser extent radio, still play an essential role in framing the debates and conversations that we have about our national identity and our place in the world. Often framed by the bias of the newspaper proprietors who are themselves pursuing an agenda of their own interest.
Alternatively, the users of social media have a more flexible approach to information, with sources and feeds being exchanged and shared from many different media organisations as well as individuals. The downside is the jam-jar approach, in which the hornets of opinion furiously echo each-others views and don’t interact with those of different mind-sets.
This is counter-balanced, however, by the ability to look wider afield and to interact with people who are not geographically defined in our localities, or set within our networks of social class, gender and sexual identity, views on faith or otherwise. Social media allows people to spread their network wider than the fixed world of mass mediated politics allows.
Perhaps a good example of the hollowing out of local identities is the way that radio in the United Kingdom has become a centralised, national set of brands and formats that reflect a narrow commercial interest, but which don’t give a flavour to local lives and circumstances. It’s no surprise that BBC Local Radio is designed to appeal to the over fifty-fives. Has this played through into people’s perceptions of a hollowed-out sense of community?
Likewise, we’ve seen a massive decline in local newspapers, local reporting about politics, local information and discussion about civic and local government issues in the press, because the press has been decimated by speculation and commercial interests.
So in a way, the Brexit debate is an argument about changing local identities and emerging social identities. Our collective and social identities are now being formed in different ways, and how we cope with that and respond to it is very important.
On the one-hand people are strongly patriotic and have a clear need for a locally defined image of themselves. While on the other hand there is a great source of energy that comes from rejecting these more traditional forms of identity and instead seeking common cause with people who are of a like-mind globally. Look at the response to the Orlando shootings for a sense of common-cause between LGBT people.
This is patriotism and localism versus freedom of movement and social association. Who you have most in common with is no longer set by where you live, but increasingly by who you link with on social media. This might account in some way for the generational divide that became evident in the outcome of the referendum vote. Do people under forty embrace the globalised social identity afforded through social media more easily than those who are over forty?
This is not clear cut and set in stone. My mum is an avid remain supporter and uses social media to follow the debates and to talk to other people about it. She is seventy-three years old and doesn’t regard herself as nostalgic about the past. Whereas many of her peers feel that they have ‘got their country back’, as if they are reclaiming the glory of Britain in the 1950s, prior to the Windrush.
The challenge, then, is to choose the political side that you think best represents the future? Should we embrace independence because it makes us feel that we are getting something back that was lost? A sense of local identity that was ripped apart by deindustrialisation, the rise of the consumer economy and the Thatcherite experiment in speculative capitalism?
Or should we focus on the requirements of the future economy that is based on knowledge, information, social networks and progressive civic freedoms that enable people to work internationally, absorbing and sharing different cultural traditions and practices?
The Labour Party is in the most difficult position of all parties in this debate, as it tries to figure out if this should be a process of managed decline and localism, or if this reflects ideas that are more relevant to the ongoing process of globalisation and integration?
Labour MP Yvette Cooper is arguing that Labour needs to adopt an approach that listens to the concerns of the heartlands, and takes on board the concerns that people have about immigration and globalisation. This is a widespread, and on the surface a sensible view, but it is also a mistaken view that fails in terms of political leadership.
Political parties can be very effective sounding boards for grievances and complaints. As social change makes people uncomfortable there is an inevitable role for the politics of indignation. However, this doesn’t move people on, and it doesn’t set out the realities that the world has changed and will continue to change.
Political leadership is about challenging the expectations of your supporters and taking them on a journey to a more promising future. In the United Kingdom this promise was high-jacked in what I can only describe as a right-wing coup, organised by about eighty members of the Conservative party and the backers of UKIP.
The economic and social realities haven’t changed, however, so the need to manage people’s expectations about what kind of future is possible needs to be urgent and blunt if it is to be achieved fairly and in a progressive and socially democratic manner.
Everything that we know about social and economic life in the United Kingdom is about to be torn up. If the Brexit supporters think that this will result in form of ‘glorious isolation’ then they are mistaken. The world is still going to change around them and they run the risk of being left behind. Fine, choose that if you wish, but understand the consequences.
This is why we need a broad alliance of the 48% to make the positive case for a progressive and socially responsible future, that incorporates and builds on globalisation, the challenge of technology, and the promise of diverse, mixed and integrated communities.
Britain’s cities hold the key for the future prosperity of the United Kingdom because they are forward looking, multi-ethnic, creative, young. They are finally breaking free from the autocratic control of national government and are being recognised as ‘powerhouses’ of future prosperity.
If the swathes of the country outside of the urban areas can’t grasp that, then they must remain content to work for managed decline and diminished incomes. Economic gains from future technologies are going to slip away from what’s left of the United Kingdom, as technology and digital companies relocate to more welcoming countries.
I don’t think the Brexit voters realise the lasting damage that scratching the itch of indignation is going to cause.