I wasn’t a passionate supporter of the EU until the referendum made me stop and think. The thing I really valued highly was my European citizenship. The freedom to travel and to work in the EU. The sense of being part of of an expanding world. Of taking a small step towards that Star Trek dream of united Earth. But I could see that the Union’s democratic structures were as flawed as the UK’s, that the Euro was being torn between the very different economies of the richer and poorer nations, and that sometimes the bureaucracy could slide into absurdity. Plenty to criticise. Plenty to reform.
Then came the referendum. So I did my homework and it swiftly become evident that it was overwhelmingly in our best interests to remain. Not only because of the direct political and economic benefits to the UK but also the strategic benefits in the fight for social justice. Chief among these was that a Leave result would fuel the fanatics: not just the anti-European ones but the racists, antisemites and Islamophobes. Other forms of bigotry too, no doubt. As for the UK’s political and economic interests, the reasons have been given thousands of times in thousands of articles. The Guardian seems to be running several post-mortems a day in its opinion section. I’m not going to go over all that again.
Instead, I am going to talk about my personal experience. Why? Because I want you to know that we’re not enemies. And then I want to talk about how we can move on. Politicians and media alike have painted us as opposites in some kind of culture war. I disagree. I think we’ve fallen out over a big misunderstanding.
It’s been a tough year in many ways for folks like me. I’m especially disappointed with colleagues on the left who failed to see the strategic reasons for remaining. I understand their opposition to the EU; suspicion of international trading blocs that aid corporatism and capitalism is, rightly, a long-standing position within British leftist thought. But what was blinding obvious to the rest of us, while seemingly invisible to them, was the huge strategic victory a pro-leave victory would give to the right. I only know one person amongst my friends and acquaintances who had the foresight to spot this dissonance and do the decent thing: abstain.
So much for the traditional left. I’ve been feeling pretty alienated from them for a while now anyway.
On the other hand, something shifted in the old tribalisms of the new left and the centre left. I found myself campaigning alongside not only my fellow Greens but individuals from the Lib Dems, Labour and even some moderate Tories. I had dreaded this, fearing an awkward, potentially hostile kind of co-operation, but it was positive and encouraging. Though we may disagree deeply on some things, it proved that we can achieve great things by co-operating where appropriate. For me, this has paved the way to accepting the idea of a progressive alliance – something I would have been suspicious of previously. And it showed how fossilised some on the left have become. We Greens occupy a complex space within politics as it is; this shone a harsh but helpful light on it.
Of course, this is part of a worldwide shift in political loyalties, political ideas and political power. You’re a big part of that. And so you should be. It’s an exciting moment and your voice is important because you are many.
Meanwhile, the old Tory anti-EU brigade, like Farage, are really just ideologues. In fact, they’re fanatics. They were a tiny minority for years and no-one took them seriously. Without hijacking other causes, like your own sense of disillusionment with corporatised, elitist Britain, they’d never have come close to winning. They were enabled, as we all know, by political opportunists like Johnson and Gove. And indeed those who became opportunists after the event, like May. Sadly, there will always be a sizeable group of professional politicians capable of such cynicism. Together they became an alternative force within the establishment. They didn’t represent the people any more than Cameron did. They were never going to stick two fingers up at the establishment; they are part of it. This was more Wars of the Roses than the Peasants’ Revolt. But you overlooked or rationalised their lies, for whatever reasons felt honest and true to you at the time, and the rest is history.
Somehow this group of opportunists deliberately confused the UK’s failings with the EU’s, blamed Europe for everything (especially immigration, which they turned into a source of fear and loathing), made people feel they were part of some kind of revolution, and managed to score a victory for a cause that a few years ago very few people cared about. Now it’s suddenly a glorious victory by a happy few.
It’s not another Agincourt though. It’s more like Towton, where 28,000 Englishmen died on the battlefield because the elite were bickering over who should rule, and all for nothing as the winning house that day didn’t keep the throne in the end. Just imagine if the 50,000 soldiers who fought that day had just told their masters where to go.
But no. In the strange looking-glass land of Brexit, it turns out that people like me – the ones calling out this sham – are the real baddies. Perhaps this is the thing that hurts the most. Although it’s not as malevolent as the demonisation of immigrants, it’s frightening for me on a personal level. One of the most sinister phrases to come into use within the referendum period was “the metropolitan, liberal elite”, as if we’re a powerful cabal. That’s a laughable idea, and history tells us it’s a very dangerous one too. I’m sure deep down you know this. Giving something a label doesn’t make the label meaningful but it can make the idea it expresses more believable. You know that too.
That said, I must match the stereotype pretty well: Guardian-reading, well-educated, left-wing, working in the arts, living in London, thoughtful about the ethics of what I eat and what I buy, giving to charity, motivated politically by the idea of the greater good rather than my own pocket… I mean, just reading that self-satisfied list makes you hate me already, right? But I claim no great virtue nor any kind of a success; these are just the facts about how I live and what I aspire to. I’ve made those choices from a sense of what I feel the right thing is to do. It’s my way of trying to live a decent life, and I shouldn’t have to feel – as I often do – that I need to defend it. That it’s middle-class indulgence. What rubbish. Being thoughtful and caring, and seeking to better yourself, are options available to all but the most desperate. Some members of this so-called “elite” come from privileged backgrounds but many came from poor ones, many lead a financially precarious existence, many went to bad or mediocre state schools and got into good universities through brains and hard work, and many paid their own way (or are doing so through seemingly endless debt).
This idea of a “metropolitan” elite is a smear. It’s a lie. It’s scapegoating. And that’s even without unpacking the unhelpfulness of the label “liberal”. Listen: I and people like me have very rarely ever been on the winning side. I’ve barely ever voted in an election for a party that’s won. I was too posh to fit in at school and felt alienated by my experience of being at Oxford because I wasn’t posh enough. (Don’t feel sorry for me – I also had awesome friends and got a great education. But at the same time I was constantly reminded, through school and university, that I was on the outside.) In fact, I’m so used to hiding that even today, at forty-two years old, I constantly self-censor when I’m with people I don’t know, or who I think might be judgemental.
The nearest you could get to calling people like me part of an elite is our relatively high level of educational attainment. But since when is that a problem for democracy? As for our political and cultural power, where’s that? Nowhere. Again, we’re marginal. We have very little influence as consumers or as voters. What has actually happened is the opposite: people like you, who politicians are now so desperate to woo, have wielded significant power for a long time. You’re a much bigger group than us; your tastes dominate the TV schedules and the shops, and the tabloids play on your hopes and fears, not ours. Paradoxically, you’ve also been cynically abused and exploited by years of neoliberalism. You’re right to be angry. But rather than stand up for yourselves and defy the establishment, the one time in recent years the lion (that’s you) roared, you followed their script. A script that was made deliberately outrageous as a cynical marketing strategy. It wasn’t always thus. Once you might have been marching with the Chartists, or fighting for fair pay as a member of a trade union. Instead, today, it feels as though we’re in some nightmare school playground where the hard-working kids are being mocked for having done their homework. Where the majority have taken the side of the school bully. Where conscientiousness and thoughtfulness are being punished.
Look: what’s done is done. As the Prime Minister so vacuously said, Brexit is Brexit. And in one sense she’s right. What happened is a now a fact. But so is the economic fallout. So is the rise of the extreme right. So is the EU’s desire to give us the worst possible deal pour encourager les autres. So is the growing power of the elite that we – that’s you and us – want to topple.
I really should have called this “A Letter from a Stereotypical Member of the Metropolitan Elite to a Stereotypical Brexit Voter”, because I’m using pretty broad brushstrokes. I know that. But my point is even simpler. Let’s take this opportunity at the start of a new year work together. Let’s create in 2017 a real people’s movement to make a fairer, safer society for the future. And you know what? With all that education, with all that Guardian reading and political engagement, we’ve already made a start. Combine that with all the wisdom and experience you could bring, if only you threw off the ideas of your self-serving and elitist leaders, we could have something amazing. You have nothing to lose but your narcissists. Why would you believe bullies like Farage and Johnson? Why not give the quiet, hard-working kids a chance?
Personally, I’d love you to let me tell you why I threw my hat in with the Greens (as if what’s happening to the climate doesn’t make it obvious) but frankly, Labour, Lib Dems or Greens, whichever you feel most at home with, we’re all going to have to work together to get through this current crisis. We need to find out what Brexit actually means, and decide if we really want it. If we do, we need to hold politicians to account as they negotiate new relationships with the rest of the world. And we also need to co-operate to smash racism and other forms of bigotry, to get rid of those who think they have a right to rule over us, to bring some proper science (and urgency) into our environmental policies, to get democracy back on track and to reclaim this country for its people. In other words to take back real and meaningful control. Are you in?