I’m glad I waited a bit before blogging about the outcome of the Referendum. Anything I wrote on Friday would have been an incoherent outburst of grief and anger. Not that I’m in a position to write a more informed and balanced piece now – we still, on day 7 of our ‘independence’, know nothing, and it appears that those who purport to lead us are no clearer than we are. We have neither government nor opposition, we have voted to leave the EU but have taken none of the necessary steps to set that process in motion.
In this vacuum Nigel Farage presents himself as the voice of Britain, jeering at the MEPs, taking his revenge for having been laughed at for so long. In this vacuum those who voted Remain earnestly debate whether to sign the petition for a re-run of the referendum, or to lobby for a General Election, or whether we’re worrying about nothing because nobody will actually press the red button, since nobody (other than Farage) actually wants to. In this vacuum those who voted Leave are frustrated that nothing is happening, that the Remainers are still whingeing on about the result, and that the leaders of the Leave campaigns are rowing back vigorously on the promises made during the campaign. Some of them are saying that they didn’t really mean it, that they’d vote to Remain if there was a re-run. Some of them are saying that what they meant by it was that all foreigners should get out, now.
Meanwhile our European erstwhile partners are shaking their heads, and reminding us that freedom of movement is inextricably linked to trade deals and that we can’t have one without the other. They’re reminding us that our membership of the EU is as the United Kingdom and therefore that if Scotland and Northern Ireland want to honour their population’s vote to Remain, they would have to break away from the UK which, overall, has voted to Leave. Marine le Pen, of course, is rejoicing.
I’m not going to speculate about what happens now – there are people far better informed than me who are doing that and I’ll leave them to it. And I’m not going to rant about or criticise those who voted Leave – they did so for many and various reasons, some at least of which I might respect and understand, however profoundly I disagree. My response is a personal one – now that my emotions are less raw, I can begin to explore why I felt such grief, as well as such anger, and why I felt, and feel, afraid.
In the early hours of Friday, having felt increasingly pessimistic as the results came in with such dismaying consistency, I saw that Sheffield had voted Leave. That was when I felt that we’d lost, not just the referendum but so much more. That was when I wept, and despaired.
I have always felt at home in this city – I’ve lived here for over forty years, and since I got here I haven’t wanted to live anywhere else. I’ve always loved it – its hills, its greenery, its culture, its friendliness. But in the light of that decision I felt as though I didn’t know it after all, wasn’t as much a part of it as I had believed.
Of course, the vote was close – Leave and Remain were separated by just 6,000 of my fellow Sheffielders. But what it confirmed is that the city is polarised, more so perhaps than some of the other big northern cities. We have one of the wealthiest political constituencies in the country – but nearly one-quarter of the local areas used to assess deprivation are in the most deprived 10%. This polarisation has increased since 2010. My Sheffield voted Remain. But my Sheffield is dark blue.
I don’t have a detailed breakdown of how different areas of the city voted. But a new article by Charles Pattie, Professor of Electoral Geography at the University of Sheffield, has looked at data on the proportion of graduates, amongst other indicators, in different areas of the city.
All of this paints a picture of a city deeply divided; a city where class, education and opportunity have shaped the political understandings of its people. And although we’re still waiting on a demographic breakdown of the results, it’s highly likely that such divisions will have cut through the rest of the UK, too. The case of Sheffield shows that the fracture lines in British society do not just run between north and south, Scotland and England, or rural and urban areas. They run through every community in the country.
It’s still my city, my home. Burt I forgot those fracture lines. Those fracture lines are dangerous. People like me tend to live next door to, work and socialise with people like me. People like me hear from our social media contacts and our colleagues the echo of our own views. We can be oblivious to how the world looks when employment is hard to find or insecure and when your wages aren’t enough to support your family, when debts are unmanageable and creditors importunate, when housing is inadequate and schools are failing, and benefits are sanctioned – and when the party in power tells you that you are a skiver not a striver, a scrounger rather than a hard-working tax payer. We can be oblivious to how tempting it is to find scapegoats, the scapegoats offered up daily on the front pages of the Mail, the Express, the Sun (people like me don’t read those papers, of course). We can be oblivious to how easy it is to believe that this daily struggle is the result not of austerity but of immigration, that others are not struggling but are being given an easy path to housing and jobs and prosperity. If we’re to heal we need to stop being oblivious, stop listening just to people like us.
What that does not mean, however, is to continue with the mealy mouthed refusal to challenge racism. Gary Younge makes this point powerfully:
Labour tends to condemn outright bigotry before clothing it in the cosy blanket of understanding and concern for the bigot. It protests and then it panders. It routinely points out that racism is bad, but is rarely brave enough to make the case for why anti-racism is good. This leads to the worst of all worlds. Racism and xenophobia are condemned but never challenged, which leaves those who hold such views feeling silenced and ignored, but never engaged.
Some of those who have been silenced, ignored but not engaged now feel legitimised and emboldened by the referendum result. Everyone but Farage may have been insistent that the referendum was not about immigration, but the sub-text was often clear, and in the Mail, the Express, the Sun, it was not sub-text, not even text, but screaming headline.
Of course the recent spike in racist abuse may be in part down to more of these incidents being reported post-Brexit. But the accounts have something specific in common – the assertion that ‘we’ won, that ‘we’ have our country back now and that therefore ‘they’ should be packing their bags because ‘they’ will have to go. No distinction is made between those who have lived here all their lives, whose families have lived here for generations, and recent arrivals. No distinction is made between those who have come here thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement and those who have Tier 2 sponsored posts here. Because of the hostility to white European immigrants, no distinction is made on the basis of colour (although of all groups facing this viciousness, hijab-wearing Muslim women are probably the most at risk). Either they have not yet realised that Brexit could never mean that EU nationals already here would be expelled, let alone that British citizens of non-British ancestry would be deported, or they do not care, their narrative is suddenly dominant, they have got their moment and are seizing it.
Why this sudden explosion? Paul Bagguley, a sociologist based at the University of Leeds, points to the gleeful tone of the racism: “There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism.” With immigration cited in polls as the second most common reason in voting for Brexit, “people are expressing a sense of power and success, that they have won,” he says. “People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.”
It is this ‘celebratory’ aspect to the racism that is particularly horrifying. It didn’t start with Brexit, of course, but those who might always have felt this way now feel they can express it.
It may die down. Or, if one wished to take a less sanguine view, as people realise that Brexit is likely to mean no reduction in net migration, that it will not result in anyone being ‘sent back’, they will be bitter and angry and rather than blaming the politicians who allowed them to believe such things in order to win their votes, they will continue to blame the migrants and the refugees in their communities.
And so we find ourselves talking about how we can counter racism on our streets, in our schools, on the tram and the bus, in the pub. We wear safety pins in our lapels to indicate our support for those who are under attack and our willingness to stand with them, to stand up for them.
Will this do any good? Who knows. But when someone launches a tirade of racist abuse on the bus, if I’m wearing my pin the first thing I will do is to look around to see if I have any allies. If two of us stand up, I believe others will follow. As to what we might actually do, that depends upon the situation. The aim must be to defuse rather than to inflame, focusing on the victim rather than the aggressor, making them feel safer, letting them know the hatred is not shared by all of us. But we do also need to speak, to let not only the victim but the aggressor and those who are fiercely staring at their newspapers or their phones and pretending they can’t hear or see what’s happening know that this is not right.
The thing is, I want my country back too.
I want to wake up tomorrow in a country where people are kind, and tolerant, and decent to one another. A country where people – all people – can feel at least a little bit safe. I want to rub the sleep of neofascist nightmares from my eyes and find myself in a country where we do not respond to the killing of a politician by voting against everything she stood for. A country where we are polite to our neighbors. A country where we have dealt like adults with the embarrassing fact that we once conquered half the world, instead of yearning for a time when our glory was stolen from enslaved people a convenient ocean away and large parts of the map were the gentle pink of blood in the water. I want to go back to a Britain where hope conquers hate; where crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia don’t win the day; where people feel they have options and choices in life and are less likely to press the big red button to bring the house down on top of us. I want my country back.
The country that Laurie Penny wants back is, she acknowledges, fictional. But so is Farage’s – and which would we rather live in? The country I want back was conjured up memorably and brilliantly in the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics. Funny, celebratory and bonkers, it gave us a vision of ourselves now, not as we used to be, and it set the scene for our collective joy and pride as a succession of medals were draped around the necks of our athletes, who themselves represented Britain now, in all its rich diversity.
That seems a long time ago and very far away. But we have to try to find it again. In Europe or out of it – we may not be able to reverse that decision, but we can work to make things better now, here, for all of us. Meantime, remember: