Division is seemingly the current state of play in the UK. As hard as some try to homogenise our culture and identity into handy packages, reality has a nasty habit of atomising their efforts back into messy parcels of tendentially related groupings, a Rorschach blot test of overlapping bubbles. This is as true of the howling of Reading and Leeds fans at the temerity of booking Dua Lipa and Kendrick Lammar as it is of Boris Johnson’s current speech on Brexit; the latest salvo in an increasingly pointless exercise to seek consensus where there is none to be found.
Leaving aside the former case for the moment; the politics of Reading and Leeds bills being, as I know from painful personal experience of a decade, a minefield of fiery passions and entrenched opinion on the validity of artists and genres to spend a day in a field in Berkshire and a field in West Yorkshire, Johnson’s speech is a doozy. Combining a contrarian desire to both soothe the ‘remainer’ faction whilst telling them, ostensibly, to get over it and a continuing reliance on not listening to any of the expert opinions on offer, it essentially boils down to an appeal to being ‘British’; a flawed thinking that drives so much of national discourse containing, as it does, no quantifiable or identifiable fact on which to hinge its arguments. Given his track record there is an overwhelming sense of plus ca change so at least he is consistent. Set against this is the usual Johnson tactic of throwing in something that isn’t real, in this case the undeniable march towards a United States of Europe, presumably with Turkey still involved.
A conception of British subjects as a unified whole is an idea that has been on perpetual drift. It doesn’t take a PHD in British history to identify that the idea of ‘Britishness’, itself a construct of a Stuart (and then Hanoverian) monarchy forging two disparate kingdoms and a couple of acquired landmasses stripped of their power structures into one whole via politics, bribery and war over the best part of a century, has been on shaky ground throughout. Close reading of the public mood even in times of crisis reveals that the myths that ground the nation are just that – it is easy to cite many moments at which this nation state has teetered on the edge of becoming a very different entity from the Peterloo massacre and the Corn Law Riots to the General Strike and the Winter of Discontent. At essence, the very idea of the nation state is a wobbly thing, full of contradictions and, in a continuously expanding globalised world, a concept whose time is long past.
The purpose of the nation grouping is both political and economic. With the decline of religious authority, the growth of intra cultural experience and settlement and the imposition of flawed democracy – that limited franchise that allows a direction but not a direct input into the political road map – its remaining purpose is to gather a group of people under a banner to allow them to trade and (theoretically prosper) under a set of agreed laws and relations to other groupings of people based on geographical location and guarantee security in exchange for money. Johnson would have us believe that there is more; that at heart there is some mystical shared experience owing to our place of birth that binds us together in an unspoken shared purpose. That is hogwash. If the nation state remains as anything in the modern world, it is a very vague set of cultural values that cover shades of opinion with the majority holding sway whilst accepting all but the most extreme objections to a myriad of issues and adjusting our outlook accordingly. This is our liberal democracy.
It makes sense that it is the more reactionary cultural (though economically radical in the worst sense of the word) wing of the Conservative party that is leading this charge. Forever blessed with a tin ear when it comes to questions of popular culture, the right wing of the Conservative party has been on the wrong side of the debate over every cultural change of the post war years. Anti- gay and openly racist in the 50’s, pro-apartheid South Africa in the 70’s and 80’s, anti-EU in the 90’s and 00’s.
So, a call to ‘unite about what we all believe in’ is meaningless. I don’t believe in what they believe in. They don’t believe in what I believe in. The gulf between those two positions is so vast that it is untenable. Debate requires shared ground, Beyond the Ten Commandments (or most of them) there is nothing to share here.
The perpetual mantra of the ‘will of the people’ is itself proof positive of this schism. The will of a slight majority of those who voted, less than 50% of those eligible to vote and containing none of those under 18 who the vote will most affect has proven once and for all that the entire ideal of representative democracy is a failure when it comes to leading people in a determined direction. Leaving aside the much-discussed warnings from history about using such phrases (always deployed to strongarm objectors into compliance) Johnson’s new iteration of the phrase is the soft power arm to the Mail and Telegraph’s talk of ‘Saboteurs’ and ‘traitors’, a mask across the ugly reality of his true message.
What Brexit risks in its current hazy, shambolic creation is far more than an economic disaster designed by chance or deliberation to hit those with the least the hardest. Behind the reports from experts lies a far deeper cultural timebomb primed to explode.
My cohort of the Thatcher generation and those who came after having grown up in an individualist, global culture. We take our sense of belonging from multiplicitous sources that have no grounding in national identity. We are variously Northern, Lancastrian, Southern, Cornish, white, black, Asian, gay, straight, internationalist, ecological, European, global, regional, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, British etc etc. Our identity is grounded in our experience, not our locality. The same is true of those unlike us within our generation. This was always the case, but the seams are coming undone. The binding weave of nationhood has unravelled in the opportunity (or lack thereof) experienced by us.
Experience and outcome is now so diverse depending on a variety of factors that the idea that we all share some common experience is a nonsense. I have nothing in common with most of the people I went to school with, let alone strangers in other parts of the UK. Such is true throughout the West. Somewhere in here is a delicious irony that the very project that claims as its ultimate goal the ‘taking back of control’ over our nationhood is the very thing that we do not care about. We see fellow feeling with like minds, not blue passports. Little wonder that the loudest new voice in the debate, ‘Our Future, Our Choice’, is the remainer youth.
To return to my original parallel, old rock fans complaining about Kendrick Lammar at Reading isn’t the end of the world but comes from the same place. Appealing to the populous to come together under a meaningless banner is as futile as asking Kings of Leon fans to try listening to a new genre of music. Telling them that Kendrick is as revolutionary as Nirvana is to attempt to import a heap of cultural experience that they simply do not have, likewise with Leavers and Remainers.
At Reading the worst expression of this will be bottles hurled towards a stage, in the UK it will be far darker. Deepening a schism between future generations and aging generations cannot end well. That is one of the coming battles that Brexit has exposed, and it is now very live and growing. The only way to lance the boil is to return to first principles about what is, after all, membership of a trade area.
The EU debate should have always been about the cost and the benefit. The reality of the position as it is and the realities possible as they are perceived. That is now the only sensible political position to pursue. Experts, ironically, are exactly what we need. The decision as to how to trade with other countries is not a cultural exposition. It is an economic decision based on analysis and fact.
A best first step would be to silence Johnson. Then some sense may reign.