Before my flight from Montreal to London the referendum didn’t to have enamoured the press this side of the pond, and I was thirsty to follow the proceedings from inside of the country that I had recently emigrated from.
Once arrived in London I stayed with a family member and talked about the impending referendum. He works in the NHS, university educated, well travelled and to my surprise he was going to vote leave. My arguments about workers rights rang hollow as he had witnessed employees being paid below the minimum wage whilst he was scratching a living in London before his days in the NHS. Concerns about the economy failed to land, lost in the sea of uncertainty of predicting the future.
Whilst travelling through the countryside to the wedding in the south-west of the UK I notice many pro-leave signs. This didn’t surprise me, Devon is not exactly plugged into global capitalism. We noted the irony that farmers who were in receipt of subsidies from the EU, voting to leave the EU. The future bride and groom had been living in London since they graduated from university, and the wedding guests who I mingled with were also largely drawn from London. As one might expect they were overwhelmingly pro-remain for staying in the EU.
After the wedding I visited friends in the north of England, Manchester, a great city that epitomized the definition of cool. I met my future Quebecois wife whilst she was travelling the UK here. I had lived and worked here for a year and a half, my flatmate in central Manchester was Polish and later when I moved to the suburbs, Italian and other nationalities who I considered friends. The local Levensulme swimming bath functioned as a kind of community hub, a few years before a group of OAPs campaigned to save it from closure. The paint was peeling, one of the two filters in the pool was broken but somehow the place kind of worked. It had a real mixture of different people, ages, ethnicities, social classes. Romanians, doctors, old people, white, brown, families, doormen, students, workers, recently released from prison, chiropractors, news agent etc… at times it was irritating when you were trying to relax in the sauna and someone was cracking a boisterous joke or speaking too loudly in what could be another language.
My family hail from the Midlands, literally the middle of England, and after Manchester I used the trip to visit them and catch up with friends. I met up with a former colleague and got a sounding as to the mood of the office and both she and the rest of the office were leavers. “Taking back control” seemed to be hitting the mark which jarred with the narrative that I brought into that those most likely to vote leave were those confined to those areas of the country who were paradoxically untouched by immigration and nostalgic older voters. Birmingham, like London, is a culturally diverse city and it troubled me that this didn’t fit my understanding. Still I consoled myself with the fact that it was a small sample which needn’t have meant that it was representative of the whole.
My family has a large contingent of “little Englanders” which I chalked off to nostalgia and I concealed inner sense of superiority over the “backward” views. I remember a conversation on multiculturalism whilst we were in the car, in which I summed up multiculturalism as “you do your thing I will do mine”, with the counter argument being that “they” are forcing “their thing” on us and if by way of proof a gesture towards a passing brown man wearing a traditional garb. I found it chilling that the value proposition of the leave campaign “lets take back control” was taken in a sense that exceeded that of tacking back control from Europe. For a moment I wondered how extensive this phenomena was, and then found myself shaken by the sound that all those who do not think in a similar manner are traitors to the memory of those who died in the second world war.
The day of the referendum happened to be the day of my flight back to Montreal. I was cautiously optimistic as the polls showed that that remainders were edging it, and believing in the psychological principle that the undecided voters were more likely to err on the side of caution and vote remain. Following BBC online from my hotel room in Toronto felt like watching a car crash in slow motion. The ripples of the result made it to this side of the pond and the next day I overheard a security guard in a convenience store talking about the vote.
My memories of the time in Manchester which I cherished felt under attack yesterday when a video of racist incident on public transport went viral. Other incidents were also reported, my despair is curtailed with the view that these are (horrific) examples of racism being elevated in light of the current context, and as such are confirmation bias which feeds the fears of those who did not vote for brexit and a shock for the majority of those that did.
Multiculturalism is the policy extension of the British value of toleration, it has failed to intercede the feeling of a lack of control, whose causes are multi-faceted, with the issue of free movement of labour in the European Union. Broadly construed, within the eurosceptic press and politicians the scapegoating of the EU has been going on for some time. In the early 2000’s the British government did not exercise our right to the delay the right of free movement to the new countries who joined the EU, we reaped economic benefit of this but we failed to give a space to air the negative side of this movement of people, this space shut down under the auspices of ‘political correctness’. Cut forward to today where the policy of austerity has been dominant, there is a smaller pie to cut up and to share around.
But what of the argument that cutting free movement of people would harm us economically? Cutting the number of people entering the country, in addition to austerity, will make the pie even smaller. We rational self-interested individuals would surely not act against our own self-interest? Facts are seen as uncontested truths to be absorbed by common sense. Economic predictions served up to us as ‘facts’ lost there status as being ideologically free of the conflict in question. The leave campaign actively encouraged this, being unconstrained by the means in which to achieve the end result (see this article for more on how the leaver’s structured their argument like a conspiracy). Once more the remain focused on quantifying the danger of leaving and in so doing conceded the ground on the values which cannot be quantified, there are beliefs which one can hold which one would be willing to sacrifice a score on an abstract measure such as GDP. It’s the identity stupid!
So how can we understand the value of that which cannot be quantified? Derrida’s problematique of hospitality assists me in understanding this dynamic. Circling back to the conversation that I had in the car touched on the issue of control and who has it, this paragraph by Derrida seems strangely prescient when he states that “it is as if the stranger or foreigner held the keys [to one’s house] ”
We are supposed to have the key to our house, but it seems as if with the free movement of labour it is Europe that has the key to “our” house. The Schengen Agreement allows for the free movement of people within the European Union – largely without internal border controls. The UK secured an opt out of this agreement which allows us to continue to check passports and identity papers but stops short of allowing us to refuse entry to Europeans in order to control immigration levels. This unconditional hospitality depends on the ability to exercise control, one must have sovereignty to exercise a “welcoming” as such, less they be viewed as a kind of foreign intrusion or paradoxically as a family member who can take the welcoming for granted. The case for our European heritage is only being made after the referendum vote. The UK never before explicitly voted on accepting the Schengen Agreement, the remain campaign viewed it as Europe’s price for the access of British goods and services to the European free trade area and chose not to associate it with British values as such. In some sense this is understandable as David Cameron made a manifesto pledge to cut immigration to to the tens of thousands without actually having the means of doing so. He failed to secure a so called right to exercise an “emergency break” on the free movement of people, which left him vulnerable to arguments based on the fear of uncontrolled immigration.
Hiding behind arguments of a lack of control on immigration lurked another about the lack of control of economic policy. We are unable to negotiate bilateral trade deals with countries outside of the the EU, instead we negotiated en bloc. In so doing smaller countries are able to hold greater clout in trade negotiations then they would otherwise do due to the European single market. For those in the the leave camp the downside outweighs this benefit, provincial concerns interfere with trade negotiations. Italian tomato farmers hold up trade deal with Australia for example. Much better if we were able to negotiate bilaterally unfettered by the EU.
These two impulses in the leave campaign don’t necessarily make happy bedfellows. Delegating immigration policy to the whims of supply and demand of the market is perfectly consistent with this second vision. The leave campaign was a marriage of convenience in order to achieve a result, which will now go its separate ways. See the recent article by Boris Johnson, head of the leave campaign and the favourite to be Britain’s next Prime Minister, who only now stresses that Britain is a part of Europe and the virtues of immigration. The racists and the little englanders think they have won the argument, hence they feel free to subject others to abuse. The joke is however on them, and worryingly I fear that is not without consequence.