In the end, it wasn’t even especially close. After a fevered campaign, in spite of dire warnings about the economic, bureaucratic and geopolitical mess that would ensue, on June 23, 52 per cent of British adults chose to leave the European Union – a margin of more than one million votes.
Since the vote, the UK job market has been in “dramatic freefall”, consumer confidence saw its sharpest monthly fall for 26 years, and Britain’s leading economic forecaster predicted a 50-50 chance that the country would fall into recession in the next 18 months. British voters threw off the shackles, and jumped off a cliff. But why?
Research conducted by leading pollster Lord Ashcroft in the weeks after the vote helped to unpack some of the prejudices and priorities of the voters; they confirmed what had been reported anecdotally elsewhere: that the referendum had revealed Britain’s very own culture wars – the country divided markedly not only by age, geography and level of education (the pro-EU vote was on average younger, more urban, and educated to a higher level), but by a whole set of beliefs.
Ashcroft’s polling found that 86 per cent of Remain voters thought multiculturalism was good for the country, compared with only 36 per cent of Leave voters. Among Remain voters, 78 per cent thought globalisation was a good thing, compared with 49 per cent of Leave voters.
Large disparities showed up when the two groups were asked about feminism and environmentalism – but the greatest divide of all was over immigration: 77 per cent of Remain voters thought it good for Britain, compared with only 18 per cent of Leave voters.
The arrival of the Rio Olympics, and thus the fourth anniversary of London 2012, has provided further cause for reflection and has deepened the despair of some “Remainers”: was that really the same country, only four years ago? “London [was] full of life and Britain full of confidence, optimism and strength. I want that country back.” tweeted Labour MP Wes Streeting.
It might be tempting to see the two national atmospheres in binary terms (back then, Britain had good patriotism – and now, somehow, it had bad patriotism), with 2012 and 2016 as parallel universes – different prongs after a fork in the road.
The liberal elevation of the spirit of 2012 is revealing – and can be seen in the national glorification of Britain’s greatest Olympic hero that year, double gold medal-winning middle-distance runner Mo Farah. A devout Muslim, born in Somalia, Farah arrived in Britain aged 8, speaking hardly a word of English. Times change but racing in Rio, another gold medal haul would make him Britain’s greatest sportsman.
Another powerful artefact exemplifying that spirit was the epic, eccentric London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, directed by filmmaker Danny Boyle. It might have seemed peculiar to many around the world, but in the UK it was largely celebrated, as a daring, unabashedly liberal homage to Britain’s history. So we had sequences with massed dancers paying tribute to the ordinary workers of the country’s industrial revolution, the National Health Service, the Windrush generation of migrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s, and to the Suffragettes, who engaged in radical protests for women to have the right to vote in the early 20th century. One rare dissenter at the time, Conservative MP Aidan Burley, called it “leftie multicultural crap”.
So what happened in those four years? Clearly, racism and immigrant-phobia was not killed off in Britain in 2012, but was either ignored, or in some cases, just lying dormant. More cynically, it seems possible that mainstream liberal complacency and self-congratulation about the idea of an inclusive, multicultural patriotism on the one hand, running simultaneously with a failure to confront toxic anti-immigration rhetoric in some parts of the media, helped to legitimise the Brexit campaign’s racist pandering.
As one friend put it to me in the aftermath of the referendum, “the flags went up in 2012 and never really came down”.
Perhaps the nihilistic, defensive impulse to Leave should not be so much of a shock – and perhaps the seeds of it were there in the more outward-looking, optimistic self-image projected by the 2012 Olympics.
One commonality throughout the period, which surely contributed to the desire for change, was an economic climate dominated by struggling post-industrial communities, wage stagnation and austerity policies. And only one year before that apparent outpouring of “confidence, optimism and strength”, in August 2011, English cities were engulfed in the worst rioting the country had seen in three decades – police estimated some 30,000 people took part.
The turmoil was met with severe judicial sentences and police reform, but the root causes, a country divided between haves and have-nots, was largely buried under the bunting of 2012.
Research published at the end of July found that since the global financial crisis, British workers have seen the biggest decline in real wages of any OECD country except for Greece. Culturally, too, Britain has long harboured what Professor Paul Gilroy has called a “postcolonial melancholia” – an inability to process the loss of empire (and the global standing that it endowed), or to come close to acknowledging its brutality. Arguably this sense of loss and impotence helped motor the revanchist move to “take back control”, in the words of the main Leave slogan.
Instead, “a resolutely air-brushed version of colonial history” predominates, Gilroy wrote in 2005: “These dream worlds are revisited compulsively. They saturate the cultural landscape of contemporary Britain. The distinctive mix of revisionist history and moral superiority offers pleasures and distractions that defer a reckoning with contemporary multiculture and postpone the inevitable issue of imperial reparation.”
This kind of deeper thinking about the national mood (or moods) has been somewhat rare since the vote, in part because of the distraction of the relentless melodrama engulfing most of Britain’s leading politicians (there have been betrayals, resignations and new appointments galore).
Writer and academic Will Davies, from Goldsmiths, University of London, provided one of the most thoughtful insights into what he called “the sociology of Brexit” – zooming in on the injunction to “take back control”. It was, he said, “a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic”. Who, after all, could abide the humiliation of ceding control of their life to someone else? The notion provided a blank canvas onto which any individual could project their own fears, anxieties or dissatisfaction.
Davies continued: “the language of the Leave campaign… spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect.”
Facing Britain in the aftermath of the EU referendum are two questions of great contingency and vital importance.
First, given that the referendum was non-binding, can Brexit actually be turned from a mandate into a material reality? And secondly, now that we’ve taken back control, what are we going to do with it?
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review.
Source: art & life