(Originally published on 7/07/2016. Last paragraph edited on 20/04/2017)
The other day I read an interesting article by Mary Beard about democracy in Ancient Greece. It was an entertaining critique of our Brexit Referendum. I welcomed the article, but to me, it got to the press too late. I would have loved to read it during the referendum on our EU membership, or even when the idea of having a referendum was being discussed. In fact, a less wordy and more effective version of some of the key contents of the article could have made a difference in helping people of all walks of life to be a bit more critical about the vacuous idea of “democracy” that the Brexit camp was banking on.
To me, the campaign to Remain was clearly lacking the fire that Vote Leave had exhibited. But, crucially, the success of the Brexit camp was due to two other factors:
1) The Brexit campaign had started in the previous decades. Yes, decades. The core components of Brexit, as a self-standing ideology, were first formulated and disseminated at the time of the Maastricht Treaty. UKIP was founded in 1991 and the most right-wing media was already vociferously criticising the direction of the process of European integration at that time. Over the following years, a distinctive Brexit imaginary grew stronger, incorporating up-to-date concerns about migration and disempowerment as well as demands on free enterprise, in line with the neo-liberal ideology. This later ingredient fitted also very well with popular notions of Britain as a country of enterprise, and later as a glorious “trading nation”.
2) The “carrier” of the viral and evolving Brexit ideology was a discourse on Sovereignty and the Nation that was very easy to adopt by a wide range of voters. Despite its liberal-conservative and essentialists undertones, the Brexit national narrative catered for the socioeconomic frustrations of the working classes as much as with for the taxation and deregulation aspirations of an important part of the middle and upper classes.
In my opinion, the key ideas and attributes of the variant of Britishness that made Brexit culturally possible as a mass phenomenon and successful politically are the following:
- soveraingty and self-determination in relation to Europe,
- democracy, as a vacuos one-off demand, totally acritical with the democratic deficit of UK institutions, supported by a romanticised vision of Parliament and Magna Carta,
- success (economic and military) and continuity of the nation over history that provides blind confidence in the future,
- citizenship built around fervent pride,
- selective inclusiveness, out of convenience, not principle, for those members of the nation who join the Brexit cause, regardless of ethnicity (thankfully),
- a representation of the liberal left, the European institutions and the economic elites as antagonists of the nation,
- a sense of threat, particularly from immigration.
Additionally, the Brexit Right in this country has resorted, sometimes consciously, often not, to a number of linguistic, cognitive and emotional mechanisms that enable the successful construction and dissemination, of their idea of British Nation, in both banal (banal nationalism) and less banal formats. The most notable example is the use of the “National We” in everyday discourse.
The absent Remain Camp
The Remain camp, meanwhile, never existed before the Referendum. There was not a concerted, wide-ranging and visible strong effort to counteract the Brexit discourse and openly promote the advantages of being part of the EU, never mind to reach out to the people who feel betrayed and suffer the most from the crisis, during the years prior to the referendum. Neither were there any strong and easy-to consume ideas around Britishness on which to base the case of EU membership. The efforts by Gordon Brown, the most visible defender of an inclusive, value-based Britishness, still relied in a vision of the British past too triumphalist. The historic components of Brown’s patriotism are “repurposable”: the moral greatness of Britain, the “golden thread” through history that Brown predicates, can be easily unbundled from his British imaginary. In the context of the debate created by the media and the Right about the EU and Brexit, the historic pride of Brown can easily become the catalyst for nationalist, not just “patriotic” attitudes. History is nothing but a narrative. Selective pride, even when it is well-intentioned, like in the case of Brown, is always disingenuous.
Many of us, Remainers, knew long ago that the EU was a response to Europe’s history of endless and bloody confrontation, and that, apart from the economic reasons, EU membership was desirable because there was an underlying project to bring people and nations together around Democracy and Human Rights, particularly after the end of Dictatorships in Southern Europe in the 1970’s and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Our continent is too small, too packed of nations of all types, for clashes not to occur on a variety of economic, political and cultural issues. The EEC and later the EU had been dealing with this aspect of the European project of peace and progress, so far, in a moderately satisfactory way, except in the case of the former Yugoslavia. Many of us failed (or never tried) to communicate key ideas underpinning the European project appropriately with wide sectors of society.
Remainers, and now also some people who voted Brexit, can see that Brexit is causing a great deal of pain and anxiety across Britain and Europe. The damage inflicted certainly does not outweigh the benefits Brexit could bring, as an unintended side effect, to a Union that needs to serve much better its people at local, national and European levels. Neither will the disruption brought about help any progressive revolutionary cause to prosper, as a section of the “Lexiters” (Left Wing people supporting Brexit) naively believed. Quite the opposite.
The rise of nationalism and xenophobia has happened on our watch. The vast majority of academics, writers, artists and educators that I know lament the result of the referendum and how it all came about. Some may argue that if it had not been for us, it could have been even worse. Yet, isn’t it time that we ask ourselves where we were before the Referendum (working hard under increasingly worse conditions, I know) and where we should be from now own?
Isn’t it time to listen more to people who voted Brexit and understand why they did it?
Isn’t it time for more involvement in politics?
Isn’t it time for a hands-on progressive, responsible, inclusive and global patriotism (not “nationalism”, please)?
I do believe that we are constrained by the new mode of relations imposed by the neo-liberal university and by a perverse discourse, promoted by many in the Brexit camp that portrays us as the “liberal lefties who never did a real job” (I have been accused of that by someone online), but there is also a strong element of self-neutralisation imposed by a very traditional definition of our professional identities in relation to knowledge production, public engagement and civic pedagogy.
Shared knowledge does not travel in society in a conveyor belt. We cannot leave a book or an article or our teaching or a painting or a novel at the beginning of the production line (whether in digital or physical format) and expect someone else (the media, our students, the audience, the Government (!?)) to receive and disseminate further the human values of tolerance and personal yet responsible liberation that our cultural production is infused with. The world is too complicated now. The revolution of media, and now internet, have brought about new forms of production and reshaping of shared meaning in which academics’ authority has been disrupted by a complex apparatus of voices and noises. Social production of meaning, to make matters more complicated, is also hybrid, i.e. the empirical and the virtual appear intertwined in one single continuum. We have been too slow to understand the workings and impact of these new processes and very reluctant to adopt them in our work and in our relationship with the wider community. Here is a great article by Ian O’Byrne in Hybrid Pedagogy that expands very eloquently on these ideas (added to this post on 20/04/2017). His concept of “public pedagogy of wakefulness” is related to some of my own work on critical pedagogy. I hope it can help to get more people on board.