Sunday, 26 June 2016

We are better than this: reflections on the outcome of the EU Referendum

By now the whole world knows that the United Kingdom has voted to come out of the European Union against every possible economic, political and social argument. The purpose of this post is not to re-run the debates we have lived with over the last few weeks. It is to try to make sense of the outcome, to try to make connections between that result and the country I know.

One of the first points I should make is that I voted for Remain. I never had any doubt that that was what I would do. However, that is not the real point I want to make. What I began to realise as campaigning went on, was that I didn't know a single person who was going to vote Leave. Perhaps there was one distant Facebook friend, but that was all.

And this was absolutely typical.  It wasn't just me. One of my best friends in Edinburgh whispered to me, 'What are you going to vote?' (In post-2014 referendum Scotland, we have learnt to whisper about our political allegiances.) On learning of my intention to vote Remain, she said, 'Do you know anyone who's going to vote Leave? I don't.'

And that is it in a nutshell. My friend and I are educated professional women. We mix with other educated professional women. We read The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and The Herald. We access other news outlets on the internet and social media. We support international development agencies, overseas charities and organisations for refugees and asylum seekers. We sign petitions against unfair international trade practices, the treatment of women in male-dominated societies and the imprisonment of journalists working in repressive regimes.

We know people who live and work in Europe and beyond. We have travelled and continue to travel widely, nowadays often for pleasure but also to work alongside, and discuss issues with colleagues from many countries. We have children who have travelled across the world, many of whom have now taken jobs abroad. Our network of family and friends, both physical and online, extends across continents.

We go to concerts, the cinema, art exhibitions and museums. The book clubs we belong to discuss literature from many different cultures and translated from many different languages. Some of us can speak these languages, though sadly not me, apart from some schoolgirl French and a smattering of Italian.

I could go on and on. We are a blessed generation, international in outlook. We have been brought up to feel confident that though we may sometimes go through rocky financial and emotional patches, overall we will be able to feed and clothe our children, pay for their higher education and bail them out when they occasionally make a mess of things. Generally, we have pretty comfortable lives, particularly once our children have left home. We can't of course, legislate against relationships breaking down, illness, grief and bereavement, but, on the whole, we feel pretty much in control of our lives.

The people who voted Leave, however, by and large and except for their leaders, are said not to have felt that they had much control at all. They come from places which I have rarely visited and live in socio-economic circumstances about which I have read but which I have not experienced. When interviewed on television, they repeat mindless readymade catchphrases garnered from the tabloids: 'take back control of our borders', 'make Britain great again', 'ruled by unelected bureaucrats',  'get our country back', 'European red tape'.

It is so easy for people like me to sneer and, yes, I have sneered.

'You stupid people!' I shout at the television. 'Bureaucrats are civil servants! Britain has civil servants! No one elects civil servants! We elect representatives for the European Parliament!'.

'What country do you want back? The 1940s, 1950s, the 1960s? Years in which it was considered acceptable to beat children and women, when you could openly call people 'blackies' and darkies' and refuse to let them rooms? Years in which people with different sexual preferences from you were sent to jail? When workers could be sacked on a whim? When women had no maternity pay and lost their jobs when pregnant?'

'Make Britain great again? The Britain which felt it had a God-given right to rule other people's countries? The Britain which stole land from the Kukuyu and emasculated their men, drained its colonies of their resources, erected signs to keep 'Chinese and dogs' out of its clubs, sneered at great Bengali poets and imprisoned great Kenyan writers?'

People will have you think that this dislocation within the national psyche, this fissure in our society between the cultured and comfortably off and the half-educated and relatively poor, is a recent phenomenon. I am not so sure. I think it goes back years. Britain has been class ridden for centuries.

I well remember my first visits to a small Lincolnshire town in the early seventies. I had been brought up in a liberal educated family through whose home had passed students from all over the Commonwealth in need of food, a bed for the night or a bit social contact and support. We had been horrified by the increasing racial prejudice of our neighbours as Asian families moved into our Lancashire mill town during the 1960s. We children were brought up to have absolutely no doubts about where we stood on issues of racial equality.

Scarcely twenty, I was therefore ill prepared to deal with the rigid and alien social values I came across in thar Lincolnshire town. Hanging onto social status by the skin of their teeth, cultivating and honouring tiny social divisions was a survival mechanism. I found the overtly racist commentary particularly difficult to stomach.

'Don't go there. That's where the chocolate drops live! Africans? They'll be over here taking your job before you know it! You could smell the stink of curry!' People could actually say those things in the early seventies. By the 1990s and until two days ago, they could only think them.

It was in the otherwise kindly household that I was visiting that I first came across the idea that being unemployed was shameful, that people on benefits were 'scroungers', that women who could not cope with conventional expectations of domestic life, whose houses were not spotless, should be turned out of the marital home.

Nobody went anywhere. Nobody met anyone from a different background or way of life - or colour. Holidays were infrequent and taken in nearby east coast resorts. There was no other way of thinking, no other way of living.

I cannot overemphasise the cultural shock I experienced. I felt that I had entered a foreign country. The cultural and social barrenness of this small inward-looking rural town was more alien than the foreignness of the Italian city from which I had just returned.

These essentially good people are some of those who, a couple of score years later, voted UKIP and two days ago voted Leave. The seeds have been there for a long time. The seedlings have been watered and fertilised by a small group of irresponsible self-serving political demagogues. My mother, brought up in London during the 1930s, used to tell me of her horror of Mosley and the Blackshirts. In Britain, we always seem to pat ourselves on the back about our record during the Second World War. We don't care to remember our own fascist thugs. They are by no means new.

Now I know that by writing this, I am in danger of reproducing snobbish stereotypes, of exacerbating divisions. Yet, is it surprising that when east Europeans arrived in Wisbech half a dozen miles away from that small Lincolnshire town, to work in the fields whose produce the locals had long since stopped picking, they were resented, left isolated, regarded with suspicion?

And let those of us who live in Scotland avoid the temptation to feel self-righteous and complacent. Yes, most of Scotland voted Remain. However, 38% of its population did not, many of them members of the SNP. They also include members of the resurgent Orange Order, that bigoted sectarian group which has blighted Scottish life for more than a century. The Orange Order has been campaigning heavily for Leave in the west of Scotland. Our Polish neighbours feel no safer than their cousins residing in English cities, and with reason.

I strongly believe that referenda are NOT the way to govern countries. We elect Members of Parliament - Scottish, Westminster and European - to represent us. We do not all have the time, energy, inclination or ability to seek out the most accurate information on which to base our views. A huge section of the population depends on sometimes mischievous and often deeply unpleasant tabloid newspapers which give a skewed and selective account of national issues. We vote for and pay our MPs, MSPs and MEPs to read, analyse and debate in a way which we cannot, in order to arrive at balanced and well-informed views on issues of national importance. And, on the whole, I trust them to do this, even though my MP is a Nationalist, representative of a party for which I have not voted. One of the most gifted Scottish politicians is a Tory.

If we relied on referenda all the time for our decision making, we would still have capital punishment. Prejudice against people of other colours, races, backgrounds and sexual preferences would still be enshrined in our laws. We vote for our political representatives to be our better selves. And most of the time these ordinary human beings, flawed like ourselves, carry out their jobs with reasonable success and to our benefit.

What we are hearing now, of course, are the 'regrets' of those Leave voters who claim that they had voted on the basis of too little, partial or inaccurate information. Stupid, stupid people! There was plenty of information. Even if your own newspaper was not to be trusted, there was a good Government leaflet and most people these days can google.

Many Leave voters made their decisions as a protest against Government cuts and increasing poverty in both urban and rural areas of deprivation. These areas have received enormous amounts of EU funding which they will now lose. The whining has begun. These cuts were made by the BRITISH government, not by Europe!

There is a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting in Scotland at the moment, despite the fact that fewer people in Scotland bothered to vote than in other parts of the UK. Oh how superior we feel compared with our benighted English neighbours! Alex Salmond was so desperate to proclaim this superiority that he even rushed out to make a statement before the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Political opportunism, thy name is Alex Salmond!

Now you would think from the air of self-righteousness in Scotland just now that the Nationalists had fought an energetic and principled campaign.  Far from it. The party was split, with some well-known Nationalists voting Leave. Their campaign was lack lustre until the last couple of days. And the party which had castigated the Labour Party during the Scottish Referendum for 'sharing a platform with the Tories', did exactly that, with Sturgeon smiling benignly at the side of David Cameron and, when he accepted defeat, phoning up to commiserate. As she should - simple courtesy, but actions for which members of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats had been called 'traitors', in that uniquely bigoted manner which some sections of Scottish political life adopt.

The Nationalists, who had sneered at the Better Together campaign for enacting 'Project Fear', did exactly the same themselves during the EU Referendum, Sturgeon rightly pointing to the major economic risks of withdrawing from Europe: simple factual accuracy. Sneering at Better Together for having done the same: sheer hypocrisy.

The party which produced that disgraceful and borderline racist party political broadcast about London and Londoners during the winter months, has over the last couple of days been proclaiming its appreciation of London's position on Remaining in Europe, even talking about holding discussions with London's mayor. It is always useful to remember that 22% of the UK's GDP is generated by London. While 12% of this is retained in the capital, the rest goes elsewhere within the country. Surprising how quickly politicians can modify their views!

And now Scotland and the First Minister are to be the great hope of the surviving European project. Nicola Sturgeon, for whom I have a good deal of respect as an able conviction politician, has handled the events of the last two days well. In fact, Stuart and I had pretty much come round to the idea that if there were to be a second Scottish referendum, we might even bring ourselves to vote Yes. This despite our misgivings about the falling oil price, the continuing confusion over currency, the poor record of the SNP in government and our continuing dislike of, and suspicion about some prominent members of the SNP Front Bench.

Still, Sturgeon has been measured in her pronouncements. She will not rush into such a step unless she is certain of winning the vote. She has been considering a range of options, not just independence from the rest of the UK. And, to be fair to her, since the May election, her tone has been far more conciliatory than before, her message far less divisive, far more inclusive of the whole population of Scotland, not just those who voted for her party.

Yes, we had been feeling rather more positive about Nicola Sturgeon and reasonably sanguine about the idea of Scotland going it alone. We knew that the Liberal Democrats were in the process of reconsidering their stance, though how we don't quite know yet. We hoped that perhaps there might be some sort of joint action by the Nationalists, the Labour party, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats to prevent the triggering of Article 50. Yes, it looked as if for internationalists like ourselves, there might be a way forward, though not one we would ever have wanted.

Until, that is, this evening. During Question Time, Alex Salmond demonstrated through his bombast, his arrogance, his inability to listen, his pomposity and self-congratulatory complacency that the vote to Leave is not for him a desperately sad event, one that will haunt people like us for a long time. No, for Salmond, the vote to Leave is an opportunity to score political points, to sneer at other political parties and to divide. If a strong politician like Nicola Sturgeon cannot control this man, what hope has she got of bringing the country together and convincing all of us, not just her party faithful, to be united in support of Scotland's position in Europe?

When, over the last few weeks, I have listened to the prejudiced cliches of a neglected and increasingly vicious underclass, I have thought to myself: we are better than this. And if we are not better than this now, surely we can undo some of the damage of the past and strive to be less mean-spirited, more accepting of difference and more welcoming of change in the future.

And when I listened to Alex Salmond this evening, I thought to myself again: we are better than this.

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