Sometimes I wonder if I receive tragic news with too much coolheaded equanimity, but I felt myself physically sagging when news of the murder of Jo Cox came through on Thursday. I cannot remember the last time I experienced that sensation. While we cannot yet truly know what was in the mind of the killer, and while full details of the killer’s motives will take time to emerge, it would be preposterous to strip away the context in which this savage killing took place. Truly it was a day of infamy. Many Leavers in the European Union referendum debate have been complaining about the “politicisation” of Cox’s murder. Some have even been reducing it to a mental illness issue, as happens in the United States following a gun rampage. But it is undeniable that this was a targeted murder, and that it carries immense political significance. An act of terror. And it has occurred against the backdrop of a hateful and divisive referendum campaign that has exacerbated underlying trends which coarsen and inject poison into a now vitriolic political arena.
There is a broader point to be made about the public perception of contemporary politicians, and assumptions of venality that are attributed to everybody who stands for parliament. The political class didn’t do themselves favours when the expenses scandal struck in 2009, and when personal failings are exposed in politics, it tends to be more public than in other spheres. However, politics is still one of the most honourable professions, and the majority of people who go into politics are motivated by public service. Yet we are constantly confronted with the absurdity of the much commented on “anti-politics mood” being widely elevated into a virtue, with social media offering a platform for cowardly forms of (often anonymous) viciousness to become the norm for many people in how they engage with politicians. However, anti-politics is not virtuous at all. Jo Cox’s whole career was a demonstration that the mantra that holds “they’re all the same” is nothing other than a trite and lazy sneer, a defeatist canard that indicates no motivation to try and make things better. The public don’t have to be passive actors in the neoliberal order they live under, even if it can seem like the game is irretrievably rigged against them.
Sure, Britain has been directed by wrongheaded policies for years, especially in response to the Great Recession, but the answer is not disdain for the process. The answer is engagement. The problem is that participatory engagement in politics has been hollowed out in western societies over the last few decades. To that end, you might say this referendum has enabled a national conversation, although in effect it has more become a vehicle for the projection of all manner of grievances and dubious agendas. It has also provided the opportunity for revolt, but it is a dubious revolt without a coherent examination of the issue at hand, or any truly contextual appraisal of Britain’s place in the world and how to plot the nation’s future course. Blame the campaigns, you might say, but almost everybody is responsible in some way for how this dreadful referendum campaign has developed.
However, what I really want to write about here is how my attitude to the referendum question has evolved over the past few months. It wasn’t a straightforward question, because for me there are multiple Britains. It is a place of cultural, economic and scientific consequence, and as such there is a vibrancy that generally makes you want to be in the middle of it. There are contradictions within that as well, but if anything that helps to enrich the experience of living here. There is a loveliness to be found in the landscapes of many of its regions. One could go so far as to say there is something for everybody in Britain, with the added benefit that it is in many cases possible to filter out the aspects one cares little for. As a resident here, it is maintaining these multiple and diverse Britains and further embellishing them that I take a primary interest in.
At the outset of the EU referendum campaign, I was actually quite ambivalent about the outcome. There exists a reasonable case to be made for Britain leaving the EU, a point I make as a disappointed pro-European. The EU we have, corporatist and unresponsive to the continent’s problems, is not an institution to feel much pride in these days. It has made a mess of the single currency, and its treatment of Greece is at huge variance with the ideals the EU was notionally founded to uphold. Would a Brexit, I wondered, shake the EU out of its complacency and set the stage for a reinvigorated Europe with the welfare of its citizens paramount, even allowing for an economic hit? Well, what a fool I was to think such a thing. Of course, there are many potential paths of reform for Europe, but the flavour of Brexit on offer is at the parochial and nasty end of the scale.
It was to be expected that Britain’s feral media would unleash their poison, and that UKIP and the Tory right would resort to the most cynical mendacity to make their case. It was perhaps also to be expected that the Prime Minister would depict an implausibly apocalyptic post-Brexit future, which has hardly spoken for his credibility in the debate. What I had not foretold was how much coverage would focus on the psychodrama gripping the Conservative Party. And perhaps I had not also foreseen quite how much hate would be engendered during this angry summer, and how it could be so effectively steered and manipulated by a Leave campaign increasingly characterised by irresponsible demagoguery. Politics is a contact sport, and it isn’t required to be civil, but the rules of this game have been thrown out the window. A truly repugnant environment has been created in this dishonest campaign, and who can profess to be surprised when something gives?
And so I have migrated from being a reluctant Remain supporter to an ardent one, largely because of what appears to lie in store for this country if it votes to leave. The Britain that attracts people to come is alien to the fictitious throwback Britain most Leavers want to create. The fanciful economic narrative the smarter leaders of the Leave campaign peddle is up to them, of course. Economics isn’t very good at predicting the future, so they can make their bullish claims and see if people believe them. It’s the baser line of campaigning that elicits far more reservations. To take immigration, of course it is a difficult area of policy, but it is also a complex one that demands a certain sensitivity and nuance. But then the Leave campaign didn’t find themselves on the cusp of victory by doing nuance. At their worst moments they’ve tapped into jingoistic England’s id, whether by dog whistle or foghorn – again, another unfortunate channelling of right wing America.
We have throughout the last few months been force fed the most asinine slogans such as “we want our country back”. To which the only sensible question is, take it back from whom? Furthermore, where do you want to take it back to? When do you want to take it back to? And what do you intend to do once you have reclaimed it? These things are not explained much, but it’s not difficult to guess. Then we have the exhortation to “take back control”, but talk of sovereignty is largely a con job. The people who will dominate Britain in a post-Brexit world will do nothing to alleviate the harshness of life for many who are currently seduced by Leave’s calling. In fact, a number of chief Leavers tend to quite like the most egregious aspects of the EU, including the shadier contents of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It’s benign things like the European Convention on Human Rights, environmental legislation, and employment and consumer protections that they seem to really dislike about Europe.
But one thing Leave has had in its favour is a significant proportion of the population that is receptive to bromides about British exceptionalism. For this Anglophile, it is a source of disappointment and bafflement why so many people in the nation of Shakespeare, Newton and Brunel prefer to revel in martial history and take the Second World War as their reference point? There is no other plausible explanation for why England has had a history of football hooliganism. To take the contemptible behaviour of a section of England’s support in France for the European Championships this month, in between the bottle throwing and the anti-French and anti-German chanting, there has been an unequivocal pro-Brexit sentiment. Hardly coincidental, I’d argue, and I’d even go further. It is the middle class nationalism, such as that espoused by leading Brexiters, that at some level provides the fodder for the more aggressive variety. In a post-Brexit world, one can only visualise this very long post-imperial hangover continuing.
For many, there is still confusion because of both lack of information and outright misinformation, between Remain’s Project Fear and Leave’s combination of xenophobia and insouciant nihilism. There isn’t much comprehension of what will be lost by leaving, of what obstacles will have to be stepped over to do things that are currently taken for granted. It will surely have an impact, but it’s difficult to have that conversation with angry people who want things they can’t have, and who in many cases have stopped listening. There is a nasty atmosphere in the air, and I know which forces I hold largely responsible, which has made the choice easy for me on the eve of polling day. I want those many Britains to be preserved, a cause I believe would be severely damaged by Brexit. I await with apprehension the country’s verdict.