Somewheres vs anywheres, open vs closed—it all comes down to a debate over which voices are legitimateby Chaminda Jayanetti / January 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
One of the few growth sectors in the wake of Brexit is the science of trying to explain it.
Endless papers, reports and spreadsheets have proclaimed the causes of the Leave vote, which tore up the British electorate’s historical reputation for moderacy.
Economic factors were pushed aside by research highlighting the role of “culture” and “values”—opaque terms that over the last two years have been cited to explain ever more aspects of our political divides.
Liberal vs authoritarian, open vs closed, somewheres vs anywheres; a torrent of multiple linear regressions has burst forth showing that the clue to how someone voted in 2016 is whether they support the death penalty—an issue that played no role in the campaign.
Trudging through this swamp of correlations is tiring. It is more illuminating to state the obvious. Younger people, particularly graduates, tended to vote Remain; older people, recalling a time before the EU, lent towards Leave. Those who prioritised cutting immigration voted Leave; those most worried about the economic risks of leaving voted Remain. And a lot of alienated voters in England and Wales, feeling they had little to lose, took the chance to give the government a good kicking.
Nevertheless, much of the fallout from the referendum has been cast as a “culture war.” There is none of the religious doctrine and little of the overt moralising found in America’s fierce, decades-long culture wars, however.
Instead, the divisions opened up by the referendum strongly resemble a battle over “legitimacy”—whose voice is a legitimate element of British public discourse? Who is it who is valid? Who is it who counts?
The entrenchment of views and formation of identities around Brexit have led to the “otherisation” and demonisation of the opposing side. That is what identity does—people define themselves by who they are not.
On the Leave side, the elderly (who are experienced), plus ex-industrial areas and the “white working class” (both of which have been neglected) are legitimate and must be heard. The liberal young (snowflakes), big business (elites), immigrants (not British) and London (over-mighty) are invalidated and should be ignored.
By contrast, a consistent current of Remainer discourse targets the old (privileged homeowners with no stake in the future), alongside an arguably patronising “you’re voting against your own interests” line directed at the Leave-voting poor. Accusations of stupidity are not uncommon.
These are, in effect, demographic ad hominems. In all cases, those who voted the “other” way to their demographic group—young people, ethnic minorities and Scots who voted Leave, or white working class and elderly Remainers—are rendered invisible.
The most marked change is on the pro-Brexit Right. Thatcherites once pushed through their agenda by denigrating industrial regions and their unionised workers as backwards and beyond rescue. Thirty years later, these same regions were hit hardest by austerity, justified on the grounds that they were over-reliant on the public sector, while people on benefits—many of whom lived in these areas, unable to find work amid post-industrial decline—were demonised as workshy scroungers.
But out of nowhere, some of the very politicians and pundits who cheered on and joined in these demonisations now claim to speak for those they once denigrated. It is an astonishingly cynical transformation: the problems faced by regions targeted by right-wing governments are now a handy tool to justify Brexit. Working class people who were demonised are now legitimised.
This sudden legitimisation is important. As Phil McDuff wrote after the referendum, working class people are only listened to when it suits the agenda of the political elite. The need to listen to those who for so long were ignored is used as an emotional truncheon to bludgeon through a Hard Brexit by the very people who for so long ignored them.
Beyond the sheer brazenness of this, this shift might also be altering the dynamics of cultural capital in Britain today. Cultural capital was historically an elite marker. But today, it is perhaps less about demarcating class hierarchies and is instead becoming a way of determining who we do and do not recognise as being like ourselves, from which legitimacy flows or falters. This includes the suddenly valuable “authenticity” of being from outside the elite.
The pro-Brexit elites promote stereotypical working-class culture as authentic. Nigel Farage has done this for years, and now others join in. There’s a reason Hard Brexiters treasure the support of the boss of Wetherspoons.
Meanwhile, nonsense rows over veganism, no-platforming and the like cast the socially liberal young people as either empathetic or pampered snowflakes—depending on whether you identify with them or against them.
And then there’s the “gammon” jibe, which can be used narrowly to mock racists, or broadly to ridicule older right-wingers as cantankerous and backwards. I have done both.
All this reinforces the demographic divides over Brexit by rendering one’s own side as recognisable and legitimate, and the other as silly, absurd, and unworthy of listening to. The media’s fixation on portraying one kind of Remain voter (younger socially liberal metropolitans) and one type of Leave voter (older working-class non-metropolitans) gives this rocket boosters.
Such dynamics are not universal. A quarter of the public didn’t even vote in the Brexit referendum. Many who did pay little attention to its fallout. The US shows what a genuine culture war looks like; it does not look like this.
But if allowed to fester, legitimate vs illegitimate will be a deeper and more intractable divide than open vs closed ever could be.