Brexit is a nightmare. But it is also a distraction from the divisions in British society, writes Lisa Mckenzie (Middlesex University). The energy that is going into the movement for a second referendum or revocation would be better spent campaigning for a more equal society and an end to austerity.
I get it. I really do get it. Brexit is an absolute nightmare, in which the whole of our political system is laid bare in all its incompetence and its self-serving, sclerotic structure. That structure needs challenging and changing. But a Peoples’ Vote won’t achieve it; revoking Article 50 won’t achieve it; if anything, it will only strengthen it.
I have great sympathy with those people who for all the right reasons voted to remain in the EU, and marched through London on 23 March. I understand their frustration. I also have great sympathy and solidarity with the millions of mainland Europeans who have made their homes and raised families in the UK and whose lives are as insecure and uncomfortable as trying to get to work on what’s left of our public transport in places like Nottinghamshire, where I was born and raised and where I have undertaken my most recent research.
Here, thousands of Eastern European workers live this double nightmare every day, trying to get to their low-paid zero-hours distribution jobs, and not knowing whether they will even have that, come the summer.
I understand this fear and instability because this is how the British working class have lived their lives for generations. We need good schools, good hospitals, a chance for further and lifelong learning; we need libraries, and swimming pools, and ice rinks, that we all pay into and can access easily, because we do not have access to anything else. As our social services shrink, so the visibility of working-class people disappears. Denied opportunities in work, sports, the arts, education, media and politics, we have no public presence; we have no voice. We need those social services now more than ever; we rely on them in ways the middle class never need to imagine, and without them we will literally die.
Over the past 40 years, as the quality of working-class employment withered, we lost the pay, the conditions, and the security of jobs for life with social systems connected to them. In Nottinghamshire – as in all mining communities – we had the miners’ welfare, a system that miners paid into. Their families and communities had buildings with subsidised bars, entertainment and activities every night of the week. Running tracks, football pitches, cricket teams; the Welfare building was also open in the day for the elderly and the retired. We even had a holiday camp in Skegness, where we all got a summer holiday. In the 1980s I worked alongside my mum making tights at the Pretty Polly factory. We paid 20p a week straight out of our wages into the company ‘sports and social club’. That money funded a netball team, a football team and men’s and women’s darts teams, and if you were down on your luck you could apply for an interest-free loan or a gift. My friend was given £250 out of that fund to bury her baby daughter.
As the government and its Tory supporters crow over the rise in employment, Britain’s working class has never been poorer. Anyone can get a job – on minimum wage, which in April 2019 will be £7.83 an hour for over-25s and just £4.20 for 16 and 17-year olds. What we can’t have is security or safety. We can’t find anywhere to live that we can afford, and we no longer have social systems to rely on, whether through local government, national government or our workplaces.
British working-class people are scared. They know they have no control over their lives, which is the reason so many voted for change – any change – in the 2016 EU referendum. Whenever I argue this point I get the same responses from all those people who understandably wanted to stay in the EU, because after all, change is frightening for people who don’t see the need for it. “How will leaving the EU make their lives better?”, they say. “The poor will be poorer when we have left”, they add, with incredulity and disdain. Challenge them, and you’re accused of offering problems but never solutions.
The solutions will only come when those calling for a People’s Vote, another referendum or to halt Brexit completely are honest and face up to how we got to this situation. In nearly three years I’ve seen scant sign of it happening. Yes, there have always been little Englanders as long as there has been little England; there have always been sections of the middle, upper and working classes who have clung to a fantasy idea of Empire, and the belief that Great Britain is greater than anywhere else. We have always known about this group, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have made very successful careers by expressing these views, just as in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s we watched and laughed at Alf Garnett struggling with his working-class subservience to the Rees-Moggs and Farages as the world changed around him.
Through a perfect storm of inadequate politicians, and a political structure that is like an old oil tanker that cannot be turned around, working-class people have borne the brunt of deindustrialisation, the rise of exploitative jobs in the ever-growing distribution warehouses and the end of accessible and affordable lifelong learning. Instead we are told to get a £30k degree if we want a chance at a job that pays little more than minimum wage. After nine years of severe austerity, the removal of social services and a housing crisis, Britain’s working-class communities are now quite possibly damaged beyond repair.
The People’s Vote marchers want another referendum. But nothing has changed in the country since the last one; in fact, as our politicians have plunged headlong into the Brexit vortex, things have become much worse. A second referendum, a repeal, cannot rewind to three years ago. The referendum happened, and the past three years has exposed us as a deeply divided society. We cannot go back.
So what if those of you who want to remain were to realise that there are millions of working-class people who are not ideologically wedded to Brexit, but want their lives to change. Is it so hard to imagine what that change should be?
Imagine that you were marching in your millions to raise taxes on the rich, and more than likely on yourselves. Imagine if you had solidarity with working-class people in the North and the Midlands, and you marched to insist that investment went north and to all the lean, frayed edges of the country rather than staying in the fat south-east. Imagine you were really radical and insisted that Parliament was moved to Birmingham or Hull instead of the Palace of Westminster, ironically currently being held up by scaffolding. Imagine you were marching to insist that private schools were shut down and investment went into education for all, from cradle to grave, and that as our population ages and new industries open we can all be part of a forward-looking society, retraining, engaging in learning that is free at the point of need, paid for by the taxes of companies that currently believe they are too big to be part of our communities. Imagine you were marching to insist that everyone, and I mean everyone, had the right to decent and affordable homes, and no one had the right to leave properties empty or in disrepair as they waited for the market to change in their bank accounts’ favour.
Imagine you did all of this, and we made all of these changes, and working-class people’s daily lives changed from insecure and fearful to safe and hopeful. This would be revolutionary, and our society transformed. Would it even matter if we were in or out of the EU in a society that looked after each other?
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Dr Lisa Mckenzie is a sociologist at Middlesex University and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (Policy Press). Twitter: @redrumlisa