How do ordinary people, outside the Westminster bubble, negotiate the tensions surrounding Brexit in their family lives? Katherine Davies (University of Sheffield) shares some of the initial findings from her research project.
It goes without saying that Brexit has dominated UK politics over the past three years. What has been less visible has been the ways Brexit has pervaded everyday life, making its way into conversations at work, in front of the television, in family WhatsApp groups as well as expressed through silence and the avoidance of talking politics.
When the media’s gaze has moved away from Westminster, the focus has often been on Britain as a nation divided by Brexit. These tropes of division fail to grasp the complexities of Brexit as experienced in everyday family life. Based on qualitative interviews with 31 people from a range of backgrounds and including both ‘baby boomers’ and ‘millennials’ and those who voted Leave and Remain, I suggest a reframing of some of the central questions and themes that have thus far dominated debates.
Tenacity rather than division
Rather than a nation ‘deeply divided’ over Brexit, people I interviewed as part of my research were working hard to avoid falling out with their family over political differences. Many of the people I spoke to had family members or friends who had voted differently from them and, though arguments did occur, they employed a number of tactics to avoid these differences resulting in relationship breakdown. These tactics included biting their tongue, carefully judging when and where to talk politics as well as ‘reading’ the reactions of others in order to determine whether to raise the subject of Brexit. The overwhelming sentiment that arose in the interviews was about the tenacity of family relationships. These relationships, formed well before Brexit, were seen as valuable enough to weather the storm, even if this was sometimes hard work. As Sarah, a 52-year-old woman who voted Remain stated of her Leave voting brother; ‘We could have had a massive falling out, but I think you think, what’s the point?…At the end of the day, he’s my brother and we get on very very well. He’s got a right to do what he thinks is right, hasn’t he?’
Silence as action, not apathy
Many people I interviewed talked about avoiding conversations about Brexit. Some tried to avoid talking politics altogether. As Kate, a 64-year old woman, stated: ‘There’s three things you never ever discuss round a dinner party, and it’s politics, religion and money. And if you avoid these three subjects everything’s fine.’ Others talked about sometimes ‘biting their tongue’ to avoid causing an argument or upsetting family members. Take the following example from Claudia, who bit her tongue in a discussion with her friend: ‘He said he was going to vote Labour, and I wanted to say to him that, ‘I can’t understand why anybody in their right mind would vote for them’, but I didn’t say it, because I didn’t want to cause any sort of controversy.’
It would be easy to assume that staying silent about politics is a symptom of political apathy, but this would overlook the role of silence in everyday family life. Silence is an important tool used by people to keep the peace and to continue their family life despite political difference.
Biography and memory, not ‘baby boomers’ versus ‘millennials’
The idea of a generational divide between ‘baby boomers’ who are said to have voted mainly to leave, and ‘millennials’, said to have overwhelmingly voted to remain, has pervaded much media coverage of the Brexit vote. However, my research indicates that it is not so simple. Though there was no clear-cut generational divide in terms of voting behaviour, the role of people’s memories and biography was an important part of their orientation towards Brexit. Many people who can be viewed as part of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, for example, recalled the 1975 referendum to join the EU and felt that these memories gave them a different perspective on their Brexit decision. Take John’s discussion below where he feels that his decision to vote Leave can be explained by his memories of the original referendum:
‘If you want to be blunt about the European Union it’s not what we signed up to join…We agreed to join the common market in 1973 [sic], there was no mention of anything to do with the way it is right now. It was a common market, end of story. And that story was put out intentionally. You’ve only got to go back through history and look at some of the interviews that took place in 1973 and the misleading statements that were made by politicians. And really people were misled in 1973 as to where it was going.’
Others drew upon more personal memories of key moments in British political history. Take the following example, where Rosemary is talking about her memories of the 1984-5 miners strike. It is clear that this has affected her politics today, including her views of austerity:
‘Yeah, no, my dad never liked the unions I must admit. Obviously all that sort of thing did have a big effect because I know somebody whose father was a miner… it affected his growing up very, very much… nowadays I just think it’s really bad the way that the government is not looking after the people, I’m sure that there’s some way that they could sort out their money without making the general public suffer.’
Thus, whilst it is important to avoid making crude generalisations about the voting behaviours and motivations of different generations, the role of political memory and biography is a significant part of how people live with and make sense of politics in the present. Rather than outright generational division, it was these memories that could sometimes set people apart from others in their family.
The mundane and everyday, as well as Westminster and Brussels
Ultimately, this research has pointed to the importance of looking at mundane and everyday interactions about Brexit. Outside of Westminster and Brussels, people are making sense of Brexit in relational ways, managing disagreements and differences within their existing relationships and forming opinions within the context of their own biographies. My current research project, undertaken with Dr Adam Carter at the University of Sheffield, seeks to tap into the ways that Brexit is lived in ordinary, everyday lives. The project will work with a small number of families over time in order to understand how the ebbs and flows of Brexit map onto their everyday lives. Methods will include the keeping of Brexit diaries as well as Gogglebox-style television viewing to get a sense of how conversations and silences about Brexit might arise in families. These micro lived realities of relational life in ‘Brexit Britain’ are often overlooked in media coverage and political commentary – yet they have crucial implications for governance post-Brexit. It is vital that we avoid framing our Brexit discussions in ways that obscure what matters in people’s everyday lives.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
Katherine Davies is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of Sheffield. Her latest research project, Brexit, Relationships and Everyday Family Life, is funded under the ESRC’s Governance After Brexit initiative.