One cannot help but feel that democracy is in trouble here. It’s not on the ropes but it is getting the pounding that could leave it bloodied and reeling, ready for the count. It has many assailants: the Judiciary, the House of Lords, faithless politicians, television and radio, all scurrying to try and undo the biggest political mandate in British history. After Parliament asked the demos a straightforward question, congratulating itself for placing such trust in the people, the wrong answer came back. Since then, much of the political class have done little else bar seeking to have the question asked again, or advocating the answer that 17.4 million people gave, be ignored. Lately Leave voters have been treated to the undignified seething contempt of Vince Cable, a contempt that I suspect he and his kind have held much of their lives.
The over reaction to the referendum result cannot be divorced from who voted which way and the most likely indicator of how people voted, beyond geography and race, is class. As someone in north Manchester told John Harris of The Guardian, ‘If you’ve got money you’re in, if you haven’t you’re out.’ Bradford, a famously multiracial City, voted Leave. It’s a predominantly working class place, and it’s in the north, which is why that happened and why you won’t have seen that mentioned in the TV debates. It is the factor of class above all others that drives those that now stand opposed to the implementation of the mandate, and in truth to democracy. The BBC and indeed many Labour politicians repeatedly remind us that it was the ‘less educated’ who voted Leave. Dianne Abbot wasted no time in describing the Leave vote as a racist vote.
There is so much in the saga that is depressing and injurious for our democracy, our civil society. The Gina Miller shenanigans, liberals and the Left cheering on high court judges and their new found comrades in the House of Lords, the perpetual exploitation of Jo Cox’s murder, the routine vitriol heaped on working class Leave voters by politicians who are handsomely paid to represent them. But arguably the worst of it is this: the voice of chattering class Remain voters proclaiming that there are more important things than democracy. This increasingly outspoken and growing authoritarianism is a new phenomenon, or perhaps an Edwardian one reborn, and one that emerged prior to the referendum under the managerialism of the Blair years. Politics is no longer a matter of belief or opinion, it is about being right or wrong and the technocracy always knows best.
The more important things can be broadly divided into ‘the economy’ and increasingly ‘racism’ or more precisely, the necessity of avoiding any accusation of racism at all costs. That George Osborne’s economic forecasts for the aftermath of a Leave majority have proven to be nonsense, is apparently besides the point, project fear is constantly renewing itself and we are in the words of Sadiq Khan, about to fall off a cliff. Again. The argument follows that the referendum result is meaningless because the point of voting, the point of the electorate, is to serve economic growth and any decision that doesn’t do that is technically off side. Leave voters being less likely to have attended a university is in this argument, both cause and result: economic failures turning their backs on economic opportunity. You don’t have to go far on social media or elsewhere to find that people who voted Leave are morally and intellectually inferior to ‘the rest of us,’ and to hear that some of them, particularly older people, should have the right to vote taken off them. When I first heard this said on Radio Four, I was shocked. Now the Liberal Democrats say it at press conferences, a playwright said it down the phone to me the other day. Neither is it unusual to hear members of The Guardian club question whether ‘the uninformed’ should be allowed a say in such important matters, by which they mean removing the vote from the poor. The progressive discourse is moving fast, it’s now moved on to who gets to decide who doesn’t vote. And all this, in the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act of 1918.
The other trump card played alongside the first, is that those who oppose unlimited and indefinite mass migration from the EU are motivated only by racism. It doesn’t matter what they say about sovereignty, about being a socialist since you were seventeen, you’re a little Englander. Indeed the Brexit backing Morning Star itself was described as such, the Stalinist handbook rewritten to be used against its very authors. The upshot is, that the denunciation alone invalidates the referendum result because racism now has the position that original sin once did; unless proven otherwise we are all damned by the worst of all offences. All white people that is. The paranoia around racism and the accusation of it, is corrupting public life and personal lives, as well as trivialising people’s very real experiences of racial discrimination.
In the last couple of days, a news story has broken about child abuse and related murders in Telford , grave crimes that have continued for decades involving children as young as eleven. The victims were and are white working class girls, the perpetrators Pakistani men. It is the latest, and it appears the largest of many such cases across England. Like in so many of the others, police and social workers are reported as looking the other way because they were frightened of being accused of racism. People more worried about what that would do to their reputation than the sexual exploitation of children. This is where the power of identity politics ends up, shovelling obscenity upon obscenity at the graveyard of human decency. Telford stands out because of its longevity, the number of children, the murders, the magnitude of the suffering. What’s also fast become a related secondary story, is that two days after it was on every other news channel and even in The Guardian, BBC coverage was scant and MPs were not talking about it much either. Indeed, on the day after the story broke, MP Caroline Lucas took the opportunity to ask an emergency question in the commons to discuss harassment and bullying of MPs by other MPs.
Caroline Lucas’s emergency question is where self-regarding bourgeois feminists end up: thinking that an MP touching another MP’s knee warrants an emergency question in Parliament, instead of the largest and longest case of child abuse in the country’s history, one that has lasted for nearly forty years and has finally got the authorities’ attention. Lucas’s response to criticism was inevitably that people were using Telford to ‘whip up racial hatred.’ If the alleged sin of racism can make the police blind, MPs deaf and the BBC silent, it can and is being used to undo the referendum result and undo democracy. I’m 60 next year, I’ve never been called racist in my life, not until I voted Leave, and now I’m running out of fingers to count on. I do take it personally but often it isn’t meant as such. It is just part of a paradoxical narrative that believes the vote to leave the EU is part of a far right surge in British public life, that the white working class are a pogrom waiting to happen and the only way to stem this is to put democracy on hold. Historically, authoritarianism in Europe and fascism in particular, was borne from a fear of the working class power.
The notion of Leave voters’ racism and mass stupidity is not merely abuse, or mythology, it is for some a cast iron belief, a fact as real as the moral and intellectual superiority of the Remain case. Such certainty is dangerous to democracy and if you want an historical example, you should read Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain, an Everest of a book. It is a mosaic of personal accounts from interviews with 300 participants of the conflict from either side, skirmish by skirmish. One is faced with common enmity and humanity on facing pages. Fraser takes us right inside both camps listening to how people lived the war. Leave and Remain need to look at the facing pages of the referendum, look into each other’s camp, and I have to say, Remain more than Leave because switching on the TV or radio these days is like listening to Pathe news for the EU. Whether we exit the EU or not the managerialism that has become authoritarianism will not leave the scene. It has found its feet in the anti-Brexit movement and I fear has them under the table at the Labour Party. From proposals for all women train carriages to the no platforming of speakers, the banning of newspapers on trains, the media witch hunts to the undermining of the biggest popular vote in our history, something rotten, something deeply reactionary is abroad. If the vote to leave the EU is betrayed it will inevitably undermine the legitimacy of future governments, for no one, not Atlee, Thatcher or Blair, gets 52%. And each of those in their way, made greater changes to this country than leaving a free trade outfit. Even if we do leave the EU, the authoritarian genie is out of the bottle.
But there are other movements afoot as well. I went to the first meeting of Artists for Brexit last week in London. There were some great artists there, including novelist Helen Dale, songwriter and former Culture Club member Phil Picket, and painter Michael Lightfoot. We’re not re running the debate, we’re bi partisan, open to Leave and Remain voters and looking at very practical issues like visa regulations for artists post Brexit. This is in regard of both EU artists and artists from elsewhere, who are currently disadvantaged. We will be contacting the Department of Exiting the EU with our proposals. We have a mission statement, the last few lines of which reads, We want to continue to live and work in a society that, even when the decisions to be made are difficult, respects democracy as our most important value. A country that is tolerant and politically independent, innovative in its art and ideas, reaching out and welcoming to the world. We are Artists for Brexit.
If you’re an artist and you want to get on with the future, no matter how you voted, you should think about joining our growing network. There is work to be done so that artists can get the best deal out of Brexit, and Britain post Brexit, gets to see wonderful artists and their work, from the EU and the rest of the world. Get in touch on Twitter here.