by Alexander Shea*
I stayed up to watch the election results in the end out of pure ‘disaster voyeurism.’ I had gotten out of bed in Lyon, France at four a.m. on the morning of the vote, caught a series of interconnecting trains that dispatched me back in London just prior to midday, and spent seemingly interminable, fatigue-laden hours trying to canvas last-minute support for the Remain campaign in my local area. So as the results trickled through in protracted, drip-by-drip fashion on the morning of the twenty-fourth, each early result providing a little shot of adrenaline to the system but as of yet still dislocated from any conclusive sense of which side was to win, I should have been tucked away in bed. But I wasn’t.
Instead, I stood transfixed before the television screen, beholden to a sense of watching a car crash emerging in front of my eyes. As one after the other, a succession of small, exitincremental Leave victories piled up in the British industrial heartland- in Sunderland, Middlesborough, Coventry and Wales- each little blue dot slowly being coloured in on the electoral map seemed to spill-over into a greater blue tide, crescendo into a larger political crisis. And thus, drip-by-drip, splodge of blue by splodge of blue that each heralded another Leave win, confidence turned to hope and hope to despair. Leave was going to win. But the worst thing: deep down, I knew I was getting off on it.
I was not the only one. Watching the BBC analysts converse in increasingly excited tones of a ‘seismic’ event and a ‘turning point in the story of our island nation’, speaking to my friends in the room who gripped the arms of their chairs and talked fervently about the now suddenly ever so real possibility of a Boris Johnson premiership, it was clear that we were all in some way enthralled by this crisis. We wanted Remain to win, but the shock of the new that Leave promised, the radical disjuncture it seemed to encapsulate, and the avalanche of political events we had a sense it would unleash made a part of each of us want to see what it would be like just for the thrill. For that same feeling of frisson you get by watching a horror movie. It was as if what we yearned for was a Remain win, but also the opportunity to put on a virtual reality headset and, just, even if it were only for forty-five minutes, experience the seismic reverberations of a world in which Donald Trump were President, an Etonian demagogue our Prime Minister and a European Union coming apart at the seams.
Could this disaster voyeurism stem from a sense of deep existential boredom with the present?
It has often seemed to my generation that we have been removed from any reckoning with history, as though there is a lightness to the existence of our being. Our parents lived lives that were subsumed within a greater narrative of historical meaning- they were the generation of the Cold War, who lived through the reckoning of Capitalism and Communism and saw the Berlin Wall come down. Our grandparents’ lives were coloured by the reckoning of the Second World War, and the wider sense of purpose and identity this gave their generation. But our generation has often seemed one removed from any sense of collective undertaking or historical import. Sometimes it has seemed like history in Europe really did come to an end with the last throws of the Cold War. Absent of any greater political meaning, the void in our lives presented by the lack of any entrenched sort of civic engagement has been filled with a ‘soft’ pop culture that lacks substance, a fetishising of the self’s quest for celebrity and a general sense that ‘interesting times’ are periods that belong to the past. Is it so surprising that in an era in which our lives seem so much lighter in historical definition than those of prior generations, we yearn for crises, periods of ‘thickened history’ in which our country leaves the E.U., ousts its Prime Minister, expresses no confidence in its opposition leader, faces a Scottish-led constitutional crisis and dumps the Sterling all in the space of a few hours?
To me, this is just a symptom of something much more profound that produced itself across the electorate in this referendum. Consider first the arguments that were successful amongst the population in convincing them to vote leave. In the end, they were not the utilitarian, cost-benefit like arguments about whether voting remain or leave would be x amount of pounds better or worse for each household. Nor was the presentation of the immigration in utilitarian terms as something that, despite its effect in inculcating ethnic anxieties amongst the British body politic, exerts an overall beneficial effect on the British economy able to cut the mustard amongst voters.
Rather, feeling disenfranchised in an era of unmanaged globalisation that has only increased in-country wealth differentials, disillusioned with what they see as managerial politics that is acted upon them rather than through them and projecting this sense of loss of control onto the material changes they see around them (increased immigration levels, the parcelling of sovereignty between supra-state, state and sub-state actors), voters have transformed the E.U into a surrogate for the loss of sovereignty not that they feel their country has experienced, but for the loss of control they feel themselves able to exert on their own lives. Brexit was won by appealing to individuals’ desire for self-assertion over economic profit. ‘Take back control’ was such an ingenious slogan because it appealed to individuals’ sense they are no longer sovereign over their own lives. The social meaning individuals’ attach to their acts was much more important than utilitarianism in this debate.
Also of note was the genius of Brexit leaders’ framing of the decision to leave as an extension of the historical mission undertaken by previous generations. Brexit leaders realised that a sense of Britishness depends not only on a sense of imagined community, that even though we will never meet the majority of the sixty-five million other Britons on our isles we still ‘imagine’ them as part of our collective, but also a sense of imagined continuity from one generation to another. Faced with the deep transformation of their communities that globalisation has enacted, and the discontinuity this signals between their lives and the lives of their fathers, voters have been attracted to arguments that stress continuity between their acts and those of their predecessors. In short, we fought for independence during the Second World War, hence we should fight for independence today. The important thing here is that grounding their lives in some sort of historical meaning has proven more attractive to traditional working-class voters than the price of sterling.
It is not surprising in this regard to see the Brexit campaign led by a man with a degree in classics, as well as other individuals who read early-modern history at university. I say this because Boris Johnson et al. seemed to innately ‘get’ that during periods of profound social transformation, reverting to rhetorical strategies that play on voters’ impression of the moral decay of the body politic as a whole, their fear of being left behind in the wake of technological transformation, and project these anxieties onto a hostile out group are hugely successful. Johnson seemed to ape the rhetorical styles of classic orators such as Demosthenes and Claudius of whom he is so well familiar from his time at university, in playing on repeated binaries of light vs darkness and a corrupted present vs a glorious future. And as Thomas Friedman noted so aptly when discussing the recent scholarship of two Oxford professors, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, in his column in The New York Times recently, there is a striking similarity between the populist appeals to self-affirmation of today and a previous historical epoch of tremendous historical transformation and dislocation: the Renaissance. Hence the story of the unexpected political rise of a mid-level Friar, Girolomo Savonarola in 1490’s Florence. Savonarola rose to power on a campaign of anti-intellectualism, disparaging the rise of so-called ‘experts,’ stoking ethnic tensions against immigrants, announcing public purification laws targeting the moral degeneracy of the body politic and asserting the need for ordinary working-men to be re-empowered. Sound familiar?
So strong was the projection of many voters’ sense of a loss of control onto the E.U. that it seemed to assume the status of a social pathology amongst the British populace. Listening to BBC Phone-Ins night after night, the E.U. became a lighting rod for societal frustrations writ large. The institution seemed to attract a great number of outpourings of irrational anger, individuals’ railing against their lives being controlled by ‘Brussels’ even though it was not clear what was meant by this. While the historical comparison is an unfortunate one,and I stand to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable than myself, it was eerily reminiscent from my own perspective at least of the the scapegoating of other collectives that has marked European history. It is somewhat revealing in this regard that Google Trends released an infographic of the top-ten searched questions with regard to the E.U. in the hours following the Leave vote in those areas most pro-Brexit. Questions included ‘What is the E.U.?’, ‘What does it mean to Leave the E.U.?’ and ‘How many members does the E.U. Have?’
Particularly frustrating for pro-Remainers for myself is that we are faced with a pro-Brexit argument that invents the information required for its own validation. Noteworthy here is the ‘E.U. Mythology’ single-handily peddled by Boris Johnson during his time as The Telegraph correspondent in Brussels in the late 80’s and 90’s following his firing from The Times for fabricating quotations. Rather than engage with the substance of E.U. proceedings, Johnson deemed it much ‘sexier’ to invent stories of the E.U. banning the selling of bananas in bunches greater than three, of lurid corruption amongst E.U. officials and the dominating presence of the monolithic Brussels bureaucrat that seeks to meddle in all Britons’ affairs in service of his/her own parochial interests. Now deeply entrenched in the collective imagination, these myths have become so commonplace that the Leave campaign effectively argues according to a basis of ‘facts’ that it itself invented and are thus irrefutable.
And so in all of this, there is an inescapable sense that the magnitude of the political decision born today is actually rooted in elements rather banal and unexceptional. Sentiments of moral decay, disenfranchisement and ethnic outnumbering that tend to be cyclical across history- just look at interwar France or the United States of the 1970’s- have been welded together amongst a coalition of political opportunists and individuals just seeking to have at a voice at a time when economic transformation has produced social dislocation. In this roll of the dice, we seem to have gone from the Last Men of History, those plagued by existential ennui in a consumerist culture devoid of any broader social meaning, to the First Men: those willing to resort to the dog-whistle politics of times we wished were behind us. It is a sad day to be British.
- Alexander Shea is a researcher at Oxford University.