The two cities superimposed on each other – as though East and West Berlin occupied the same physical space – in China Mieville’s the City and the City is not too far from the reality of the unexpressed conflicting visions in people’s minds. Two people can walk down the same street and be aware that they are in the same country, but imagine that that country is a different place from the way the other imagines it. Each person will think that the view of the other is far more like her own than it is – until there is a political crisis that brings a simplified and caricatured version of those visions out of their heads and onto billboards and screaming headlines.
The EU referendum was one of these crises. Two very different visions of the country – both almost equal in size – were set up to stare aghast at each other in mutual incomprehension.
On the defeated remain side – the 48% of the voters who had complacently assumed that their future was everyone’s- shocked big cities looked down their noses in horror. Sam Johnson’s Eighteenth Century view that “anyone who lives in the provinces is fit to do so” becoming a common theme among better off, self consciously well educated people in the capital. A furious sense of betrayal among many younger people, who no longer dance to the old “patriotic” tunes with the fervour of their elders, whose sense of identity as “Europeans” was bigger than just “British”, felt the result as an abrupt closing in of horizons – that a terrible ugliness had been born.
The leave vote – 52% of voters, 38% of the electorate – grew from anger especially among older, whiter, maler voters in small towns and old industrial areas at being left behind by the slick, faceless, soulless, distant and unaccountable “Brussels bureaucracy” steamrollering ahead in the interests of big money. This was coupled with provincial resentment at the continuing concentration of wealth in cosmopolitan, metropolitan London and other big cities and spiced up with resentment at comer-inners from overseas. This was expressed very forcibly online by one correspondent who wrote “we should build a wall around London.” Although this rallied around a vision of the country that drew hard on the myths that have sustained its self image in an increasingly compensatory way long after the realities on which those myths were based had gone, many of these people would also seek to defend their health service, the prospect of decent jobs and a bit of self respect.
The extent to which the political debate generated by the economic and environmental impasse of neo liberal capital – with the future feeling like a threat and the present a squeeze – with even life expectancy beginning to decline – has been channeled into two false choices – leave the EU and we’ll be back to being a great independent trading nation with good old blue passports, imperial measures and maybe even thru’penny bits – or stay with the EU and everything will be modern and fine and we can keep eating croissants for breakfast- is an attempt to limit political options to two dead ends.
The deliberate hyping up of that debate, using pejorative terms designed to create knee jerk reactions and deepen tribal affinities; “traitors”, “remoaners”, “racists”, “metropolitan elites”, “rednecks” – is an attempt to make allegiance to these dead ends the most deeply felt identification in politics. The logic of this is to break and recast the current political parties into a remain coalition – from the Labour right to the likes of Heseltine and Soubry – and a rump Tory/UKIP greater English nationalist party – thereby marginalising Corbyn and the Labour left.
Neither side in an argument posed in these terms is capable of “uniting the country,” because neither is capable of refounding it on a new basis; and each will leave the other resentful and angry and preparing for trouble. Each is led by competing fractions of capital – one relatively integrated into the EU, happy to settle into a north European spiesseburger democracy; the other seeking a more piratical modus operandi as a smaller, meaner version of the United States; or perhaps a version of Jersey with nuclear weapons and a hinterland of slums.
Because neither of these is a way forward, the task we face is to generate a new hegemonic politics out of this debate that goes beyond both the nostalgic delusions of going it alone – including its left variation (which might be called “Social Democracy in one country”) – and the comparable delusion that trying to unite Europe on the basis of a Hayekian minimal state with as little accountability to its peoples as possible is going to be enough to contain the tensions that its failures have generated.
The focusing of an emerging left alternative in the form of a Corbyn government preparing from a Green new deal and a quantum shift in economic strategy and international alignments – which has echoes across the continent and in the United States – concentrates the minds of all those trying to maintain the old broken framework. It makes the current risky polarisation into Brexit tribes an imperative, even when it creates paralysis, because there is an alternative on the horizon and there is palpable fear that it might win an election.