We cannot leave developing a future vision for Britain to the Brexiteers, writes LIBBY CHERRY
Whether it’s Boris Johnson using casual racism for press attention or Trump’s antics, it is easy to view the last few years as a populist explosion that has usurped the rational rules-based systems of our liberal democracies. But this viewpoint is not only misguided, it is also dangerously alienating. Brexit, really, has precipitated no major change in our national values. Rather, it has merely provoked a new-found scrutiny on flaws that were always present in our political system.
Yes, Brexit has taken up, and will take up, an enormous amount of government resources in terms of money and policy-thinking. But the issues our country faces – huge inequality, climate change, stagnating wages, a fixation on ‘growth’ – have always been historically ignored and pushed aside by government, bolstered by a journalistic class that sees little of life outside of London.
This complacency about a world prior to 2016 is evident in some Remain rhetoric. Take, for example, the jobs at Nissan and Airbus which risk being cut if the UK does not remain in the single market. These are often cited as key reasons for remaining in the EU – without these factories, tens of thousands would be left unemployed. But these are not the arguments we should be using for remaining in the EU. A job may be better than no job. But considering them qualitatively, these are not roles that satisfy the ambitions and talents of all young people living outside of commercial centres yet they are often the only option for those young people living in their vicinity.
Londoners simplistically point to these factories as evidence of Leave-voting provinces relying on the EU, giving credence to the adage that ‘Remainers think Leavers are stupid’ and subtly reinforcing the notion that Remainers think the status quo is adequate. They fail to appreciate that the entire local culture in deprived areas – where young people leave school with only a very limited range of career paths – needs to be transformed.
These issues are often less to do with government policy than the absence of it. One of our stunts for OFOC took us to a Westminster food bank, which was administered by the local church. The organiser of the bank charted a history of mixed government responses towards the bank – at first castigating them for allowing poverty to continue, before championing them as an example of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.
Yet the material reality of the situation remained the same: no funding, and little attention from government, who nevertheless relied on them to offer a palliative to hunger without offering any policy to tackle the issue at its roots. The ignoring of millions of people in this country, already bad enough, will be ‘justified’ by the cataclysm of Brexit – whatever deal we happen to get.
Furthermore, many of the scandals around Brexit are nothing new – rather they are reflections of how government has always been run. Unearthed ran revelations in July which illustrated how a right-wing think tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs, was acting as a middleman in bringing together their American donors seeking to influence a potential post-Brexit UK-US trade deal with UK ministers in ‘intimate dinners’. Their end goal being, of course, to flood the British market with substandard American goods to the detriment of the health of the British people.
A People’s Vote thus cannot be seen as merely a turning back of the clocks to 2016 – nor would campaigners want it to be. Whilst life in the EU for many is far from perfect, these are decisions that have categorically nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with central government priorities. Brexit offers values and priorities that have systematically created the desperately unequal society we live in today to be further entrenched in our legislation. The EU’s priorities, in contrast, are clear: their structural funds in the UK give money to tackling NEETS and fostering entrepreneurship, supporting policies that counter climate change and offering funds to support creative industries outside of the capital.
We need to re-frame the connotations of calling for a People’s Vote. Andy Burnham said a second vote would cause ‘real unrest’ in Manchester, with the implication being that a People’s Vote is a reversion to the status quo, an overriding of the Leave vote and all the problems that caused it. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
‘Change’ may be the buzzword of Brexiteers and can seem off-putting to Remainers who have, demographically, are more likely to be well-educated and looked after by the current system. Huge change may seem anathema to stereotypical liberal compromise. But we cannot leave vision to the Brexiteers. Those campaigning for a People’s Vote need to recognise how the progressive values we ostensibly champion do not manifest in our current society.
We have already seen Brexit as evidence of the social repercussions of continual silence on reforming policy – we can’t let the active dismantling of what little we have degrade this country even further.
Libby Cherry is the co-president of Our Future, Our Choice’s chapter at Oxford University.