Tell me why this world is a mess: a demoralised nationalism researcher goes to the polling station
The way back from my polling station leads past a pub which coincidentally or not, last night on the eve of the EU referendum, was playing ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 out of its beer garden as loud as a soundtrack while I was walking home.
Any brief irrational comfort that might have given me about how the vote will go seeped out again when all on its own my first-thing-in-the-morning brain picked (we don’t do subtle here) Amy McDonald/’Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over’ as today’s morning earworm and so that’s basically where we are.
Though the summer-in-the-middle-of-uni, nothing’s-really-final-yet atmosphere you get from the average Amy McDonald song (or at least both the ones that come round on shuffle every so often – I’m not sure I could tell the rest apart from KT Tunstall) might get at why I’ve found it so difficult to write from my own perspective about the effect that the referendum is having on national identity – as opposed to sharing the writing of people who have a lot more immediately at stake from the result than I do, which has been the main way for my online self to make sense of the how-the-hell-did-it-even-get-to-this-point feel of the whole campaign.
If taste and identity and self are all linked together, which of course they are, then the first time I felt like I was developing tastes and interests autonomously rather than in reaction to others was all happening inside a container shaped like ‘Europe’, between GCSEs and the first year or two of university, between about 1998 and 2001.
‘Europe’ was a frame of reference and of course I belonged in it: European histories that went beyond and around and between the few big country-stories you’d encounter in school History, even at ours; access to the imaginative possibilities of different literatures beyond what someone had bothered to translate, and maybe one day I could; drilling down into the national pop musics I caught glimpses of through the Eurovision Song Contest; the everyday pan-Europeanness of the range of names on my school register; understanding that the past wasn’t just a matter of similar things happening in different countries at the same time but a set of international, transnational ideological struggles.
Mixed, at the time, with a disidentification from ‘Britishness’ which now that I think about it was probably a disidentification from a straight, coupled-up national community where I didn’t seem to have a mapped-out place.
(There was a queer dimension to identifying *with* Europe, as well, now I think about *that*; the space where I started being able to recognise ‘women who looked like me’, whatever that meant, was the result of all sorts of mobilities and cultural exchanges between Britain and Italy Spain Greece Germany France Hungary Croatia Portugal; I was queer and European before I had any sense of being queer and British.)
It would have been unimaginable at the turn of the millennium, at least for me, to think that Britain would even be voting on leaving the EU, let alone coming this close to actually choosing it, less than twenty years later.
But then a lot of other things unimaginable at the turn of the millennium have mostly happened too.
The other thing that’s demoralised me so much about the referendum campaign – moving from he personal to the public – isn’t even the extent of open racism or xenophobia that finds an ever larger platform in the media’s need for 50/50 ‘balance’ in a two-question referendum; it’s the much larger groundswell of indifference it feels like it must have revealed in order for a Leave campaign with the premises it has to even be polling this well.
Yet it’s the premises of the Leave and Remain campaigns together that have put UK residents with EU passports in a position where, even before any result goes through, they’ve been left feeling as if they need to prove their economic net worth to the British nation or be held responsible for the consequences of scarcity politics that are a result of UK government decisions, more than EU decisions.
Both campaigns have acquiesced in presenting immigration as in itself causing shortages and social tension, and in casting non-UK passport holders as an economic burden to society – which even when you refute it is still where the conversation is.
A referendum which according to some readings was only even called so that the prime minister could score an internal point within his own party has left 3 million people with the political atmosphere being flipped around them in a matter of months – from never questioning your freedom of movement rights, to wondering whether your job will depend on a work permit, whether the government will impose an income test you won’t pass, whether you’ll need to go through a naturalisation process you never expected to need in order to carry on with the same life that you’d planned.
In the meantime, depending on UK citizens to decide your future for you, and having to rely on vague assurances that in the event of a Leave vote ‘it’ll probably be OK’ for EU citizens already living here – when you’ve seen friends and co-workers from outside the EU being hammered over the last few years with restrictions that they never imagined when they committed to moving to the UK either.
The UK political consensus was already around reducing immigrants’ lives to a budget line of value, but the tone of these referendum campaigns has suddenly demonstrated to even more people that their belonging to the nation is conditional and how quickly it can be taken away.
In a different kind of way I’m aware that EU workers’ rights laws give me an extra layer of insulation between me and the homophobe who wants to cause a moral panic around how someone like me shouldn’t be in charge of young people’s welfare in a university.
(Last night’s other image from my walk home: Jo Cox’s photo added to the flowers, tributes and candles from the vigil for Orlando last week, still in front of the Hull Cenotaph.)
They’re imperfect laws and they don’t do anything to change the fact that the same European institution polices its borders so tightly it would rather see thousands of people drown at sea than allow them to board flights and settle legally in the states that constitute it. They still have a psychological effect which over time has encouraged me to be more innovative in my teaching and research, more open and supportive with colleagues and students, than I might have been.
Replace that with an extra nagging anxiety, multiply that by the number of people who gain some sense of security from this or any other part of EU workers’ rights – and I can’t imagine that a UK government like the current one would ‘take back control’ in order to extend those further – and you have another dimension of the anxiety that the protracted uncertainty after a Leave vote would cause. But at least I have a one fifty-millionth or so of a say in the outcome.
I’m as apprehensive of a low turnout as I am of a Leave result itself because of what it feels like it would reveal about the public’s level of empathy. With so much at stake for people who haven’t had a vote, how could you not use yours if you had one?
And I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.
Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so, but how does anyone know?
Even if the result turns out to be Remain, which the latest polls seemed to suggest after all, the campaigns have caused a rip in the social fabric that will take serious work to repair.
Where do we start tomorrow?