If the Brexit vote shook up Britain like a snow globe, a return to a stable and sedate settlement, however that new landscape may manifest itself, appears unlikely. Intractable debates, contestations and recriminations rumble on in the wake of the referendum result: ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’, a nostalgic turning back of the clock, ‘through the looking glass’, all voiced through plentiful media vox pops dispatched to ‘Brexitland’. There was shock felt in some quarters (in particular, by the ‘establishment’) at the shifting of the country’s tectonic plates.
However, for those familiar with the daily granular issues of life mottled by class, austerity, and long-term sallow de-industrialised spaces in precarious twenty-first century Britain, change in the air was met with a knowingness of recognition. As Gramsci (1971:275-6) states: “from a sociological angle, the idea of a ‘point’ in time is ambiguous, since social crisis rarely takes the form of an instant or event”. To make sense of this pivoting of the country, the EU referendum, as with other events, requires its own calibration It needs to be seen through a sequence, foregrounding the intersection of fragments of the past and the present day. There was no one singular coherent narrative behind the vote to leave.
Taking back control: “the people have spoken and the answer is we’re out”
While usual caveats and warnings against homogeneity apply (e.g. middle-class ‘leave’ voters were also significant), the working-class populist, subversive act of ‘revolt’ against the excesses of a nebulous abstract elite (often referred to as the ‘1 per cent’), cannot be divorced from the open wound of class injuries. In the queues at the local polling stations of my working-class Midlands hometown (like many such places where once seemingly stable future expectations no longer apply), energised middle-aged first-time voters were enquiring to staff how they cast their vote having actively chosen Brexit as a personal act of resistance against the status quo. Previously untroubled by this act of democracy, this time it was different. They wanted to “take back control” and they continue to show little signs of ‘buyers remorse’. The no-vote in the area was explained as them “not knowing what Brexit means”, but the ‘leave’ populist campaign slogan voiced in such voting stations and beyond spoke successfully to emotive and visceral narratives.
Residents’ lives are framed by the dynamic and powerful economic and geographical underpinnings of class including ‘localised’ capital, defined in regard to this town by its precariousness: class vulnerability and economic anxiety (low pay and precarious forms of employment along with a sense of decline) with future trajectories unstable and defined by their fragility. These circumstances have been exacerbated by years of austerity which serve as the spatial and temporal context for Brexit, in particular for those felt left adrift in a period of accelerated social change and an economic system of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Zadie Smith explains: “the notable feature of neoliberalism is that it feels like you can do nothing to change it, but this vote offered up the rare prize of causing a chaotic rupture in a system that more usually steamrolls all in its path”.
The revealing issue behind this first impulse to cast one’s vote in the referendum, in these particular ‘left behind’ locales (often defined by a roots-based intransigent narrative thread, whereby one’s sense of self is easily discomforted by change), was the opportunity it provided for one’s voice to be heard in a political system that rendered them disempowered and all too aware of differentiations in terms of value, worth and social grading. A consequential lack of recognition results in a sense of invisibility and alienation for those cast as persona non grata. The EU referendum, regarded by many as having a greater individual relevancy, provided a release valve for deep-seated cultural and economic vexations. As significant points of energy, these vexations spoke to class-based conflictual social and cultural positionality and social/cultural distances including ‘urban’ v. ‘rural’ and ‘open’ v. ‘closed’.
A binary ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ referendum, however, does not do justice to the complexity of these issues, all of which were conspicuous by their absence during the campaign which failed to analyse “private troubles” and “public issues”. The power to enact change and have a voice against an un-trusted and seemingly self-interested elite was a motivational force based in history and class. Given the opportunity to make a tangible mark of personal resistance, the public will have agency and engage if and when they feel they can make a difference. Thus, there is a wider issue of the current democratic political system breaking the relationship between politicians and the public such that a ‘they are all the same’ (so what is the point in voting?) philosophy has become commonplace. This scepticism does not affect the political class who continue to maintain their political capital and are therefore content with the status quo. It is however a pernicious situation leading to what could be described as class apartheid.
Beyond the knee-jerk pathologising (and even condescension) of those perceived by some to have voted irrationality against their better interests, sober explorations have remained elusive. The vote was more than masochism draped in the British flag and romanticised evocations of the past. Understanding it requires analysis of the dialectical structure/agency relationship. Indeed, the ‘left behind’ (with the inference being they might be able to be ‘kept up’), as a short-hand cultural template, does not identify class as the variegated concept it is. For those whose life is anchored in a small-town communitarian experience, why would they feel especially European? What mutual ground do they have with pro-EU demonstrators whose placards declare: “I’m 15, Brexit stole my future!”? Both views are equally trenchant and intransigent.
“History doesn’t always move forward”
Whatever the post-Brexit route map proves to be, without a class-based focus on the social and economic injustices, the sense of powerlessness and disenfranchisement which laid the foundations for Brexit, there will only continue to be disharmony, polarisation, and yes, righteous anger. Policies of redistribution and regeneration that are not just empty aspirations are imperative for areas already enfeebled by the global circuits of capitalism. No man is an island but that does not mean a retraction and isolationist mentality in uncertain times isn’t anything but an understandable response and one with historical precedence. People need to feel they have a stake in the future, and Brexit makes sense to those who feel they have nothing to lose.
Clearly, a reformation of the political landscape is currently taking place whereby familiar partisan ‘left’ and ‘right’ party allegiances and traditional class determiners are making way for more nuanced political organising principles and territorial configurations including ‘open’ and ‘closed’ and ‘globalist’ and ‘nationalist’ forms of political thinking. Relational concepts of belonging, individualism and identity politics with internal contradictions are consequently elevated in significance as differences bud out of similarities (for example young people may regard themselves as having more portable identities and thereby at the sharp end of the leave vote). The consequence of this individualism is an increasing lack of class solidarity as group loyalties give way to self-pertinent interests paving the way for flux, tensions and disillusionment with (ineffectual) old party politics.
As the ties that bind cut loose, Brexit, representing an evolution for the country, is both continuity and change. As Bauman (2010:38) states: “the site on which we build is always cluttered: the past lingers in the same ‘present’ in which the future tries to take root”. Going forward, British society’s ills can no longer be blamed on Europe as British governments abdicate their own responsibilities. It remains to be seen whether those who diagnosed the problems reached for the right cure. Social change is after all made up of knowns and unknowns. With the ripples of Brexit now in motion, the rudderless wheel of history continues its trajectory.
Bauman, Z. (2010) Living on borrowed time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo’, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Q Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Smith, Z. (18.8.2016) ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’, The New York Review of Books.
Katie Blood is a Bourdieusian sociologist. She studied for a PhD at Nottingham Trent University in the sociology of education.