What Can We Do?

This was originally given as a talk at Cal Folger Day’s Nonfiction Nite in Dublin on 3 July 2016.


My first response to the referendum result was shock. London, where I live, voted for Remain—as did almost everyone I know—and yet the majority of the country voted to Leave. My thoughts turned to social media. A community should contain a plurality of views, but social media filters out dissenting opinion, creating these insular back-slapping little bubbles. Psychologically, as Claude Steele said in the 1980s, we have a tendency to use new information to reinforce our prior sense of self. The information we scroll through on Facebook rarely challenges us—not in the way real people do. Instead, it offers a warm bath of self-affirmation. But the referendum made another reality painfully clear: the UK is divided along boundaries of geography, class, age and ethnicity. And the most tragic thing is this: if we can’t even see it, what can we do?


The response among many of my friends loosely followed the Kübler-Ross model of grief: first there was denial, then anger, then bargaining and depression, but precious little acceptance. People said they weren’t British anymore; they were ashamed of their country; they were leaving. Some called for London to leave the UK. They poured scorn on the “uneducated bigots” who voted Leave and railed against the fact that older people—in a last angry swipe before kicking the bucket—had mainly voted Leave. And that was the nice stuff.

Some said things like “What really saddens me is that this is going to hurt those weakest in society the most”, and argued for a second referendum or for this one to be annulled—why trigger Article 50 when it was only advisory! If people had been better informed, they said, they’d have voted to Remain.

And it’s true, the referendum was mismanaged, with the almost-endless free movement of lies and half-truths. Maybe if everyone had been more politically engaged—ideally with stable jobs, decent houses and university degrees—then Remain would have won comfortably. As it was, and is, to ignore or annul the results would only make those 17.4 million people who voted Leave feel (with some justification) more bitter and more excluded than ever. And UKIP, of course, would be waiting with open arms—a party which thrives on resentment.

Perhaps a two-thirds majority should have been required for a decision of this magnitude. Perhaps the legal ramifications of leaving/remaining should been worked out beforehand and properly explained. A lot of stuff could and should have been done differently. But however much we march around and say we love Europe now, it’s not going to make much difference. Remain voters need to drop the bullshit.

Turnout was 72%, higher than in any General Election since 1992. As David Runciman points out: “The margin between the two sides—3.8 per cent—was roughly the same as the margin by which Obama defeated Romney in the 2012 presidential election (3.9 per cent), and you don’t hear a lot of people complaining about the legitimacy of that”. When Boris Johnson won the 2012 London Mayoral Election turnout was a pitiful 38.1%. That doesn’t seem fair to me. But to take issue with it involves asking much larger questions about how our democracy functions, or doesn’t.


My friends in London, whether they have money or not (most don’t), still have the kind of cultural and social capital that provide them with opportunities.

In a brilliant short documentary, Sheena Moore, a social worker from Stainforth who voted Leave, talks about the view from up north: “We see the south as privileged… and we know there’s poor pockets but, when you go to London, you can see the wealth.” In the south, though the wealth may not be equally distributed, it’s everywhere evident. In Stainforth and other small towns in Yorkshire, where the pits, the chicken factory, the sewing factory and the pubs have all closed, it’s nowhere evident and nowhere distributed. “In Doncaster town central,” Moore says, “you can’t see and feel the wealth. It can’t get any worse. Job losses—we’ve had forty years of job losses.”

She meets a man on the street—a British Asian man—and asks him why he voted Leave. At first he gives the usual line about immigration and taking back control, but when pushed, when actually engaged with, it becomes clear that the real issue—the “bones of it”—is jobs. Jobs that disappeared with the closing of the mines and haven’t come back. This voice isn’t being heard. Instead, my Facebook stream—I don’t know about yours—is full of those sneering man-on-the-street vox pops, where people with regional accents get two seconds to say something racist and/or stupid before it cuts to someone else.

The facts are these: 62% of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers voted to Leave, as did 62% of those in casual labour (zero hours contracts) and dependent on welfare payments. These people felt they had nothing left to lose, and when you feel like you have nothing left to lose, when change is an everyday part of your life, you weigh risk differently.

This is borne out by Lord Ashcroft’s poll. Most people who voted Remain were risk-averse and, in making their decision, prioritised threats to the economy, jobs and prices. The reason most people gave for voting Leave, on the other hand, was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” It wasn’t immigration but “taking control” that rang truest. For casualised workers scattered across Wales, the north and the midlands, in former coal-mining and industrial towns, life was already precarious, and the promise of greater “control”, however illusory—a chance also to show the affluent south they still existed—was jumped at.


The way I’ve been talking about the referendum has been mainly socio-economic. Some people disagree with this approach. They’d rather place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Leave campaign (or an incompetent Remain campaign, or just Jeremy Corbyn). These nationwide divisions are, for them, cultural. They cite evidence suggesting that people who voted Leave—who are scared of immigrants and multiculturalism—also favour public floggings. They point to the upsurge in racial harassment. Leave voters aren’t poor and disenfranchised, they say. They just like law and order and hate immigrants. They’re just ignorant “Little Englanders”.

Now I don’t want to downplay the recent spate of racist attacks and street-level abuse. I think the referendum has emboldened a minority of people to act on their prejudices. But I think it’s dangerous to talk about this without context. Racism can only be fought once you understand its roots, its causes—once you understand it has roots and causes.

Discussions of racism often focus on how it operates—hate speech, graffiti, vandalism, violence, cultural appropriation—with the aim of various campaigns (like UEFA’s “No to Racism” campaign) being to get people not to say or do racist things. There’s nothing wrong with this (and much that’s good) but the assumption, as with telling a child not to stick their fingers in shit, is that explaining the reasons why will only take too long or prove unpersuasive. It’s a lot easier just to say Don’t do it!

The problem is, a person can avoid saying or doing “racist” things without coming any closer to understanding—or believing in—the point of it. Hence a community that appears peaceful and tolerant one day can descend into violent conflict the next. (This is often the case in Indonesia, where my mum is from, which is only ever one economic crisis away from spiralling into ethnic conflict.)

It’s more important to understand how oppression and discrimination work, the ways in which they rely on a belief in clearly defined, homogenous groups (“Blacks”, “Asians”) which don’t exist. Racism happens when people ignore the intersecting matrix of language, culture and tradition in favour of an abstract belief in ethnic clarity. When they refuse to engage with people as they are.


I think the narrative we should be looking at—which arches over and includes those strains of anti-immigrant and racist feeling—is the desire for order and control. Many commentators act as if this came from nowhere, whipped into existence by Farage and Gove. But material and psychological instability don’t emerge overnight. This is where the history—the context—of the last fifty years comes in.

The spread of votes based on educational attainment has been used by some—embarrassingly, stupidly—to argue that those who voted Leave were simply dumb and ignorant (with the very old-fashioned implication that only those with university degrees should have been allowed to vote!). But what it really points to is the ever-widening gulf that’s opened up in our society between the rich and poor.

Data collected by the Equality Trust shows that the share of income going to the top 10% of the population fell in the postwar decades—it was 34.6% in 1938 and 21% in 1979—while the share going to the bottom 10% rose. But since 1979, this process of “narrowing inequality has reversed sharply.” In 2010 (the latest year for which data is available), 45% of all wealth in the UK was held by the richest 10%. The poorest 10% held only 1%. When New Labour left office, there were more working families in poverty than there had been in thirty years.

Income growth at the top

What’s worse, as studies in the US have shown, politicians are more receptive to the concerns of middle- and high-income voters (the people who donate to election campaigns), and so inequality becomes entrenched: the rich lobby for policies that will make them richer; the voiceless poor get poorer.

In the UK, this was offset for a long time by the influence of the trade unions (and the “old” Labour Party), who lobbied for the interests of working people. With the weakening of both, working people lost their say in the political process. As Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister, has noted: the gap between AB turnout (managers and professionals) and DE turnout (unskilled and manual workers) increased from 6 points in 1992 to 19 points in 2010. People knew their vote would make minimal difference, so they stopped turning up. That is, until Thursday 23rd June.


At the beginning, I asked what can we do? Like everyone else, I’m flailing for answers. But the first thing we can do—as always—is to look around us and to look backwards: to try to see what the hell’s going on and then to understand it in terms of those wider changes which have been occurring over the past forty years. What next? Talk about it, learn from each other.

Last year, the Home Secretary (and probable future Prime Minister) Theresa May said that it would be “impossible to build a cohesive society” with immigration—she then introduced (I guess to help with cohesion) a £200 annual “health surcharge” for immigrants. Having grown up in London, being the child of a first-generation immigrant, I know it isn’t immigration which prevents the building of cohesive societies. Successful societies, more often than not, arise when different peoples come together, sharing their skills and abilities.

As Antonio Gramsci said, society is not a “one-way process of political management”. But in the managed democracy of the pre-recession era we learned to let go. We can’t be defeatist or passive now. There’s no time for mourning. We need to come together, provide opposition, and pressure the Conservative Party to hold an election—either later this year or early next—to ensure they don’t use our withdrawal from the EU to trigger a further transfer of wealth (and democratic representation) from the poorest to the wealthiest in our society.

We also need to understand that desire for control felt by those 17.4 million people and to steer it away from bigotry. Control of borders, of migration, is a red herring—an issue manufactured by a political elite keen to distract us from the greater depredations of our economic system. As Sheena Moore and others have shown, people are aware of this. But how can we channel that latent anger into organised forms of resistance?

Bursting the bubble—or trying to see beyond the bubbles we inhabit—might be a start. If you can travel, travel. Connect with other parts of the country. Refuse to accept the narrative that we are divided, because if you do it will become self-reinforcing, self-fulfilling.

The referendum result is no doubt going to hurt middle-income wages—especially if we re-enter a recession—but it’s also going to hurt entrenched interests. While the political deck is split, or being reshuffled, opportunities present themselves. We have to put forward another narrative to counter the anti-immigrant one—another understanding of control that doesn’t play to the fears but to the aspirations of this country. To close the divide between local and cosmopolitan, rich and poor, migrant and native.

I can’t tell other people what to do. I basically just write about things. But everyone has to contribute in their own way, and that’s how a society should work. With people deciding for themselves how best they can contribute. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.


Last week the poet Geoffrey Hill died. A brilliant and self-consciously English writer (but not in a bigoted tub-thumping “Little Englander” way), he thought of poetry as a means of resistance, a way of holding out against the venal simplifications and manipulative rhetoric of politicians and the media.

In an interview in 2000, Hill said: “one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations… resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.”

For me, despite the gloomy tone, there’s hope in this. If only we can see beyond the “slogans of incitement,” the simple-minded narratives. Because in language—as in people—there’s complexity, ambiguity and ambivalence. Acknowledging this, seeking it out, is the first thing we can do, the first step to resisting.


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