Brexit Day : A Ghetto of the Mind

Leaving Europe: What Great Britain is about to lose. An angry elegy.

John Burnside
Brexit-Tristesse: Die Flagge des Vereinigten Königreichs spiegelt sich in einer Pfütze.
Brexit-Tristesse: Die Flagge des Vereinigten Königreichs spiegelt sich in einer Pfütze.Foto: dpa/AP/Francisco Seco

John Burnside is a Scottish novelist and poet, born in Dunfermline in 1955. His latest publication in English is „The Music of Time: Poetry In The Twentieth Century“ (Profile Books). He wrote this essay exclusively for „Der Tagesspiegel“.

After many twists and turns, not to mention the innumerable instances of blind folly, culpable ignorance and outright deceit that brought us here, Britain is finally leaving the European Union – and in saying goodbye, I suddenly come to see how very homogenous my immediate circle of acquaintances has become.

As I look back over the fiasco of ‘Brexit’, I realise that, for the first time in my life, I quite literally do not know one single person who voted to leave – or at least, no one who is prepared to say so – and this troubles me deeply.

Even when Margaret Thatcher won the General Election in 1979, I was aware of several perfectly sane and decent people who were drawn to her brand of Conservatism and I somehow remained on speaking terms with a few, if not all, of those renegades who blithely fell for the confidence trick that was "New Labour", back in 1994.

On Brexit, however, it’s very different. I live in a ghetto of the mind where everyone in my immediate circle – everyone, from colleagues to family to our country postman – claims to have voted Remain. And, unlikely as it might once have seemed, I have no reason whatsoever for doubting them.

We are all defined, to some extent, by the company we keep, but community, these days, is based less on home place, family background and religion, and more, thanks to modern communications, on shared experiences, common predicaments and mutual enthusiasms.

Divided society

For example, I see myself today, not as ‘middle-class’, but simply as a professional worker, because today, society is divided into just two groups: those who work for a living and the One Percent who live off private money and property holdings. Add to this that I live in Scotland, where the majority in all 32 council areas, voted Remain.

This is not insignificant and the reasons for that majority are deeply connected with the One Percenter problem, for Scotland is still the most feudal country in Europe, with more than half of the land owned by fewer than 500 people and, as author and activist Andy Wightman has said: “The land on which many of [those] lairds sit was stolen in the 17th century [and] these ill-gotten gains were protected by acts which maintained their hegemony after the rest of Europe ditched feudalism and concentrated land ownership.”

Historically, then, those landowners’ rights have been upheld in Scotland from below the border, which means that the average Scot has long had good cause to mistrust Westminster and the City of London.

John Burnside gehört zu den bedeutendsten Erzählern und Dichtern unserer Zeit. An der St. Andrews University lehrt er Kreatives Schreiben.
John BurnsideFoto: Fedephoto/StudioX/Knaus

Railing against the European courts

Not surprisingly, when Brexiteers chunter on about ‘national sovereignty’, Scots tend to assume that this means English sovereignty, and when old Etonians and business leaders rail against the European Courts, we tend to worry about a return to 1980s-era deregulation that (as Trump is showing in the USA) would continue that decade’s assaults on labour rights, healthcare and the environment.

In short, where the One Percent see Europe as contravening their sovereignty, we have regarded the Union as a rare line of defence against exploitation.

Finally, I am old enough to recall that, in spite of being raised in one of the poorest areas of the country, I was afforded free higher education under the enlightened policies of what we now call ‘Old’ Labour, (and yes, this is highly relevant to the outcome of the referendum: a study conducted at the University of Leicester showed that, had just 3 per cent more of the UK population gone to college, the Remain camp would almost certainly have prevailed).

Education and intelligence

That this percentage is so low is surely food for thought. For, while I know that education and intelligence do not always go together, it is still worrying to think that, as The Independent reported of the Leicester study: “The level of higher education […] was far more important than age, gender, the number of immigrants, or income, in predicting the way an area voted.” But why is it worrying? Shouldn’t it be encouraging to think that a growth in education can lead, visibly, to a better understanding of politics?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, it is good to see the value of an education demonstrated in such a direct way. However, it cannot be denied that, in recent years, governments have been clawing back the benefits of the wider liberal education fostered by those old Socialist policies, especially in the UK, where anti-intellectualism is rife.

By the same token, it is clear that the objective is not only a reduction in the number of informed college-educated citizens, but also a trivialization of the education process in itself.

Academic life has become less rigorous

Anyone who works in further or higher education today can see how much less rigorous academic life has become; could it be that, having recognized how much a workable democracy relies upon high standards of critical thinking, the less scrupulous of our ‘leaders’ gladly tolerate the new culture of fake news, ‘alternative facts’ and wishful histories that, as crude as they may be, make us that little bit more susceptible to spin and (let’s call it by its true name) governmental and commercial deceit?

Pockets of remaining excellence notwithstanding, it is quite hard to doubt this scenario. This systematic ‘dumbing down’ (especially when it comes to critical thinking) may not have been planned, as such, but it is convenient.

To maintain a vast earnings gap, to govern by constant distraction and fostered apathy, to continually fluff climate change, species loss, ocean acidification (the list goes on) it makes sense to ensure that the general population are not too well-informed.

Sad confirmation of a strategy

That education (or rather, a lack of education) played such a significant role in the success of the Leave camp is the sad confirmation of a long-term political strategy, by which intelligence has consistently been depicted in the entertainment media as decidedly uncool, while a certain brand of amoral cunning is seen, not only as worldly-wise and oddly suave, but also more realistic in a dog-eat-dog world.

There is nothing realistic, however, in dog-eat-dog. True, real-life dogs will occasionally turn upon each other, but only in extremis – which means that, to make the prevailing dog-eat-dog philosophy appear both credible and inevitable, our leaders must keep us permanently in a highly stressed state.

Reduce the societal pressure for any length of time and people might start working together and, in the process, discovering the communal benefits of doing so.

Looking around at my fellow-workers, I cannot help recalling Jacques Chardonne’s remark: “Les gens sont si bien disciplinés qu'ils ont peur de tout ce qui est libre. Ils n'aiment vraiment que leur fonction sociale. Ils mettent leur bonheur dans ce qui est utile : la famille, un métier, la propriété... Ils ont perdu leur véritable instinct ... la faculté de jouir de la vie dans un monde perpétuellement jeune.”

A sense of personal space

Chardonne also knew, however, that this faculté de jouir requires confidence, a sense of personal space and a heterogeneous society in which dialogue is not only possible, but relished.

What Brexit has brought home to me, however, is that such dialogue has long been absent from my daily life. I don’t know my political opponents, because we have been so carefully isolated and constantly assured that meaningful dialogue is beyond our capabilities (apparently, because we are so mutually and incurably deplorable).

My Christian friends exhort us all to love our enemies, but how can we love those with whom we never break bread or encounter, on neutral ground, for quiet and reasoned debate? Like the United States under Trump, my society has become more and more polarised: there are people out there who voted Leave, but I do not know them, and I cannot imagine having any kind of meaningful conversation with them.

"Drain the swamp"

When I hypothesise about motives, I propose to myself that, like Trump voters, my Brexiteer country-folk had their own reasons for wanting to protest against the status quo in British politics – that, like our American cousins, they wanted to see someone ‘drain the swamp’ – and this is a sentiment I can share.

However, like our American cousins, my countrymen registered that protest by voting for the largest and blowsiest con-man they could find, almost relishing the absurdity of his lies and his cock-of-the-walk preening (how could we have missed what was to come, considering how similar these new leaders were? In politics only one thing is certain: The God of Hairstyles is never wrong…)

But then, the great triumph, and perhaps the one catechismal aim of the property class is to divide and rule those of us who work by offering us such preposterous idols to love and deplore, in more or less equal, but fatally entertaining measure. At the same time, they ensure that we who work are divided against one another: that my Brexiteer neighbour is as bewildering to me as I am to her.

A chance to come to terms with others

For me, what Europe offered most was a chance to talk, to disagree, to navigate and to come to terms with others – in short, to live humanely. For now, that has been taken away – and there are dark times ahead. I pray that we weather them well and finally come together again when wisdom prevails, to resume the difficult and lovely conversations that, even as they record our disagreements, also show us at our best.

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