The active role for culture in a divided nation
A surprising number of people have said to me lately that they don’t know any Leave supporters at all. So I think I should say that Leave voters include members of my family, neighbours, and friends I have met through my non-work related interests.
I’m trying to understand why they voted Leave (which are not uniform, although – yes – immigration is a common theme), even though I disagree passionately with the decision they took. Many people feel ignored and disempowered by the political establishment and were delighted at the chance to say “fuck you” to their recommendations. Others blame different aspects of the EU for their woes – from immigration to the decline of the fishing industry to perceived threats to their culture to a vague fear of “faceless” unaccountable bureaucrats. Others, yes, I think were misled by the lies and propaganda sent out by ambitious, mendacious politicians and promoted by tabloids owned by an anti-EU tycoon. But, as we know, the Remain campaign’s response to those misrepresentations was too late and rather feeble.
In any case, how could complex arguments for our membership of the European Union and the ramifications of withdrawing be explained and conveyed through a campaign motivated by power play and presented as a stark IN/OUT choice? It took me quite a lot of research to understand, even partially, the various ramifications of the decision I was about to take; time which most people don’t have.
Of course, I am bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the vote. I am desperately worried for all our EU immigrants and visitors – as well as, frankly, anyone with a non-white skin – who appear now to be being openly insulted by loons who have misunderstood this vote as some kind of validation of their racist isolationist ideologies. I am scared for the protection of our environment, deeply concerned for my son, given the work done by the EU to give rights to disabled people, worried about my daughter’s future, and frightened of an extreme right mandate emerging from this. Culturally, I feel European as well as British, English, etc, etc. Selfishly, I don’t want to lose my freedom to travel and work in Europe. But those of us in the Remain ‘camp’ need to understand that we have more in common than we realise with many Leave voters. Particularly those frustrated people in communities who feel left behind by economic growth, their industries decimated by Thatcher, their community spirit and personal wellbeing shat on by so-called “austerity” policies, (sparked by banking idiocy, in which they played no part, and a political ideology that they probably didn’t vote for) and their voices totally ignored. Remainers state their bafflement at communities who appear to have scorned the EU’s investment in their communities. But handouts from the EU don’t rebuild community spirit and pride.
As for the demographic analysis of who was IN and who was OUT: it’s helpful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I fall into a number of OUT demographics. I am not a young person and I live in a small town that voted to leave (“Little England”). Conversely, Leave voters include many whom we assume would vote Remain: immigrants – both EU and non-EU -, people with degrees, academics, socialists, artists, scientists, young people, disabled people, those who care about the environment, Londoners, Scottish people, and people in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Leave camp also includes people with whom I would find very little in common, and those with whom I would find it pretty impossible to have a fact-based tolerant conversation, but I’m just saying there are many with whom we can talk.
I believe that leaving the EU and the single market is bad news for us all. We are all victims of a political and media campaign of over-simplification, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lies, sparked by an internal party political struggle. Handing power to those who don’t believe in the welfare state, nor in rebuilding and investing in communities left out in the cold by the UK’s economic growth, and who intend to dismantle the NHS, is not something that many Leave voters intended.
I am not being an apologist for the bigotry, racism and violence that emerged during the campaigning and since the vote. It is disgusting and shocking. Yet I hope we may prevent further division and bolster the tolerance and openness that still exists across our society. Somehow, we need to find a new political conversation that is more informed, kinder, more inclusive and nuanced, before we head down this road of no turning back and find ourselves in a more divided world than the one we already live in. This conversation is going to be desperately needed, whether we proceed with Article 50 and leave the EU, or (and perhaps even more so) if the desperate attempts to circumvent it are successful or the whole thing is fudged.
How does art and culture play a role here?
I’m not sure that we will get this new conversation, this lead, this honesty, from politicians. With one or two honorable exceptions, they are still – 3 days after the referendum – hiding in their sixth form common rooms, squabbling about who is going to be head prefect. We can, of course, keep lobbying them, hoping they will eventually get their shit together. And as for the EU leaders baying for our exit before the dust has even settled on this momentous (and advisory) referendum, how unhelpful and divisive can you get? Shame on them as representatives of a united Europe.
But party politics and policy, in any case, change back and forth with the prevailing wind. Our role in the arts is to affect and change culture. This is more permanent. We need to make work within the communities that are not in the major cities and who are not the usual audiences. We need to make work and open conversations around complex issues such as migration, race, climate and environmental change, the commons, how to nurture health and a sense of well being, and disability rights. We need to work with scientists, other experts and communities to do this: we need informed conversations. But even more than this, we need to create new visions of the tolerant, progressive, inclusive society we could be. We need to seed hope. Art, as ever, has a role to play.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.