Yesterday in Parliament, the new Minister for Brexit revealed the hitherto elusive meaning of Brexit. ‘Brexit,’ he announced, ‘means leaving the European Union.’ So that’s cleared that up, then.
But Brexit doesn’t really mean leaving the EU. If we do leave the EU, those who voted Leave will not suddenly find joy and happiness. Unless their Japanese or German employer abruptly relocates to the Czech Republic, they won’t notice any difference at all. For Brexit is not an answer to a question, even if seventeen million people thought it was. The lack of a plan was not mere incompetence; the void is the point.
Or do I mean, the void is the mood?
Which brings us to the thing that, unlike Brexit, has a meaning, a shape, a definition. Brexitism.
It was reading Anthony Cartwright in Granta that made me realise that Brexitism is real. Cartwright is a fine writer of literary fiction who knows and understands his Black Country, even as he observes it from North London. And the Black Country voted to leave the European Union by a hefty margin.
It’s not ‘typical’ Brexit-land. What is? Each region has its own distinctive history and character. If I look up from my laptop, framed on the wall in front of me is a photograph of a Black Country chain maker. They are metal bashers in the Black Country, and my photograph was from a project in which Black Country museums and galleries commissioned Martin Parr to capture the region’s life and times. I don’t know whether Parr has photographed Swindon or Sunderland, let alone Cornwall or the South Wales valleys, but however singular Parr’s sly artistic eye, each region would look utterly different.
For what binds the Brexit regions is not voicelessness, or marginalisation, or a sense of being ‘left behind’. It is not a ‘big cities’ Vs ‘small towns’ thing, either. Brexit voters can be “jag and gin” prosperous, or zero-hours desperate. Many are homeowners, free of mortgages, enjoying pensions, who must have seen their votes as positive and rational. Something else, something not material, moves them, motivates them.
That motivation, that feeling – for the vote was primarily about feelings – is Brexitism.
Brexitism is real. Visit a Brexit area, and you can see it, taste it, touch it.
Whilst Brexiteer politicians shout rhetoric about being outward-facing, buccaneering, and proud, Brexitism is the very opposite. It’s about putting up barriers, a mindset of defensiveness and fear, and a reliance on ‘someone else’ to make decisions about anything bigger than what colour you paint the front door, or which economical hatchback you drive. Brexitism is deferential; far from wanting to ‘take back control’, the Brexitist wants someone to ‘be in control’ – and even more, to be seen to be in control.
Cities, or places with the qualities of cities, tended to vote Remain. The qualities of cities are liveliness, nightlife, arts venues, cafe culture, restaurants, plenty of places to occupy outside the four walls of one’s home. Cities constantly surprise with the evidence of individual enterprise everywhere, from the art galleries and bistros of the prosperous areas, to the food shops and balti houses of the poorer, more diverse areas. Many small towns have this quality,too; little Bohemias with thriving High Streets. The point is that these are places of can-do optimism, filled with people who don’t wait for others to provide things for them, even when they haven’t got very much. (This is also why migrants are so productive and beneficial.) Brexitism has no appeal to lively places.
But in Brexitist areas there are homes, and cars, and schools, and job centres. There are ‘out of town’ shopping malls with the same stores (Next, Sports Direct, Matalan, Brantano). Want a cup of tea when out shopping? In Brexitist areas, that’s more likely to be the cafe in the giant Tesco, than an independent cafe run by a local. Brexitism is the absence of agency. It is boring.
People don’t enjoy being bored, but they do get used to it. The comfort of the familiar, the unchallenging. It’s a kind of passive unhappiness.
But there’s a paradox in all this. The discussion stirred up by the referendum, even where it was ill-informed and sometimes unpleasant, was a form of social engagement not usually found in Brexitism. People got organised, discussed politics, some individuals discovered that they could be articulate, could provide leadership. These are transferable skills which, if not now left to fade, could transform their communities. It is imperative that it is not just parties and movements of the populist right who seize the opportunity this presents.
Half the country is dying of boredom. The task of politicians – and the rest of us – is to offer them something else, but gently, slowly, working with, not against their Brexity fearfulness. Sadly, I don’t see much chance of this happening any time soon.