The United Kingdom is getting out of the European Union. / Tyler Merbler
Laurie Penny,  March 29, 2017

Brexit, Pursued by Despair

Brexit is just the latest alibi to mask the austerity con

The United Kingdom is getting out of the European Union. / Tyler Merbler
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The referendum was the flame; Article 50 is the fuse. Today, after months of recrimination and fear, the deed was finally done. Britain’s unelected Prime Minister triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, setting the legal machine of international relations on an unstoppable course towards Brexit. Britain was committed to the complex and painful operation of leaving the EU within two years—with or without the anesthetic of a workable trade deal. 

The new right wants you to believe that Brexit ignited spontaneously out of a broad Western backlash against racial tolerance and decadence. It wants you to believe that these are your “legitimate concerns.” But as the craven svengalis of triumphant neoconservatism and the gurning spivs they stand behind try to scrawl their own ugly slogans over the pages of recent history,  remember that it could have been otherwise. 

Remember this, because people will try to erase it from the story. Brexit is happening because the people of Britain have been through eight years of savage and senseless austerity. If you take away all of the things that make community life possible—not just the libraries but the youth centers, the after-school clubs, the parks and citizens advice centers—if you do all that and then fix it so people can hardly even afford to leave the house, presuming they have energy out of their exhausting jobs, then communities atrophy.

The economic case for the decimation of public spending has been thoroughly rubbished by everyone from Nobel prize-winning economists to, you know, actual people who saw the arteries of their lives constricting while the rich carried on getting richer and the national debt continued to rise. The political justification was always threadbare, based on the notion that the Labour party, who happened to be in power at the time of the 2008 financial crash, was entirely responsible for everything—“The Mess Labour Left Us In” was the refrain that just wouldn’t quit as the invertebrate centre left scuttled and cringed its way into culpability for a crisis it did not, in fact, cause. 

Some of what we have lost in this drab decade can be tallied in figures and facts, unpopular as those are these days. Food banks were practically unknown in Britain before the Conservatives took power. Now one million people rely on them, and millions more go hungry in what is still one of the wealthiest countries on earth. Middle-class youth have grown into adulthood without jobs or the prospect of security, becoming a “lost generation” in a catchphrase that has fallen out of favor not because it has lost relevance but because it was embarrassing to the authorities.  School buildings are rotting and crumbling. London has been scrubbed clean of the working poor. Thousands of disabled people have died as a direct result of cuts to the meagre benefits that were keeping them housed and healthy. 

Somehow, this is no longer being spoken of. Yet these are the conditions in which racism, xenophobia, and bigotry flourished. People need someone to blame, and they were directed to kick downwards. Of course they were. 

It’s all the stranger that the language of austerity has vanished from the political agenda because it’s only going to get worse. 

This is going to hurt, however you slice it. The cost of the Brexit negotiations that begin today will include, at very best, a leap in the cost of living and further cuts to already decimated public services as the country struggles to foot the bill over years of political uncertainty. The Prime Minister is clearly banking on the prospect of making Britain a naked tax haven, which will be disastrous for the working classes. Major banks and businesses are already toddling off to the continent, stupefying the willy-waving Brexit apologists who were convinced they were all here for the weather. Those promised 350 million pounds a week for the National Health Service are not coming. In fact, the NHS—the real institutional pride of the nation, beloved of everyone apart from the very wealthiest, and already on its knees after years of deliberate Tory defunding—will struggle to survive as more cuts are imposed and thousands of foreign doctors and nurses face deportation or are simply harassed and overworked until they leave. Why would anyone want to stay wiping bottoms and washing wounds in a country that claims to hate you? The last time a victory was this Pyrrhic, there were thirteen thousand bodies on the battlefield at Heraclea, and nobody went home happy. 

The mood in Britain since June has been one of numb shock teetering into ugly bickering. Racists are blaming immigrants, Blairites are blaming Corbyn, Tories are blaming each other, Scotland is blaming England, London is blaming Cornwall, the middle classes are blaming the poor, the poor are blaming “metropolitan elites,” Europeans are blaming all of us, and Boris Johnson has farted and left the room. 

Racists and bigots have got braver as the Brexit vote was interpreted as a license to act on prejudice—reported incidents of hate crime have more than doubled, from attacks on mosques to migrant families’ letterboxes clanging with missives calling them scum and telling them to go home. Most of them were under the impression that they were home. Now, immigrants are not the only people realizing that home is nowhere they can get to without a plane or a time machine. 

The cowboy builders of Brexit, if they weren’t already wealthy, are having a grand old time of it rubbishing the country they claim to love on Fox News. Nobody responsible for the welter of deception that swung the vote will suffer the consequences as the pound plummets and racism erupts on our streets, rents soar and living standards slip and communities are shattered.

At the risk of coming across as one of those stuck-in-the-muds who insists on actual truth, it remains the case that this was not an “overwhelming victory”—it was a narrow win, of 48-52 percent of those who turned out. Young people, Scottish people, Londoners, inevitably breaks down into a shouting match. We won. You lost. Get over it. Britain likes to see itself as a country of sportsmen, perhaps fittingly for a nation that sold three centuries of bloody imperial conquest as a gentleman’s game. This is the sort of unsporting attitude to victory that happens when a match is won on penalties for foul play. 

The anti-elitist uproar did not vanquish the elite.

The more they crow about their win, the more the awful truth reveals itself: The working class backlash did not lead to working class victory. The anti-elitist uproar did not vanquish the elite. The only winners here are the sordid little charlatans who made their fame fanning the flames of hatred, hedgefund managers, and of course the manufacturers of “Keep Calm and Carry On” mugs, which erupted in storefronts across the land like a kitsch rash on the body politic. Apart from that, everyone lost.

But the vision of Brexit—indeed, of any major vote—as a simple matter of winners and losers, a game whose object is to pummel the other side until they give in and cheer about it afterwards, says a great deal about how dangerously facile this debate has become. 

This is how it happened. David Cameron was elected in 2010 with a minority of the vote. His Conservative party went into coalition with the small Liberal Democrat Party, who bartered every principle they had for a chance at power, promised to rein in the Tories’ worst excesses, proceed to let them do whatever they wanted, and were promptly wiped off the electoral map. Meanwhile, the Tories set about the shock doctrine of massacring the welfare state and slashing top rate taxes.

Along with his old Oxford drinking chum, Chancellor George Osborne, a charmless neoliberal ideologue whose two faces still seem to be struggling to avoid each other on the same head, were determined to finish what Margaret Thatcher started. They saw themselves as the proud sons of the 1980s conservative backlash—but some proud sons make their own way in the world, and others choose to live on in the dusty, bungalows their mothers left them, never changing the chintz curtains or throwing out the dead flowers, clutching her pearls at night as the horrors of modernity press in on every side. 

“We’re All In This Together” was the the unbelievable slogan selected by former PR man and alleged barnyard-animal fancier Cameron to flog his austerity drive to the people. He was never specific about what exactly it was we were all in, but it stank of bullshit and had sloshed straight down from the top, and although we may all have been stumbling in the stench of sordid opportunism, some of us were in it up to our ankles, and others up to their necks. Cameron and his cronies, to whom self-awareness is name of a retreat their wives go on to escape the house,  invoked the “Blitz Spirit” as they launched a devastating series of public service cuts. Things were going to be hard, but we’d be alright if we showed enough labial fortitude and pulled together. 

Nine months later, London was on fire. By the time riots erupted across England in the febrile summer of 2011, it had become clear that all we were in together on this  bitter little island was the rain—but some of us were still able to take our holidays abroad, which was what Cameron was doing until day three of the looting and burning. He eventually jetted home to declare the unrest “criminality pure and simple”—and nothing at all to do with the scissors he’d just taken to the social fabric of the country most people never wanted him to run in the first place. Under the Conservatives, six years of “legitimate concerns” by young, poor, and working people have been blithely dismissed. The students protesting as their college fees were tripled were ignored. Disabled people demanding to be treated with a scrap of human dignity were laughed out of the job centres as new rules forced them to crawl into to beg for basic assistance, and no, that is not a figure of speech—I know of more than one instance where people with mobility issues were made to prove it by walking until they fell over. The Tory ideologues did all of this and more, seemingly, for the sheer hell of it, because they damn well could. 

In this climate, the rise of racism and Islamophobia were the only “legitimate concerns” that the state ever pretended to listen to. Far-right groups—from thuggish, nakedly racist street-marching gangs like the British National Party and the English Defence League—came out of the shadows and slurped up public resentment. In the absence of any real opposition from the Labour party, the UK Independence Party—a clique of bankers playing xenophobia for attention and airtime—somehow became a credible political force. They were the only people offering any sort of alternative to craven neoliberal austerity. Unfortunately, their alternative was brazen neo-capitalist nationalism. Throughout the austerity years, the tame tabloids and the king-making Murdoch press—somehow still influential despite years of corruption and collusion scandals that saw editors jailed and almost forced Cameron from office—have blamed it all on immigrants and welfare claimants. Or, just to switch up the headlines, both.

Austerity is never just economic. It is cultural, and it is emotional. The effect has been a gradual narrowing of the arteries where goodwill once pumped around the nation. There has been a slow hardening of hearts, an erosion of hope and energy. I have watched the country where I live become a harder, meaner place. As his party rebelled, as the economic recovery failed to materialize and people started to realise how badly they had been conned, Cameron offered the Brexit referendum as an attempt to placate his base and save his own sorry political hide. He gambled, and he lost, and now he gets to slink away to live on his inheritance. 

Cameron failed to realise, as most people do, the boiling, incoherent resentment just under the trembling meniscus of social reserve that is sold as the British national character. The deprived post-industrial parts of the nation were offered one chance to kick back at the scumbags who made it that way, they took it and hang the consequences. 

The noise was definitely coming from inside the house.

The Blitz Spirit is a huge part of Britain’s national myth, and everyone loves a simple story with themselves as the hero. The only hitch was that the villain in this piece wasn’t easy to place. Who were we supposed to be pulling together against this time? Germany? Half of our young people seemed to be moving there in search of work, cheap student fees, and affordable housing. Finance capitalism? That would never do—we’d just elected it to office. The noise was definitely coming from inside the house, and as the years wore on, as people got poorer and angrier, they looked around for an answer. Those offered by the state were wearing thin. It was time for the state to offer a new alibi. 

Brexit was it. Brexit was flogged by the exact people who wanted more neoliberal austerity—less regulation, fewer workers’ rights—to all the millions who wanted the opposite, and the shady salesmen were able, in the process, to sell themselves as champions of “the people.” It was a simple story. Fairytales usually are. And it worked. We needed not to be the victims that had reckoned with the pointless pain of years of austerity, and not to be harboring the half-formed guilt of centuries of imperial destruction. The attempt to rewrite history has been quite literal. At the height of the austerity years, there was a public push to change the history syllabus to remind our young people of all the good things about the empire, with less of this politically correct nonsense. This was then led by Michael Gove, Brexit’s oiliest propagandist and a one-man argument for sneering, mediocre newspaper hacks to be barred from public office. 

I’ve spent the better part of my youth thinking up creative insults for these men, trying to form and reform the contempt and disgust that almost everyone who came of age in the UK after the financial crash feels for the way these people have pissed all over our futures and told us to enjoy the gentle British rain. But now, when it comes to it, I find I can’t summon the bile. I can’t access the heat of rage that kept me writing all those late nights in filthy flatshares in between jobs, as my friends descended into pits of depression and anxiety and gave up on their potential, as more and more young people came out to protest and met only the business ends of police batons. I haven’t the energy to be angry, not right now. I don’t even feel contempt for these bloated little hypocrities that fucked up my country and cauterized the futures of almost everyone I care about. I feel nothing at all about them, still less for the millions of people they conned and called it democracy. It’s all catastrophically sad, and it’s going to be sad for a very long time.

Apart from anything else, they got the Blitz Spirit wrong. They forgot that years of fear and rationing and deprivation, even in the name of beating Hitler, were not borne silently forever: when the war was done, the people of Britain wanted their share of the peace that was promised, and they swiftly elected a left-wing government that put in place sweeping social reforms that took seventy years to undo. Even in the rubble of the Blitz, people wanted more: education, healthcare, and welfare for everyone, freedom in more than name, and they got it, at least for a little while. They wanted it all to have meant something, all the hardship and human waste. They wanted it to matter.

Then as now, if people know they’re going to suffer, they would rather suffer for a reason. In Victor Frankl’s vital book Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor explains how what often makes the difference between emotional resilience and collapse in times of crisis is the ability to reframe the random atrocities of life in a way that makes sense. People need a good story to get them through hard times, preferably a story with them at the center, where there is a purpose to every struggle and an answer to every agonizing question about why we have to struggle in the first place. 

That’s what has been happening in Britain, and indeed around the Western world, as bigotry and xenophobia have been sucked into the philosophical void at the heart of political narrative. However much it hurt that schools were failing, hospitals closing, and prices and rents were rising as wages fell and welfare all but disappeared, however much it hurt to see a whole generation of young people have their hope of a secure future snatched away, what hurt more was the utter pointlessness of it all. The government lied about the need for the cuts, lied when it promised that the super rich would pay their fair share, lied again when the experts were right and the outlook got worse, and lied without compunction when they promised to safeguard the basic services that made people’s daily lives manageable. We aren’t a plucky little island bravely fighting a monstrous enemy. We have been conned. That is deeply, profoundly embarrassing. Now we are torpedoing our economy and throw our remaining shreds of social decency overboard as ballast to our sinking collective pride, because we can’t bring ourselves to admit that we made a mistake.

I look around the country that raised me and I see a place made crabbed, narrow, and suspicious, nursing what remains of its rotten pride after eight years of pointless austerity that only made us a duller and drabber place. We used to be a cultural powerhouse. Now we’re trying to interest global markets in major exports that appear to be largely marmite, political equivocation, and Ed Sheeran. So much has been lost, and there will be so much more loss to come, even for those who were convinced they had nothing to lose. 

I want a country with a future, rather than a creatively edited past to cling to as we mutter ourselves to sleep. We’ll get through Brexit like we get through everything else in Britain: grudgingly, and with far more deference to the idiots who caused this mess than is due. We’ll muddle along. Some people, of course, will die, deaths of despair or neglect or violence, but most of us will stumble on, living smaller, meaner lives and trying to remember the shape of the future we used to hope for, and that breaks my heart. I’m glad: it proves it’s still working. 

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and critic from London. She has contributed to The Guardian, The New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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