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26/06/2016

Voting with Mr Benn

This past week just gone I turned 36 years old. It passed really without thought - a cursory glance at the past ten years, where I was at compared to now, and then further backwards to roughly fifteen years ago, again with a casual comparison. The verdict I drew from this sort-of mental time travel is, "Yes, there have been some very tough times, but I have ultimately been very fortunate." For this I am thankful.

I think, though, when I look back to being 36, I might look not at my own life in such personal terms but at the momentous political changes that coincided with my birthday.

We have seen a majority within Britain vote to leave the European Union - based on the highest turnout since 1992, we have seen the resignation of a tearful Prime Minister, we have seen a second move towards independence by Scotland and the resurrection of the question of a united island of Ireland. As I write this, we are also seeing political figures like Tim Farron and David Lammy openly call for a referendum to be ignored by Westminster whilst other political figures try to depose Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, arguably the first leader of a major British political party to obtain that position by a mass vote. We've also had the awful murder of Jo Cox although I think we have yet to discern if this was really down to the referendum or the longer-term malice of Neo-Nazi militants (sometimes overlooked due to the issue of Islamist militancy).

I started off instinctively leaning towards voting 'Remain'. In particular, I remembered Mark Makowzer's opening chapter in 'Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century' where he highlights how the civility and democracy of Europe - and many of the current borders which define nation states - are all very recent developments, and in many ways, tentative developments. Makowzer quotes Czech politician Thomas Masaryk who describes 20th Century Europe as 'a laboratory atop a vast graveyard'. It is a quote I have held on to and one I have been to known to paraphrase to others as a way of explaining my support for the European Union - 'Europe is an experiment in peace and shared prosperity, in reaction to a succession of bloodbaths...'

I also referred to William Ellery Channing and other 'Classical Unitarians' of 19th Century America - their optimistic belief not in human beings as fallen angels, as much of traditional Christian thinking suggested, but in human beings as rising apes. My reasoning for supporting the EU was ultimately based on a belief the EU represents the natural evolution of human beings from troops to tribes to fiefdoms to kingdoms to nation states to empires to commonwealths - with the ultimate goal being a united world.

I also must admit that the idea of 'Brexit' also caused me to reflect selfishly. I very much enjoy the sense of the wide open lands of Europe on my doorstep - not just for holidays, but the potential of work and a better lifestyle. As somebody deemed to be well-qualified (lots of letters to my name) and with an 'in-demand trade' as an educator, there is great possibility for me to find employment in the major European cities - and I have explored this in the past year, keeping an eye out for jobs in British schools.

So it all made sense I should vote 'Remain'.

But something changed along with way, as I watched the debate play out. On the 'Remain' side we seemed to have David Cameron, George Osborne and a coalition of 'The Satisfied' leading the charge - career politicians (from all sides), celebrities, big business, international bureaucrats and so on.  Their main support also seemed to clearly be drawn from the middle and upper classes - this would include much of my work colleagues and social circles.

Then, on the other, we seemed to have at the top again a host of millionaires and career politicians like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove leading the charge for 'Leave'. Yet, noticeably, several rungs below there seemed to be a working class demographic - and, through conversation, I learnt this would include most of my family.

So I had to ask the question, why was it my father - a union man, a man who hates Tories and has long referred to Thatcher as 'The Bitch', a man who says 'Farage is just a different type of Tory', a man who has previously told about how he would sometimes have standing rows / near-on fights with racists in Sheffield pubs in the 1970s as they vented their scorn for 'Pakis' - why was it he was ostensibly lining behind politicians and the ideology of entitlement and empire, something he has been at odds with all of his life?

What followed then was a period of watching, reading, listening and serious reflection. I then happened upon this map:


And from there, I kept thinking back to a news report I had seen - one that at the time I had probably shook my head at or had given a disapproving 'ain't that sad' comment to but had then let pass me by. It was a BBC news report showing the wide disparity in life expectancy across the UK - it involved a visit to Stockton-upon-Tees in north eastern England, where life expectancy is 24 years less than Belgravia in London.


From there, I found myself arriving at a left-wing critique of the European Union - one which says the idea of a 'Social Europe' is largely a myth, one which says the passing of power to Brussels has damaged self-determination (the fundamental driver of social democracy) in Britain. I found myself drawn particularly to the late, great Tony Benn - a figure who was very much on my 'political landscape' as a child growing up as I did in Sheffield, with him serving as MP for nearby Chesterfield. 




I then happened upon this speech from the late Peter Shore, who I admit to knowing nothing about previously:


And as I spoke further with my father full of scorn for Johnson versus Cameron as 'The Tory Stageshow' but nevertheless resolute to vote 'Leave' and as I reflected upon my two youngest brothers, both non-graduates on low wages - one on a zero hours contract, the other a qualified Parts Advisor made redundant recently without compensation and handed a 'take it or leave it' driving job by the same company that often involves 12 hour days driving the same boring delivery route - as I thought about these brothers and their struggle as young working men to get any kind of decent rented housing and with no chance of buying a home - it struck me, that an uprising of the 'Peripheral English' was in the offing.

As I reflected further on the experience of my parents and one or two aunties and uncles, burnt as they were by the endowment scandal and working dull, manual jobs into their late sixties to claw back some equity, relentlessly worked until infirmity, I realised there was a 30 - 40 year old question about the system here. Not just the EU system, but the Westminster system - intertwined as they are.

From Thatcher rolling back industries that built modern Britain, leaving those towns centred on them without any replacement industries because 'there's no such thing as society' to the New Labour years where personal debt was promoted as a way of 'getting on' in life and then the banker-based crash followed by merciless austerity, this reckoning was about much more than the EU.

I have mentioned the late progressive theologian Marcus Borg on this blog before - he has shaped much of my theological thinking and wasn't afraid to embrace the overlap between religion and politics. Marcus Borg explains repeatedly in his books that there is a political dimension to the Gospels, that from the Nativity Story to the Book of Revelation, the stories on offer are more about metaphorical treatises on the human condition than fantastical literal happenings. Specifically, they talk at length about the human struggle against political, economic and religious empires - domination systems - that kill our capacity to be creative and contented  beings.

It might be hard for 'The Satisfied' to understand this - in this internet age, we are all at risk of living in our 'filter bubbles' - but for many, there has long been a real sense of powerlessness as unions have been rolled back, as political plurality has been increasingly stifled by the triumph of  Blairism and an unreformed electoral system.

For people like my father, it has resulted at times in him simply becoming despondent at face value - accepting of the drudgery, with the political passion of his youth reduced to a pilot light. For one of my youngest brothers, he's never voted and doesn't see the point - £13000 - 15,000 a year, 12 hour days, wrestling with periodic redundancies and bouts of unemployment - that's pretty much his lot for life as a non-graduate. For my other brother, he too struggles on as a non-graduate but carries both anger and cynicism - believing the system to be so completely rigged he periodically entertains a number of conspiracy theories (not as far fetched as you might think).

But it's not just my family. I've worked for 13 years now primarily with young people and their families on the bottom rungs. It's very easy to slip into easy / lazy narratives of 'they've brought it on themselves' and 'this is just how it is, they're just not very clever people' - but it's much more complex than that. Dieing 24 years before your countrymen and countrywomen is not simply about poor lifestyle choices or a lack of hard work and talent.

Much has been said about young people versus older people in the referendum. But I would argue this is possibly a false dichotomy (given the relatively low turnout amongst the non-graduate young). An overriding tension for the young people I work with is the culture we live in is carries a great promise - travel the world, buy a new car, get yourself on the property ladder, look good, hang around with good-looking people at the latest restaurant or bar, fall in love, build a home - yet it simply doesn't match their reality. For most this failure to grasp what they're apparently meant to grasp leads to a passivity, a helplessness, whereas for some they take my brother's view that the system is somehow unfairly rigged - but unlike my brother, the boys don't engage in theories, they engage in knives and guns. This is what I saw first-hand in Liverpool and Sheffield - young men way off the A-C GCSE 'rite of passage' and with no chance of the graduate route, the route to getting your designer trainers, your car, your love-life, your sense of self-worth, was through membership of gangs. In Liverpool they had guns, and when I moved to Sheffield in 2008, they had bats and knives - these have now also been upgraded to guns. Meanwhile the girls offer up their bodies, often lured in initially by a glimpse the great promise - much has been made of 'Muslim gangs' in the recent scandals of Rotherham and Rochdale, but there has been not enough about the economic vulnerability of the girls caught up in it. We think these things happen amongst bad people 'over there' but these things spill out - the safety of children on our streets is more important than their ability to do a gap year without a visa.

And then there's the migrant issue. Migration is not necessarily about race and culture (although I don't doubt there is an undercurrent of alienation and xenophobia around 'the other' arriving in numbers), but one ultimately of economics - more competitors in the rat race, more demands on the welfare state. I have yet to see any credible plan to address how we build infrastructure for a yearly population increase of 300,000 to 500,000 - or how we will protect our environment (one of the most encroached upon environments in Europe) in the process - that kind of worry is not racism, it's hard economics (expressed by many across racial lines). And it's clear that the neoliberal answer of 'it will all work itself out through the market' isn't cutting it with Joe Public.

It is this sense of powerlessness matched with this multi-faceted sense of economic insecurity that has led to a giant molotov being built up amongst the politically-minded working classes - a giant molotov that has just needed a spark. And being offered the first real political choice in 20 - 30 years was going to be that spark.

Much has been said about the nastiness of the 'Leave' campaign and certainly there was a 'pull up the drawbridge' undertone to it all - matched with the fanciful notions, as peddled by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, of Britain somehow recovering its past 'Rule Britannia' glory.

But the 'Remain' camp are equally guilty of being misleading - and in George Osborne's case, directly threatening - in their roles as prophets of doom and gloom.  As Owen Jones noted this week, the fear of economic insecurity doesn't work with people who've lived with economic insecurity for years and years. And just like the 'Leave' camp's ignorance to the plight of refugees fleeing war, the 'Remain' camp were also guilty of simply not 'getting it' - selling a 'European Dream' in which we can all travel, work and play together to people struggling to make ends meet at places like Sports Direct.

So I reflected on all of this, searched my soul, and decided to change my stance which had already gone from 'Remain' to 'undecided' and then to 'abstain' (believing for a time it was a false choice that would change nothing).

And so, it was with a heavy but ultimately resolute heart, I made a fairly last minute decision to vote to 'Leave' - to actively side with the struggling classes, to bring to attention 'The Unsatisfied'. I realised it was a risky decision - it was certainly safer for me personally to go with vote 'Remain' - but I could simply not in good conscience validate the status quo, which is what a 'Remain' vote would ultimately have done.

I did so because ultimately, whilst I still believe the European Union is a noble experiment in peace and prosperity - and whilst it has largely (though not fully) succeeded in creating peace for all - I cannot but think it has failed as an experiment in creating prosperity for all. And it cannot be reformed in a meaningful way - not just for Britain, but for the crippled economy of Greece, for the unemployed young of Spain and Portugal.

If we look at that map I shared again and compare it to the regional breakdown of how people voted, it was clear I wasn't the only one. The map showing economic deprivation correlates with how Britain voted - there is the Scottish and Northern Irish Catholic 'anomaly' but they vote on the back of long-held grievance towards Westminster, therefore seeing the EU as an enabler rather than a blocker to their self-determination. The map also points to the failure of the EU in bringing prosperity to the entire continent and it is no surprise to me that other countries have nascent 'exit' movements.



Talking to my father last night over a cup of tea, the mood was not gleeful but sombre and serious. I agreed with him that Brexit is just the start of it. Because Brussels has failed in-conjunction with Westminster - and now, it is the status quo of Westminster that needs to be rejected also. And this is why I don't fear Scottish independence - in fact I welcome it, because for many Scottish, Westminster is what Brussels is to the English north and midlands, a limiter of their own economic self-determination, their own dreams of social democracy.

So my vote was made because I have come to believe everything must change. There is risk, yes, there will be twists and turns, yes - and yes, we will have to make sure the quest for economic self-determination does not slip into rabid nationalism. But for me this is about that old hymn 'Jerusalem' which we often forget talks as much about swords and chariots of fire - about struggle - as well as our green and pleasant land. There can be no 'keeping the lid on it' now - whether we ultimately stay or leave the EU, the Chartist / 'Old Labour' genie is back out of the bottle, a genie that Farage and Johnson will certainly not be able to tame.

Voting for 'Brexit' is not a magical bullet - I still wonder if I'm one of the turkeys that just voted for Thanksgiving instead of Christmas! - but I hope and pray the state of flux it brings can be used for the long-term good.

I'm a social democrat.
I'm a republican, based on principles of meritocracy.
I'm a liberal Christian, believing I must try to be open-hearted - emotionally connected to the experience of others - as much as being open-minded and intellectually-engaged.
I'm a 36 year old lucky enough to have 'fluked it' into a secure career, to have broke the glass ceiling of my roots - but I see well those who have not.

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