Tag Archives: brexit

The House That Brexit Built

Today is the first anniversary of the Brexit vote. We could be celebrating with traditional games, like “Pin The Star On Her Majesty’s Hat” or “Whose £350m Is It Anyway?”, but since it’s not a national holiday (yet), we’re stuck with commemorating or commiserating as we see fit.

Whatever your feelings, I think it’s fair to say no-one really knows what’s going on with Brexit, or what it really means. Perhaps that’s why we’re awash in metaphors and analogies instead. Philip Hammond was lambasted yesterday for suggesting that the process of leaving the EU could be done in stages, like moving house (apparently innocent of the fact that for most of us, home occupation is a fairly binary concept).

The house analogy is one I’ve been guilty of using too, though.

For a while now, the practicalities of Brexit have made most sense to me if I imagine the UK as the grumpy owner of a mid-terraced house.

She’s annoyed at the noise from the neighbours.

She doesn’t like that the loft space is shared.

It winds her up that if next door has a problem with the sewage, she has to let the water board into her back yard to check the drains.

They tried to explain the party wall thing to her when she moved in, but she’s never yet got over the fact that she’s under obligations to the people on either side to keep their houses upright.

She complains so long about the whole set-up, that the landlord of her local pub (whose brother does those fancy patterned driveways and has a van with “builder” on the side) sees a potential solution.

“You wouldn’t have all those problems if your house was detached, pet.”

It doesn’t happen all at once, of course. She’s there most nights, but there are pub quizzes and bust-ups and karaoke nights. When it’s quiet, though, he mentions it again.

“You should talk to my brother”, he says. “He could sort it out”.

And so, one day, after the people two doors down had a massive party all weekend and a front window got smashed, she’s had enough. She rings the builder for a quote. He’s honest with her:

“You’ll be a different woman. None of that nonsense from next door. No more knocks on the door from the gas man wanting to check your neighbour’s meter; no more worries about the cracks in your shared wall. I’ll get your house out of there; you’ll be miles better off”

And so he did.

It’s not quite the same, of course. A lot of the bricks got broken, and some turned out not to have been hers after all. The roof doesn’t quite fit, since the tiles had to be cracked to get them off, and it ended up costing her a lot more to the neighbours than the builder had originally said.

She couldn’t quite stretch to buying a piece of land, but luckily the builder had a patch he agreed she could rent.

Services? They’re getting sorted, but it turned out that the gas and electricity didn’t go that far up, and she’s just waiting for her new landlord to get onto them when has a minute.  And actually, they go over her old neighbours’ land first, so they have to give their approval, but it all should be fine.

Shouldn’t it?

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This is why I am so angry about Brexit. Not really with those who voted to leave, but those who pretended it was possible that “the UK” could be moved wholesale out of a structure which has shaped us; those who promised that the past could be reclaimed; those who suggested that often legitimate grievances about the status quo could be solved by taking a sledgehammer to much of what protects us.

So, sorry, no: I’m not over it.

Happy Brexiversary.

 

 

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The Win in the North

I wrote on Friday that I was devastated. I am no less so today.

There are the silly things, like my daughter asking if the Europcar showroom we park next to in town will have to close now, or my son asking if Gareth Bale will still play for Real Madrid. And there are the not-so-silly things, like wondering if our employers and the many others like them will have a change of heart, or whether I’ll soon need to pack a passport when I  visit my best friend in the Highlands.

And then there’s wondering whether the people I walked past in the shops today had voted to stay or go, and wondering quite what motivated them in their choice.

On the news on Friday, a clip from a fish shop not far from here had the woman behind the counter explaining her vote to Leave, in part, on the fact that she’d never had anyone from Labour come in, while the UKIP bloke was a regular. It’s a throwaway observation, and it sounds like a sneer, but it says a lot of what I fear is true about the reasons behind a vote which, weighed on facts, feels verging on the suicidal for my region of North East England.

There is an ugly anger here, that’s been ignored for too long. Away from a few bright lights and a few, largely EU funded, regeneration projects, a lot of this area feels like it’s been on a decades-long decline out of the modern world. There are jobs and prospects here, for sure, but there are also communities which are folding quietly in on themselves, battered by the end of industries, yes, but reeling from a more-or-less unspoken narrative that living here is, in itself, a sign of fecklessness.

More informed commentators than me have written eloquently on how Labour took the area for granted while a bubbling resentment festered and grew, all the more poisonous for having no clear target.Thursday’s vote looks to have given Nicola Sturgeon an unarguable mandate to push for IndyRef2, and who can argue against the evidence of that solid block of yellow? But I don’t think we can look at the bitter lashing out of the North East and other similar regions without asking how the SNP have gone in a few short years from a more or less fringe element in Scottish politics to undeniable states(wo)manship.

Their greatest success, it seems to me, is not to have won people over to their politics , but to have painted a picture of Scotland and convinced them that it was a reflection. Tell people that they are special, that they have a unique identity which sets them apart, and perhaps they will come to believe it. Although the appeal depends absolutely on having an other against which to define self, the current SNP line is less rooted in overt English-bashing and more in a cleverly crafted appeal to Scotland to be better than that: to be the open, welcoming, progressive place it’s told it is.

Perhaps I am wrong, and there really is a dramatic shift in values from one side of the Tweed to the other. Perhaps there is something in the air, from the Borders to the Hebrides, which confers this superior nature, on natives and newcomers alike. Or perhaps, after all, being told you are a part of an attractive “Us” is something people want to hear. Hope sells.

So back to my embattled, embittered home.

We feature in the national press for our comically cheap housing stock as if too much of it isn’t out of the reach of those who grew up here; for the “undiscovered” beauty of our natural environment, as if thousands of us don’t call it home. Yes, there are occasional think-pieces on Our Friends In The North, but they’re too often earnest, anthropological studies, or worse still, some attempt at translation by someone who grew up here but now speaks fluent London.  There are periodic pops of astonishment that we have galleries and businesses and heritage which are world-class, and the perennial lure of a bolt-hole for the intrepid and/or savvy to escape London and raise their family on a (comparative) shoestring, with really great schools, y’know?

People with our accents don’t speak in the places of power; even when half of the Labour cabinet had seats up here, most of them sounded like they were southerners anyway. And, as elsewhere, people feel like they’ve been told that English nationalism is dirty and unacceptable. St George’s flags are flown, it seems to me, as much in defiance as in pride.

People here feel like they’ve been shafted, whether or not it’s true in all cases. Too many people feel that their only precarious chance to stay local and hang on to a livelihood is under threat from cheap, flexible labour from outside – even (or perhaps especially) where actual numbers of immigrants are low. When you already feel like you’re hanging on by your fingertips, or see plenty around you who are, it doesn’t take much to convince you to do what you must to save yourself. No-one else is offering to do it for you.

Who is selling hope here? The messages that people here are listening to are those which promise dignity, which whisper that control is still there for the taking; those who say: you were Great once, you can be Great again. If what we are seeing now tells us anything, it’s surely that people increasingly vote for identity over interests. Who can find a way to ride this tiger in a world of the disenchanted and disengaged who don’t know where or to whom they belong?

I do not, to be absolutely clear, equate the politics of the SNP with those of explicitly nationalist parties south of the border. The situation is far more complicated than that. But in assessing the consequences of Brexit, in considering what led near neighbours with fundamentally similar interests to make such opposing choices, we must not fall into the trap of  lauding Scotland and excoriating swathes of England without asking if perhaps it was the options on offer and not the motivations which were so very different

 

The day after

I am devastated.

It isn’t so much that I think that the EU is perfect (though, in Life-of-Brian-esque style, I can’t help remembering what it’s done for me: jobs in European companies, time studying abroad, straight bananas).

It isn’t so much that the nosedive in the economy frightens me; I don’t understand numbers very well, and have an unshakeable (though possibly unreasonable) belief that the whole thing is ultimately decided in the plush interiors of a few private jets and as beyond us mere mortals as the weather.

It’s just that it is so sad, and so very, very frightening.

We’ve had a campaign of fudged figures, halfhearted champions and a cynical, clinical manipulation of justified grievance for political gain. We’ve had informed evidence (in as far as either element could be true, given the momentous uncertainty that Brexit was always going to entail) pooh-pooh’ed as nothing more than so much self-serving bias. Who was every going to triumph, in a battle of slogans and half-truths on one hand and realpolitik on the other? It was always going to end in one side feeling bludgeoned by the status quo, or the other left bereft, watching what they once held in their hands, floating away on airy, empty words.

I didn’t vote to remain, so much as not to leave. I didn’t vote for the EU, but to prevent what we already see: economic uncertainty, political stalemate and the sight of countries and parties collapsing inwardly on themselves like a swarm of angry wasps.

“Take back control” was the will-o’-the wisp of the Leave campaign. But control is an illusion. We relinquish control every day in a trade off of freedom versus benefit. I abide by the markings on the lanes on the motorway to avoid being squished by a lorry, not because I don’t have faith in my car, but because I recognise that no matter how well-built it is, the laws of physics will determine its fate if it confronts 20 tonnes of metal. It is not unpatriotic to accept that this world is changing fast, and that there is heft in numbers, even if that comes with an inevitable drag in speed of movement. It is not defeatist to point out that Britain can no more spring back into its former post-colonial position in the world than I, who was good at running at school, could suddenly claim a place in the Olympics track team.

Pride and belonging and identity are sharp swords. They bolster the confidence of those holding them, by inevitable virtue of the fact that they bar others from their grip. I am heartsick at the turning inwards of my country, at the inevitable forensic dissection of origin to determine who ultimately counts. Who, ultimately, will decide what is “British” enough to be acceptable?

This referendum has laid bare the fact that most British people don’t understand how their own parliamentary democracy works, let alone how the subtleties and complexities of how that, in its turn, plays into the EU law-making process. And today, within scant minutes of victory we have a retraction of the key elements of the Leave campaign, and people saying they’d voted just to make a point, but they didn’t really mean it.

What price popular confidence in the political process now, as we go into this shadowy new unknown?