Brexit through the Gift Shop | The Devil Lives in the Houses of Parliament (Pt. III)
Spits Jehst, a prominent UK rapper, on his track aptly titled ‘England’; a tune taking aim at the British institutions which constructed many of the issues the country faces today. The venom with which he lyrically dismantles these establishments is captivating, and he manages to do so whilst addressing the brunt of the problems endured by British society.
He touches on many subjects gripping the UK; mental health, drug abuse, violence, lack of education, government intrusion and yes, institutional as well as socially embedded racism.
These issues aren’t disparate; they are systemic of the fundamental inequality and class strife which has dogged Britain in the modern era.
This oft gets painted as a divide between the northern and southern regions of our country; in reality, the consolidation of control and wealth in our nations capital is the real problem.
Power and money have always tended to flow south in the UK but at the tail end of Thatcherism and the demise of our nation’s industrial complex, which embodied the working class pride of Britain, the issue was exasperated to a breaking point. It went hand-in-hand with the transition of our economic focus towards services, a market funneled through the international hub of London.
In more recent memory, a naive Labour government proclaimed “Britain will not return to the boom and bust of the past” prior to taking the UK to war in Iraq and overseeing an impending global economic crisis. This was followed by a Conservative regime imposing brutal economic austerity; measures which affected child benefit, housing, mental health, public sector pay and food banks (not to mention the increased cap on student fees from £3,000 to £9,000).
These measures, they argued, were necessary in order to combat the failures on either side of the commons in recognising the threat posed by unregulated financial markets. This placed fault squarely at the feet of the services industry, which Britain had sacrificed it’s blue collar commerce for, as well as the inept institution of government — they came to symbolise the greed and economic division blighting the country.
This all crafted a very palpable sense of unrest and left many Brits feeling disillusioned with the establishment. I’m not trying to say that the general public were completely blameless; somehow, the idea spread through different faucets of our society that being able to live beyond your means was something manageable. But to understand why the UK voted for Brexit, you need to first appreciate this sentiment; a belief that the people’s government, both Labour and Conservative, had stabbed society in the back and that globalised industry, represented by the European-backed services market, was the knife they used to do it.
Brexit represented, as much as anything else, a vote for change.
If the dual establishments of the big banks and government were teenagers playing around with matches in the tinderbox of Europe, then some portions of the media (and we all know who I’m referring to fellow Brits) acted as arsonists who’d just broken in to the petrol station next door.
The sensationalist stories touted both in the midst of the financial crisis and leading up to Brexit were nothing new; this predatory form of journalism is almost as old as fear itself and it’s more relevant than ever with the advent of disinformation through the abuse of social media.
I think Steve Carrell’s character in the film adaption of The Big Short, a story revolving a number of individuals who foresaw the financial collapse of 2007, sums it up quite nicely:
And wouldn’t you know it…
Benefit fraudsters were stampeding through job centers across the nation. Worse than that, migrants were amassing in Calais; swarming across the channel like a locust intending to leech off of British generosity. The great irony of the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment leading up to Brexit being that these migrants had almost nothing to do with the UK’s membership to the EU; rather they represented the veritable chickens coming home to roost afters years of joint Anglo-American war mongering foreign policy — never mind the fact that the working class probably had more in common with the plight of the immigrants in Calais than they did with their own leaders. The argument was made that free movement allowed these people to (almost) reach Britain’s borders, but what would leaving the EU do to alleviate that? Yet, these views persistently found footing in all echelons of our society.
I’ve witnessed my countrymen ransack a rest station in Belgium and then have the gal to describe the attendants as sounding “like guinea pigs” whilst they furiously spoke among themselves in French. In Amsterdam I saw a very inebriated English woman refer to a fast food worker using a racial slur as she lunged to grab her kebab from his hands. This kind of behaviour is irredeemable no matter where it occurs or who’s perpetrating it, but it’s beyond my comprehension how people such as this are oblivious to the pathetic irony of behaving in such a way as a guest in another’s country.
I don’t believe the UK is inherently racist, but there’s something to be said of the particular brand of xenophobia that’s been allowed to fester within the natural borders our island provides. I’d like to think that the British are working towards an idealistic world view of a globalised society; indeed if we are, there is no place for this ‘little Britain’ mentality.
Although racially charged nationalism wasn’t the sole contributing factor of Brexit, it undeniably had a role to play.
By now, I’m sure my affirmation of love for all things British has been eroded from your memory. Before you start calling for me to be thrown in the docket McCarthy style, know that I have a tendency towards the dramatic. I’m not attempting to present my version of events as the definitive truth, only that these were my perceptions growing up in the UK during this period.
I’m going to try and bring this back to earth.
At it’s core, the Brexit vote should have been about whether or not the European Union provided a beneficial vehicle for Britain, as a member, to adapt to the ever changing landscape of the modern era.
So what did the Brits actually gain from being in Europe? I’m not just referring to visa-less travel to Malaga, €200+ compensation on flights delayed over three hours and no extra charge for using 4G to browse Instagram whilst sipping wine on Plaza Merced (although speaking from personal experience we shouldn’t decry these benefits); rather, I mean factors with real impact on the day-to-day lives of the British people.