Karen Sykes: The estranged citizens of Brexit

It was political
16 June 2016

I first heard the BBC Radio 4 announce the death of the Labour MP for the Spen Valley, West Yorkshire while I was driving along the A62 from Manchester, where I work, to the Colne Valley, where I live. My commute follows an ancient trade route that crosses the fold of the Pennines at Standedge Edge to enter the West Riding, a political region still known as West Yorkshire, even today with its multicultural cities of Leeds, Halifax, Bradford, and Huddersfield. The county is an interlocking series of valleys running east and west, in which large derelict textile mill sites cast long shadows along the same canals and roads that once carried their products away to the rest of the world. In the previous year on the occasion of her first address to the UK Parliament, the MP had called up West Yorkshire’s history, which was her own history:

I am Batley and Spen born and bred, and I could not be prouder of that. I am proud that I was made in Yorkshire and I am proud of the things we make in Yorkshire. Britain should be proud of that, too. I look forward to representing the great people of Batley and Spen here over the next five years. (Independent 2016)

The day’s events had happened near to my home. The Spen Valley bounds the eastern edge of my home constituency the Colne Valley; the Calder Valley bounds it to the West and Holme Valley to the South. More news was promised later.

That evening I watched the televised statements aired on BBC Look North. Grief and shock reverberated through each telling of the story. MP Jo Cox was well known in the area, and well liked. She had returned to her birthplace to represent the constituency after two decades working internationally for UNICEF. In their first attempt to explain a senseless tragedy, the superintendent , as well as the commissioner of West Yorkshire Police claimed it was a “one-off” act of violence, taken by an individual who had met the MP, at the doorway of Birstall Library, where she was holding open-door, drop-in meetings with members of her consistency. The official police announcement did not address the details offered by a witness to the scene, who heard the assailant shout “Britain First!”—the name of a locally headquartered, far-right extremist group. Instead, the commissioner called for one day of national mourning, before a return to the campaign for the national referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. The IMF delayed its report on the economic impact of Britain’s exit from the EU. The governor of the Bank of England canceled a public address. And campaigners for both sides of the referendum stopped their work. Politics as everyone knew it halted, and the moment was pregnant with an unborn politics.

The next morning the North East terrorism squad took control of the investigation. At the arraignment of the assailant who had been arrested and taken to London’s Old Bailey, he named himself as “Death to Traitors” and a champion for Britain First. Uncannily, the extremist group Britain First that met and organized under that name had disassociated themselves from the charged murderer even before the news of the MP’s death had been released. But their activities were well known to Cox, who had been researching anti-Muslim violence in the United Kingdom, in order to prepare a report to Parliament. An activist group that exists to prevent hate crime released data to the press and the terrorism unit, identifying seven of ten right-wing extremist organizations that chose West Yorkshire as their head quarters, and a hundred prominent individuals were active in two or more of the seven groups. For Observer reporters, who headlined the report on the investigations, the evidence didn’t add up to a nonpolitical act. Afterward, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, chided politicians for scoring anti-Exit political points out of the tragedy; the widower of Jo Cox defended the political commitments of his dead wife—the MP for Spen—and raised a challenge to more people to complete her work.

Parliament was recalled after the weekend in a memorial for their murdered MP. It was the first time to do so in order to commemorate the life of a serving MP, whereas in the past they had met only to commemorate the passing of a prime minister. Their words paraphrased the ideas shared in Jo Cox’s first speech to Parliament, in the previous year. Conservatives sat with Labour members, remembering that among their differences, there is more that joins them as MPs and citizens. West Yorkshire MPs marked the great challenge before them, to do what it takes to help democracy thrive in times of hate. All suit lapels carried one white rose and one red. It might have been just like the memorial service for a retired prime minister, were it not for the number of speeches that addressed the need to over come hate with love and to sustain democracy with compassion.

Anthropologists know that formal public rituals are powerful emotional events, which can elicit memories of the deep past as easily as they use images that matter to interpersonal relations today. For a short time, British MPs in the House of Parliament might have been meeting as late medieval leaders, in a nearly forgotten era before parliamentary democracy, when the country was divided between the houses of York and Lancaster. But they wore the roses for Yorkshire and Labour, and the political challenges of the twenty-first century would require them to find some common ground for the parliamentary political process to unfold.

Uncertain citizens
23 June 2016

I had been expecting that the vote would be won by a narrow margin, whichever way it fell. So many voices in West Yorkshire expressed their wish to leave the EU during the weeks before the murder, but I was uncertain if the tragedy would change the outcome. It was harder to say what the voters would do on 23 June, the day of the referendum. Pollster predicted the outcome would be to remain perhaps by a decisive margin. I voted first thing in the morning, when the polls opened at seven o’clock, then I took a flight to Toronto. My arrival in Toronto coincided with the closing of the polls in the UK, and the bookies announcement that they were giving odds 80 to 20 for the outcome to Remain. I doubted the numbers and wondered about the outcome. By ten o’clock that evening, Eastern Standard Time, I was fixated on the screen, wondering if it would show a last-hour rally in the numbers of votes to remain in the EU. It did not.

It was unclear where to stand. Was the vote an outcome, which half the country had to reconcile with themselves, or had the UK entered a new political era? Was the vote against the politics of economic austerity, as much as it was against EU membership? Was the vote as much about control over national and regional boundaries as it was about the control over the everyday politics of sustaining and providing for a household? If these were the questions then there was no accounting for how Scotland answered the referendum differently. Territory gave poor insight into who were the citizens, the taxpayers, the voters. It has always seemed odd that my relationship to the UK through the Commonwealth assured my right to vote on the UK’s membership in the EU. As a Canadian citizen with permanent residency in the UK, I am entitled to vote in UK national elections.

1 July 2016

Most certainties fell away over the first week. Leaders stepped down, potential leaders disappeared, and candidates for the party leadership withdrew. It left the sense that perhaps the UK had been like a car careening out control for the last year, or more. Were the invested political leaders an illusion, not a reality? One certainty remained; no one had a plan for what should happen next.

Reflecting on the event of the week after Brexit, an Australian colleague, Chris Gregory from the ANU, expressed his bewilderment:

I guess like most people I am totally bewildered by it all. Is it a major political and economic upheaval or will it be a minor blip in the madness that is “business as usual” these days? My gut feeling is that the politics of inequality is catching up with the economics of inequality and that the 99% are giving voice to grievances that the hard right are exploiting to the nth degree. (Gregory quoted in Green 2016)

With some uncertainty about how the conversation about the referendum outcome would be overheard and received in my local pub, I launched into a discussion of it there, in the company of my doctoral student, newly in receipt of her PhD. We were most perplexed by the growing number of people who regretted their vote and had not thought the election result would lead to Brexit. It was as if voters had become strangers to themselves, all the while talking about the importance of keeping migrants, strangers, out of the UK by regaining control of their borders.

Citizens as strangers to themselves
Brexit was not a vote for change so much as it was a vote for an unknown, even stranger future than the present. It is remarkable that many people voted for something that they did not know rather than something that they did. In the weeks that followed leading figures remodeled their careers and transformed their offices; Boris Johnson stepped back from his political aspirations, then re-emerged as a different player in of the House of Commons. Some of those voters, who had cast their ballot to remain in the EU, began to speak more of the problems of the European parliament. Consumers became cautious about large purchases, families canceled holidays abroad, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer began to speak of the retraction of the UK economy, rather than economic independence from Europe.

In this respect, I do not think that Brexit was a retrograde vote, nor was it an attempt to recover a lost past and an older identity in empire. Most people do not believe they will regain the empire of the past century. They might speak of the links between the countries that covered the maps of the pre–World War II years, when George VI spoke by radio to his subjects across three-quarters of the geopolitical world, but they know that entropic forces can undue the last ties of the old colonial empire. How could they not, when the 300-year-old Act of Union between Scotland and England looks so fragile? Still it is a strange thing to consider that what remains of that past is a Commonwealth of Nations that sustains the ideal of parliamentary democracy, and counts one in seven people in the world among its citizens. If there is one good, worthy idea “born and bred in the UK and exported to the world,” then perhaps parliamentary democracy is it.

Democracy takes hard work; it thrives in quotidian face-to-face relationships. It succeeds when strangers become citizens through the parliamentary process and create common worth for their efforts. It fails when citizens are estranged from each other at the point that they “trade in” the everyday work of democracy for a one time vote on an idea. Brexit made UK citizens’ into “Brexiters” or “Remainers”, and thereby lead to democracy’s great fall. If there is reason to hope that the history of everyday democracy exists on a scale with the legacies of great civilizations, like the Great Wall, Rome and the pyramids, then democracy cannot be made (or destroyed) in one day. That being the case, it remains with ordinary citizens to restore it, and no longer live as strangers to themselves.

Karen Sykes is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Manchester. Despite possessing a distinctive West Yorkshire surname, and a 400-year genealogical link to that county, she lives there as a “comer-in.”

Cite as: Sykes, Karen. 2016. “The estranged citizens of Brexit.” FocaalBlog, 8 August. www.focaalblog.com/2016/08/08/karen-sykes-the-estranged-citizens-of-brexit.