What have we learned from Brexit?
Five years ago, the citizens of the UK held a piece of this country's future in the palms of their hands. We each had a responsibility to handle that future with care, and with respect for the retribution it might exact for our mishandling.
Those who wanted to leave the EU were not persuaded with reasoned arguments to change their minds. Instead, they were scapegoated, as if by magic this might squash their legitimate grievances or shame them into acquiescence. The result is that today we are no longer in the EU, and as a sovereign state we are bitterly divided.
We have still not learned from this lesson.
Today, the country is divided once more, this time by Coronavirus. Most, it would appear, consent to the established narrative. But many are sceptical. Again, these people are scapegoated. Their questions and grievances go unrecognised. Once more, the result is bitter division.
But the reasons for today's scepticism are the same as those of five years ago. It is not due to conspiracy theories today, as it was not due to racism then. Those are merely pretexts for discrediting and marginalising dissent. Today's scepticism is due to the difference of personal circumstances that is the result of living in a class society.
Five years ago, what drove the sentiments in large part that led to brexit were not those of racism but of inequality and poverty. The same is true today; though the powerful wish to console us that we are in this together and will prevail together, the truth is that in a class society we are never in anything together, and that the same event has completely different meanings to those at the top of society and those at the bottom. If we appear to be in the same boat, it is only because ours are strapped to the sides of theirs.
It is easy to accept the established narrative if you are one of those who have not lost their livelihood, their liberty, their society and their rights. But for those who have lost these things – in a word, the very meaning of their lives (exactly what was lacking preceding the referendum and other far worse political events throughout history) – the cost is far greater than that of a pandemic that for many is in itself intangible.
The tangible effects of the pandemic for many people – those they can see and feel for themselves – are like the layers of an onion; once you remove the daily onslaught of dread mainstream media, the dystopian impositions on personal liberty, rights and freedom of work, life, expression and association; once you remove the measures, regulations and restrictions imposed nominally to mitigate the effects of the pandemic; when finally the last layer of the onion is removed, what is revealed is a conspicuous absence. I would challenge people to renounce mainstream media for a week and see what effect this has on their perceptions; I am confident it would engender a great change. If they were to then continue this experiment for a month, I am confident many would never return to mainstream media ever again.
Many have never felt any evidence of the pandemic itself, only its peripheral effects. Many have never fallen ill, known anyone who has fallen ill, seen anyone fall ill or personally know of anyone having died. To them, this pandemic has little more reality than a story, little more reality than theirs has to those free to sit the pandemic out in relative comfort and undisturbed ease. What does have reality to them is the previously unimaginable strangling of their lives and livelihoods. For these people, accepting the mainstream narrative would require a leap of faith that would be impossible without trust. But how can these people, who have been excluded and forgotten, be reasonably expected to trust anyone, let alone the state?
Unable to find any satisfactory answers to their questions and scepticism in the places that are charged with the responsibility of providing these very necessities, and finding themselves and their concerns belittled, ridiculed, intimidated, shamed, censored and scapegoated, they have gone elsewhere to satisfy their legitimate human needs. And where they have found these needs met, they have found a completely new narrative; one that begets a completely different set of priorities and concerns to those of the established narrative and all those who subscribe to it. And with no bridge between these two very different and opposed worlds, we find ourselves, not once more but even more, in a bitterly divided state.
What is most needed to build this bridge is what is always needed in a democracy: open discourse. Without it, we have no right to call ourselves a democracy. But that is exactly what is grievously absent. If not for the pretext of a pandemic, the conduct of the establishment would be identified for exactly what it is: flagrantly totalitarian, and increasingly so. Once more, the concerns of those who have been diverted from the established narrative are legitimate.
Anyone who takes a sincere look beyond the scapegoating and marginalising of these people to what they are trying to tell us will find that to a large enough degree, their concerns are real and very serious. If the claims of the established narrative are well-founded, then just as many of them are dubious. If little better can be said for those of the new narrative, then little worse can be said either. Anyone who takes a dis-interested and critical look at both sides of this argument will find just and unjust alike in both, as is the case with most debates. If anything sets them apart, it is not credibility, but interests.
Interests are the real difference behind the narratives driving our divisions today, just as they were five years ago; just as they are everywhere and for all time.
Throughout the history of the world, the human story in all its complexity and ambiguity has time and again been torn into neat, binary pieces and sold back to us by those who seek to further their own interests by dividing the rest of us. Being ourselves innocent of such malice, we have responded to their cajoling, forsaking our power to their impotence in exchange for a security that was never anyone's but ours before we relinquished it. Today is no different. Today is a single moment that has moved through all time that we call History. Only today, the stakes have never been greater. Once again, we are being sold a divided narrative for a divided people…
Once again, we will get what we buy.