Much has already been said about reasons people have voted to leave the European Union – the age gap, the frustration of marginalized working people or those living in rural areas, the anger and disappointment with the Westminster establishment all parties did not seem to address properly.
But as a foreign born British resident (an EU-migrant to be more precise) looking on the debate as somewhat of an outsider, out of a bird’s eye perspective I wonder: How much of the referendum’s outcome is not only the result of misjudgement and failed policies but of an underlying identity crises? Of feeling rootless in a digitalized society where existing borders seem to vanish and with them the security known so far? What does is mean to be British – or English? What is “Britishness” in a globalized world?
The evening of the referendum day, about two hours before the polling station closed I went to an Oxford pub with a friend. Mind you, Oxford with all its international residents overwhelmingly voted remain, but nonetheless I met a drunk Welshman, who only shortly before had voted leave and was already in a heavy discussion with other people in the pub about why he had made this choice. No, he said, not because of immigrants as he would like all people – being drunk might have played a role here. “I want to be British again,” he said putting his hand on his heart. He could not explain what he meant by that and why he could not be, feel British while the country was a member of the European Union. “It is a feeling,” he said. Being British. “I voted leave because I want to be British.” Clearly lost for words, he was not able to explain what exactly he was missing, only that being in the EU did not feel right. Not British.
So maybe this is a core issue far too few have yet addressed. If identities are destroyed through inevitable changes in modern societies people are left behind. Especially older ones, who no longer recognize the world because it is so different from the world they have grown up in, so different to what they were used to.
For many their own identity is something quite personal, the question of “who am I?” is determined by our own heritage and self-perception. But above that there is the wider issue of group or cultural identities based on joined memories, history, myths of origin, language and common culture. It allows us to understand where we stand in comparison to others, to feel a connection, it is the common ground people meet on and influences our own personal identity. There is not one overall cultural identity but overlapping ones: Someone growing up in London will probably have a different understanding of who he or she is than someone growing up in the North, nonetheless both can feel they belong to a unique British culture that is different to that of other countries. And if one of these identities is threatened or destroyed and not replaced by something else, it might feel like a threat to our very existence.
This might also explain the age gap between remain and leave voters. Even though especially young people are affected by lower incomes, rising costs either for buying or renting properties, an insecure future thanks to short term contracts, while the older baby boomer generation for a long time have profited from low house prices, long-term-contracts and economic prosperity, it was the younger generation that with a big majority voted to stay in the European Union. The older generations on the other hand – who are often far better situated than their children and grandchildren – chose to vote leave among others blaming the European Union for failed policies and too much influence on the British politics.
But many younger people especially in larger cities often tend to see themselves not as foremost British but more like global citizens and have an understanding of what global citizenship means. And if this is truly the case, it would explain why younger people are less affected by an identity crisis and feel a greater connection to something that might in their eyes not be a perfect political construct, but something that makes their idea of who they want to be a bit more palpable: The world wide web has torn down borders, many young people have Internet friends or followers all over the world. And this borderless word is to some extend mirrored in the European Union’s construct of borderless travel and the freedom to work and live wherever someone wants to. Something I feel quite connected to as well.
For older people or people living in rural communities this might be a form of identity hard to grasp. For many years now it has been one of the main struggles in the European Union: The lack of a European identity, of underlying myth and common understandings, a European cultural identity able to unite people across borders. The idea to create peace in a once war torn continent might have formed a strong enough bond in the early phases of the Union, but this seems to fade with the direct memory – there are not many eyewitnesses left to tell what a non-united Europe truly means. German satirist and Member of the European Parliament Martin Sonneborn put this quite appropriately after the Brexit vote:
“The European Union stands for a economy-centric policy, where no narrative exits, that enthuses people. I think for the war generation like Kohl (the former German chancellor) it was easy to explain people that a union, a Europe without borders, is something positive: no more wars, friendship with the French and English and reconciliation with other countries we have plunged into war. But today’s EU is a cold-hearted, solely economic object, that can’t be conveyed to people.”
So a failing British identity, economic disruption and growing social injustice on the one hand, and a political construct no one truly understands and many feel no connection to at all on the other – this is a dangerous combination. And something the StrongerIn campaign truly failed to address. Focusing almost entirely on the – as Sonneborn puts it – cold economic aspect of the European Union was the biggest mistake. Not only because many people no longer trust such arguments but also because it failed to address the underlying problems, the intangible, the invisible, but enormously important emotional side.
This is where the “Leave” campaign clearly did a better job, even though in sometimes disgusting ways. They created a narrative many people could identify with: Taking back control for decent, ordinary and hard working people – as UKIP-leader Nigel Farage said in his frantic victory speech.
Even the anti-immigrant rhetoric fits into that narrative without implying that every leave voter is a closet racist. Here stereotypes come into play: Because if I do not know, who I am, do not know what “British identity” means, I can still distinguish myself in telling what I am not: Polish or German, Romanian or French. To be British I need to know who the “others” are and why they are not like me. Such stereotypes (for example: people from Romania and Poland claim benefits for children not even living in the UK) can be an essential factor for forming collective identities in political and social communities. Researchers here speak of two kind of stereotypes: Autostereotypes are what people or groups think of themselves thus forming a collective identity, while heterostereotypes are used to distinguish oneself from others, like Polish people, in characterising them with certain attributes. Sometimes indeed resulting in racist arguments.
One last aspect might also be important when discussing identities: In Northern Ireland as well as in Scotland a great majority voted to remain. And here – indeed – the identity crisis is not as strong as in England. Scots do have a very distinguished Scottish identity – one just has to look at the success of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The same goes for Northern Ireland where years of conflict have formed a regional identity that distinguishes them from the English and from the rest of Ireland, an insecure balance of power where one part feels more like belonging to Ireland and the other to England. A delicate balance people are and should be terrified will be disturbed should the United Kingdom leave the EU thus triggering new violence in a barely pacified area.
Looking at these regional identities and their role in the British referendum would be an interesting aspect for further research. As is the role Wales plays in this construct. As many regional identities the Welsh identities has been marginalized for a very long time, but this has changed. The Welsh are proud of their language and culture – something I experienced first hand when living in Cardiff – nonetheless the majority here voted leave. Something that counters the arguments made above. But then I suppose Wales is in a uniquely bad economic situation with the steel industry in a crisis – again – and large, in comparison poor rural areas with bad employment situations. With no one else to blame, the European Union – as was demonstrated by politicians from all parties over many years – is the perfect scapegoat and an easy target. An identity-less, cold and distant thing politicians often enough used – and not only in England – to redirect people’s wrath and despair. It’s not our fault but Brussels’. A dangerous game with now unforeseeable consequences.