“Britain enters the European Common Market on New Year’s day almost equally divided on whether the historic move is a good idea, the latest public opinion poll showed Monday,” … reads the original 1973 coverage of Britain’s EEC membership (now the EU).
With equal division at its roots, is anyone really surprised that Brexit has proved to be such a divisive issue?
It is also no surprise that the referendum battlegrounds were drawn generationally: 75% of 18-24 year olds voted Remain, compared to just 39% of the over 65s. Every UK citizen is connected to a family split by the age-nature of the vote – and division runs deep because the referendum cuts to the quick of our generational identity.
I was born in 1977, just a few weeks shy of the five-year anniversary of Britain’s accession to the EEC – I am therefore an EU citizen.
I was schooled through a curriculum built on EU citizenship, I’ve grown up safe in the knowledge that I have the right to work anywhere in Europe (and have done so), my core identity documents (ie, passport) brandish my EU citizenship, and by default my children were born with the same rights that I have treasured since birth.
Indeed, anyone born after 1973 was effectively born with a kind of duel-citizenship – yet a single referendum vote steered towards Brexit by the ageing segment of the population has stripped younger citizens of their identity in one fell swoop.
But how? I believe that Brexit is a good example of how political influence is exerted through the construction of discourse. Foucault, I sure, would have balked.
The powerful discourse that developed around the EU referendum is very banal at surface level – built around “easy to report” issues like the economy, sovereignty and freedom of movement. But these issues do not have the power to polarise a nation’s thought. The real bile is under the surface and more fundamental issues about our sense of citizenship and identity are at stake.
In the post-referendum world, this discourse grew into phrases like, “the will of the British people must be carried out” and “the overwhelming majority voted for Brexit” … no we didn’t. Nearly half voted Remain. But the torrent of political discourse brushed this uncomfortable truth aside. Yet, this discourse has been misused to construct a view of EU membership around the prospect of economic uncertainty, erosion of sovereignty and the threat of uncontrolled immigration (and something about £350m and the the NHS) – all the time masking a fundamental change to our citizenship status and national identity.
I think we can also see this at work in the domestic discourses that have split so many families in the UK.
Arm chair debates-cum-arguments about the economy amounted to very little because both sides were guessing. Arguments about sovereignty amounted to very little because both sides had little intention of changing the content of our laws a great deal. Arguments about freedom of movement perhaps agitated more people, but these debates were not in themselves capable of polarising families and generating the post-Brexit political/domestic fall out that we have experienced.
It is hard to believe that these out-worn debates suddenly became the ferocious flash points of polarised thought. Rather, Brexit triggered something deeper in all of us. It made us question who we are and identify the tribe to which we belong.
In my experience, in living rooms across the UK, the generations argued through these Hitchcock mcguffins – and once these shallow issues media-peddled were exhausted, it all boiled down to one thing:
“You see, people our age remember life before the EU,” they said. “We remember what it was like to make our own laws and [insert something about straight bananas or PC gone mad]” … I’m sure that most younger Remainers have been patronised in similar ways in the disconcerting months that followed the referendum.
I’m writing these words on the eve that the UK Parliament refused to protect the rights of EU nationals in the Brexit Bill – and, more than ever, I feel sad that Brexit boils down to a fairly simple argument:
- Those born with EU Citizenship feel like EU Citizens and want to retain their identity.
- Those born without EU Citizenship would prefer the rest of the country to reject it … so they forced them to change. How many times have we seen this narrative echo down through history? – and has it ever ended well?
I “remain” an EU Citizen at heart. And when UK Parliament said this evening that they will not protect the rights of EU Citizens living in this country, I can’t help but take that personally.