This week on Conter, writers have looked at the EU's neo-liberal ideology, the strategic implications of Brexit and possible alternatives to EU membership. But how far do we go to tackle the generational divide on the issue? Is it fair to say both Remainers and Leavers, old and young, partially misdirect frustrations triggered by western capitalism's failures? In this reflective piece, Auburn Langley shares an illuminating discussion she had with her grandfather in the immediate aftermath of Brexit...
Two weeks after the Brexit referendum, I paid a visit to the north east of England to see my younger brother, who recently graduated from university there. I wasn't going to Newcastle, a working class city which voted to Remain in the EU, either. I head down the A1 to Sunderland, the city at the heart of the region's Leave campaign to “take their country back”.
In terms of my own position, I support reform of the EU (ala Another Europe Is Possible), but now it looks like Brexit is going ahead regardless. If I'm honestly, I didn't initially call my family after the vote – I didn't want to know. I was too emotionally pummeled by the whole process to deal with it. Perhaps it was because I'd surrounded myself with Remain-voting university students, but I had no idea what to expect – if the media at the time was to go by, I could expect riots, burning buildings and rampant hate crime on every street.
When I arrived, there was nothing of the sort. What I did encounter was a ghost town, grey and bleak with shops closed left, right and centre. I say 'town' because it didn't feel like a city. There was much evidence of construction work, mostly unfinished. WH Smiths, my Grandad's first employer was now closed, its book-lined shelves now filled with cheap knock-off handbags and shoes. When I met up with my brother and my grandparents, it was in a cheap coffee shop chain.
It wasn't all doomy and miserable: there was evidence of gentrification at the shore-end of town, but this inevitably just looks like they've done a paint job on an old Nissan that's just failed its MOT. My brother was hurt and angry – he has always wanted to leave the area, but after the vote he seemed determined to come join me over the Scottish border. A storm has been raging in these parts for a long time, a storm which had been left to gather momentum by the UK government.
And so the EU referendum came at a time when generational divides were ripe for exploitation. The result in Sunderland demonstrated this: as with most cities, young, university educated people tended to vote Remain; older, mostly retired people, voted to Leave. Depressingly, if you took the actual institution of the EU out of the conversation, and look at what people were primarily talking about (immigration and sovereignty), it was clear that their frustrations were being willfully misdirected by our politicians.
My grandfather and I debated for hours on the topic of Brexit, from laws to immigration to history to the government. He's in his mid-70s and has lived in the North East his entire life. He worked on the ships and ran pubs with my Nana. He had family who worked in the mines and friends who were steel workers. He had watched his city blossom and wilt. To me, he represents his generation in the north of England, and he's more knowledgeable and open to discussion than many younger than him.
I’d like to share a snapshot of our conversation with you. His views come from the heart, in his eyes unfiltered by media bias (though, as I remind him, he still reads the Daily Mail). He left school when he was only 15 on a Friday – by a Monday he had work. But that's no longer the world we live in. First of all, I asked him why he felt leaving the EU was the best thing for our country.
Grandad: I felt, and a lot of people did, that we weren’t welcome to go into the common market at the start, and that we weren’t welcome. General Charles De Gaulle said at the time Britain would make trouble. We were told we'd be trading partners – nothing was said about laws being enforced upon us, laws on how our courts would be run etc. We'd been to war in Europe twice, and now we were going to let them make laws for us? No way.
I made the point that we'd caused a bit of trouble over the years ourselves – the crimes of the British Empire and so on. My Grandad initially argued that we'd never went into Europe and demanded they abide by “our laws”. But he conceded we were wrong to assume we were “making the world civilised”.
Grandad: People want the UK to do its own trade, like it did before, outside Europe, and inside. We deserted our main partners: Australia, New Zealand, South American countries, Canada etc. We were told a long time ago, since the war, this country could be self sufficient. Look at the massacred fishing industry! Who gets the grants? Not them. They are decimated.
I made the point about EU funding in the area, which had led to the Olympic swimming school being built. He called it “no use” and said it hadn't helped. To him, there was a sense of imposition, especially after the local public baths were closed down (by the UK government it should be pointed out).
Grandad: Governments aren’t worth nowt. It’s not a case of being safer with them down there because I don’t believe in any of the parties. I remember Neil Kinnock saying he'd not rest until the House of Lords was gone. Oh, but it’s Lord Kinnock now, if you please.
At this point, he bubbled out with his issues with not only the European project, but also key industries being closed or outsourced, from the mines to the shipyards. He remembered Thatcher's government and deindustrialisation of course, yet these arguments are still overlooked by those of a certain generation or class.
Grandad: Most people my age have just had enough. Did you read about Sunderland being the first town to say they want out? The country was like 'What? But it’s a Labour stronghold?' People would say to their kids here to vote Labour with no clue why. My old man used to question them: he said never just accept what a politician tells you.
It’s not like me and your Nan get huge pensions – we have to apply for extra allowance. Have you seen what they get down there in the government? They get everything paid for them - it’s a disgrace. We pay them to look after us, but they don’t. They look after Europe, and themselves. Take Richard Branson a few years ago: he wanted to take over the Lottery as a non-profit making Lottery. So more went back to communities, you know? What did they say? No. Most of the top dogs, government ministers, wives, all have stakes in it. What's good for the country isn't good for them.
Show me a politician, I’ll show you a liar. There was Michael Foot, who was a brilliant politician, but he didn’t look the part. So they ridiculed him, the media, all of them. They made fun of a jacket he was wearing in the paper because it wasn’t a sharp tailored suit. He was an old man! And his wife bought him that jacket, expensive too it was. But brilliant politician he was and they all laughed at him. One of they comedians on the telly said I don’t know how Foot escapes Bonfire night every year! His hair was all wild, like.
I asked him if he couldn't see that this is exactly what the media do to Jeremy Corbyn. He replied that he'd not made his mind up about him, but was still quick to point out that he believed the media was all “controlled”. He cited Rupert Murdoch, but “didn't know the Daily Mail had a bad reputation”. Unsurprisingly, he vented extensively about perceived Liberal elites, and some of his views are also held by many us on the Left.
Grandad: Tony Blair is now a spokesman for Europe, an ambassador in the Middle East and a war criminal! It's disgusting. He deserves to be put up against a wall and shot like any other war criminal! Then there's Bob Geldof: he was talking about Ethiopia recently. You know? He saw what was happening to the foreign aid. Guys I went to sea with were out there, ships full of food and clothes, sent by us to Ethiopia. What did they find at the harbour? The dues raised four times the normal rates because we were coming. The government troops were loading it all to be stored to feed the Army and the people weren't getting a thing. And Geldof didn't say 'out!
These intermingled arguments of social justice and annoying at misdirection of foreign aid opened up a whole new discussion. I said I thought this was “complicated” and leads to issues of imperialism and our violent history.
Grandad: Yeah, well, why are we sending 100s of millions of pounds to India and Pakistan every year? They’ve said they don’t need it. India are looking at sending a guy to the moon! We can’t even send someone to the moon. They want aid for their poor, but if they can afford a space program, they can afford to help poor people. Give them their due, I’ve not noticed anything in the papers, or been preached at by a Hindu or Sikh. Islam is set on world domination.
For many, this is the point of departure. Fear of Muslims “taking over” was a huge problem in the wake of the referendum. The Independent reported that the UK had entered “uncharted territory” of Islamophobia after the referendum vote. When the left discuss the effects and opportunities of Brexit, this must be kept in mind. For many, the othering of migrants and Muslims has become a prime example of Brexit's toxicity. But on closer inspection, fear in my Grandad's case wasn't driven by deep prejudice.
Grandad: There were a load of people: Muslims, Sikhs and others, with a stall on the high street not so long ago. No information or anything but drinks and little cake things. I went over to talk to a guy and said: 'Can you tell me what this is in aid of?' He said: 'Nothing in particular'. It was just a gesture and was trying to be friendly. We had a good chat and he was a nice guy.
It hadn't escaped my notice that he hadn't spoken much about the rights of EU citizens, and those who are to be most impacted by us leaving the EU under a Tory-led Brexit. Finally, I asked about employers in the area like Nissan, who had threatened to leave the EU if we secure no trade deal. His response was simple: “Look, sweetie, we've got nothing anyway. It might go, but what's new?”
There's only so much neglect, injustice and manipulation people can take before they say enough is enough. We attack Tory governments, but Labour governments forgot about this area and took it for granted. Young metropolitan social liberals attack the older generation for being selfish and close-minded. But to them, they've seen their industries – the mines and the shipyards – closed for decades. And they're still waiting.
Writing this, my aim was to shed a little more light on the complexities driving our nation. Under capitalism, politicians feel they can keep us desperate by blaming everyone but them. It's led to a country awash with racism, inequality, poverty and confusion. People are fed a diet of lies, hope and what it means to be British. Looking ahead to Brexit next year, we can't write off the chasms that have been created: we need to engage in dialogue and find the silver linings. I know they're out there.