Last time it felt a lot more hectic than this. It felt more personal. It certainly felt more ever-present. The Scottish referendum energised people politically far more than I have known it in my lifetime –and not always in a good way. Even the most decent calm people got a bit chippy with those who disagreed, many folk looked terribly worried. People wore their badges not with pride but with a sense of chin-first “what-of-it” determinedness.
Not this time – at least not so much. Probably by the time I post this it will feel like that, but in the Scottish referendum it felt like that for weeks. Perhaps it’s because most of the folk I know on social media are on the same side of this one (as, so we are told, is most of Scotland, but we’ll see when the results come in). I certainly haven’t seen anywhere near the level of social media in this one. There are many folk I know where I don’t actually know how they’re voting – and that’s different from last time. Perhaps it’s because in the long run I suspect it will make less difference to our lives than Scotland leaving the UK would have done. Maybe it’s because we are fed up of referenda.
As said above, I don’t think this one will make a difference of the same magnitude as Scotland leaving the UK would. I suspect we will end up more or less where we are now, only a few years of recession later. I think the trade deal we get with the EU will be a little worse than it currently is, but probably not by much. I suspect the immigration levels will be more or less the same, because we will have to allow free movement in order to get the trade deal. I think once we have accepted that we have to have passports again, then we will not travel any less. I think there will be a couple of years where we are certainly worse off, and I think the politicians promising the magic bullet for immigration and for the economy will end up paying for those empty promises, but we won’t be hugely far away from where we are now.
But if Brexit wins, there can be no doubt that it has had to delve deep into some murky places in order to do so. But I suspect (it is only a suspicion) that we will be no more isolationist or racist than we are now, even if the vote is to leave.
There have been many points in our history when racism has reared its ugly head. Occasionally, such as with Oswald Mosely or Enoch Powell, or recently with Nigel Farage, it has been given legitimacy by people being able to rationalise it. In the gap between Powell and Farage, there was Nick Griffen, who nearly succeeded in gaining some sort of legitimacy for a brief while – but what happened to him will, I think, happen to Farage too. To a lesser extent, because Farage’s dog-whistle isn’t as powerful as Griffen’s, but same spectrum.
What happens with all the populist racists is that they find some linguistic way of saying things which are borderline racist in a way that people can feel confident in repeating. They are borderline racist only for the day- looking back they seem far more racist than that. But in their time, they give vent to some darker feelings of prejudice. Farage’s “we’re full up” and “we want our country back” will go alongside the “Our struggle is hard, because we are fighting for something great,” speeches of Mosley and Enoch Powel’s rivers of blood – only with poorer rhetoric.
Often it is hard to pin down what is actually racist about Mosley or Powel – they rarely said anything specifically racist and indeed always denied that they were. But what they did was to enable a conversation which appealed to the worst of us, and unleashed within parts of society a deep prejudice which caused great harm.
How that has spilled out in the referendum has been the issue of immigration from the EU.
When Jo Cox was murdered, there was an overhanging. Was there a link between the madman’s fury, and the whipping up of prejudice against immigrants? However you answer that question, there can be no doubt that it was there in most people’s minds. As someone (forgive me I forget who) said on twitter, if you blow a dig-whistle, you can’t walk away when a vicious dog comes along, on the grounds that it wasn’t the dog you were hoping for.
But that spout of racism I think will end with the referendum, precisely because it has raised its head far enough. What a number of folk in Britain wanted was a subtle xenophobia, that they could give voice to without having to admit they were xenophobic. And Farage gave it to them, only not quite so subtle as they had wished for. And the problem is that when you give people what they want, then they realise that what they want is pretty disgusting. .
So will it all matter? For those who lose their jobs, their businesses and their livelihood, yes. For those who feel unwelcome in this country, yes. For those of us who wanted to make a statement about what an open, welcoming, forward thinking country, yes. I’ll be hugely sorrowful if we leave. I’ll be sick on Friday if we leave. But we’ll still be, for good or bad, the people we currently are. Just a little poorer, and, who knows, a little wiser.
PS just for clarity I think it will probably be Remain by a whisker.