The results were clear before I went to bed on Thursday night. I spent Friday trying to make my frustration into an argument, but all I have to share is an emotional weather report: the shipping forecast of de-federation. Someone else will write the necessary analysis; indeed, many have already written (Laurie Penny’s piece in NS is, I think, especially worth reading, as are Lynsey Haley’s blog post at the LRB and Akwugo Emejulu‘s reflections at Verso). What follows is the opposite of a hot take.
A friend shows up for an anti-sexual violence campaign meeting in Oxford, May 2013, trousers cuffed to reveal floral socks in his loafers. When he opens his mouth to speak, I notice that his left front tooth has broken clean in half on a diagonal. He is the only man in the room, and the women inquire as to what happened to his mouth. He tells us he got a bottle in the face at a counter-protest against the English Defence League in Reading, twenty miles away. His health insurance won’t cover the dental, as the procedure is cosmetic.
In August 2013, I am cycling into the city centre, on my way to teach economics to visiting summer students. At the corner of Newton Rd and Abingdon Rd, a motorist pulls out, turning right to head out of town, ploughing me and my bicycle onto the hood of his car. I tumble off into oncoming traffic. As I peel myself from the ground, shaking, unable to put weight on the leg that was crushed between my bike and the car, I instinctively look to where the car’s driver would be sitting in a North American vehicle, and see what looks to be a seven-year-old boy. I am dazed. Then, there is a voice, asking “y’alright?”. I swear at the voice (I’m not “alright”), dishevelled and weeping, untangle myself from my bike, and throw it on the curb. As I turn back to the car, I watch it pull around me and escape down the road, heading away from the city. Bystanders took the license plate down, one of them has called the police, another an ambulance. Someone brings me a popsicle from the shop on the corner to ice my leg. I’m in shock, but also confused: why would the driver take off like that? Failure to stop opens the door to a more serious charge than an accidental hit. Weary and dry-mouthed, I try to talk it over with the paramedic as we lurch along one-way streets up the hill to the JR. She thinks perhaps he had been drinking, or maybe he was undocumented. Thinking that I might jeopardize his ability to continue to live in the country by getting the police involved, I hesitate to file a report, but only for a few weeks. He contests the charges. The process takes almost nine months. He does not show up to court. I wonder if I have ruined his life.
Two of my friends visit the detention centre at Campsfield House, seven miles outside of the city centre, across the street from Oxford’s airport, which caters primarily to ‘executive travellers’. Officially, Campsfield is an ‘immigration removal centre’ — a grammatically confusing phrase. He does interpretation, translating from Mandarin to English and back again. We eat dinner together later and he tells me he doesn’t feel like he’s helping. She does accompaniment work, sitting with a young man who wants to get to know her better. She’s not sure what to do when he intimates romantic interest. The free shuttle from the station is meant to come every hour, but it is often late, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. My friend waits for the shuttle with friends and family members of detainees. She sees them hurry to the station in janitorial scrubs, fast-food restaurant uniforms, sometimes with little ones in tow. They wait together for transportation to a place where city buses don’t stop, not speaking, for several hours. Sometimes she abandons hope of a ride first, sometimes they do.
A departmental colleague did research on schooling in the parts of Wales that have suffered the most from industrial decline: the former coalfields, the valleys in the south, where, according to a 2014 report commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, there are just 41 jobs for every 100 residents of working age and ability. Although the coalfields have seen more support from the European Structural Funds than they have from Westminster, that help has not been enough to pull these regions out of regional depression. In the South Wales valleys, ill health and disability claims are reported at rates twice those of the South East average. Onllwyn, the ward where Pride (2014) was set, is part of a district that voted Leave. I can’t find results that drill down to the level of that particular poll…but I wonder about the faces in the photo, which way they voted, why.
In September 2013, I attended a workshop at Crossroads Women’s Centre in Camden on the criminalization of victims of sexual violence. Members of the audience rose to share stories of being misled by police officers and detectives, and subsequently jailed for retracting testimony in hopes of achieving a settlement. One of the presenters told us about abuses at Yarl’s Wood IRC, a ‘fully contained residential centre housing adult women and adult family groups awaiting immigration clearance‘ that opened in 2001. Management of the facility was taken over from the UKBA in 2007 by Serco, a firm that has held numerous private contracts for state security and detention services in the UK, Continental Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and North America. Serco’s CEO, Rupert Soames, is an alumnus of Eton and Worcester College Oxford, and a grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. In July 2015, the Black Women’s Rape Action project and Women Against Rape released a report titled Rape and Sexual Abuse in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, 2005-2015, based on accumulated testimonies from former detainees. The report, which demanded the closure of Yarl’s Wood and all IRCs, was sent to all MPs in the House of Commons. In response to the dossier, Serco commissioned an independent investigation of abuses at Yarl’s Wood, which found that:
…there is not an endemic culture of abuse nor a hidden problem of inappropriate behaviour by staff at the centre. The report, commissioned by Serco following a series of allegations, did however find serious concerns with staffing arrangements including capacity, training, and an inadequate proportion of female officers to care for women at the centre, and has made 35 recommendations for improvement.
Serco continues to win government contracts for various services in the United Kingdom, in spite of protests about maltreatment of service recipients and accusations of over-charging.
In May 2016, I was staying in East Oxford, visiting friends. Walking home one afternoon, I noticed a bumper sticker on an old MG hatchback in British Racing Green.
In a city with of 158,000 with 32,000 students, 22% of adults have no or low educational qualifications. 3300 households are on the waiting list for social housing, and the median rent for a three-bedroom home is more than half of median annual earnings. The MG with the bumper sticker was parked on a side street off the Iffley Road, near the Donnington Bridge, in a neighbourhood ranked 8,387 out of 32,844 in England, where 1 is the most deprived. It is amongst the 30% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Further to the south east lies Blackbird Leys, a housing estate home to about 14,000 people, the vast majority of them born in the UK. According to the Indices of Deprivation, in 2010, the Northfield Brook ward, which covers part of the estate, was one of the 10% most deprived in England. Tensions between the ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ segments of the working class were exacerbated by Thatcher’s right-to-buy legislation, which further entrenched divisions between so-called ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ workers. Home ownership became a dividing line; those who owned property had less and less in common with more vulnerable tenants. The old Morris Motors factory, which employed 20,000 at its height, is now the MINI Plant Oxford, where there were 3700 employees (including temporary workers) in 2013.
A dear friend (who happens to be a classicist) has a good metaphor about weaving, women, and statecraft. I suppose it was Plato who first had the metaphor, but the friend introduced me to it. I had just moved back to Canada from England, and we were meeting for the first time. In the sun outside a local coffee shop, I listened to her talk about Penelope’s loom. My friend insisted that weaving was women’s work: the act of bringing diverse strands together into something meaningful.
Penelope: in my mind, a woman weaving and unweaving the tapestry. Since my imagination goes there first, the home on Ithaca is a colonial mansion with a wraparound veranda: there is sweet tea and a rocking chair, wicker, whitewash. The loom is filled with cool linen threads, in complementary colours, no single thread more fibrous than another. Typical. There are other ways to weave, more interesting ways that might ultimately have produced a social fabric that was at once stronger and more flexible: threads brought together more tightly, capable of holding something bigger than each of us.
To talk about ‘the working class’ as the segment of the population that voted to leave the EU is too simple. There are other factors at play. Certainly economics are crucial to understanding how this all came to pass, but if there is to be any way forward that isn’t an all-out culture war, responsibility for this result must be shared. We can lay a large chunk of it at the feet of David Cameron for his austerity project and at Michael Gove’s for his continued existence, but I think we have to remember that the so-called “failure of British multiculturalism” has deeper roots. Economic and cultural concerns are inseparable, and it is a mistake to act as though they can be neatly divided. The generation that voted to leave the EU are attached to Englishness in ways that the Remain campaigners did not anticipate or adequately address. That attachment should be understood as shot through with material concerns, or perhaps vice versa. While they were certainly misled by Farage and his ilk on the benefits of departure (the now-discredited pledge to spend £350m on the NHS every week comes to mind), many are currently celebrating a victory, not wringing their hands, wondering what they’ve done.
The majority of Leave voters were children in the 1950s and 60s. They grew up in the midst of decolonization and the ensuing waves of migration from the former colonies to Britain. The systemic discrimination and violence faced by people arriving from the Caribbean, whose parents in many cases faced in the UK, that hostility was likely delivered by the elders of the generation who voted to make Britain English again. It’s not as though anyone laid out a welcome mat for new arrivals, whose visible presence in the 1950s and 60s emerged alongside heated debates about the state’s responsibility for industry and infrastructure amongst a wider population for whom the rationing of food and fuel were within recent memory. Although decolonization was in motion politically, the economic shackles of empire have since proven difficult to break. The wealth of the United Kingdom is built upon plunder: the country’s major institutions were funded by theft, and many continue to be. However, the fact of British imperialism is not in and of itself an argument for leaving the EU. Island nations are especially vulnerable to xenophobia — the boundary of the sea is a clear thing — and unfortunately, I think that Britain is the rule, rather than the exception.
The consequences of Brexit will emerge over time, and it’s hard to say right now what the future will look like. I’m not especially interested in predicting right now. To those of you excited by the prospect of a class war, please remember that struggle is the means by which justice is reached; battle is not justice’s equivalent. There will be casualties, and if you have no sense of the texture of this country, you may not be able to anticipate them.