Lord George Byron cared for Greece,
Auden and Cornford cared for Spain,
confronted bullets and disease
to make their poems’ meaning plain;
but you – by what right did you wear
suffering like a service medal,
numbing the nerve that they laid bare,
when you were at the Albert Hall?
Jon Stallworthy, A poem about Poems About Vietnam
For what it’s worth, I voted Remain last Thursday. I continue to hope that what emerges from the confusion maintains as close a relationship as possible between the UK and the EU. Right now, the UK feels like a smaller, meaner place than last week. I can understand and acknowledge the impulse to assert sovereignty, to take control, without feeling a need to follow that impulse. I think that mixing and sharing ways of being part of the same continent are good- and that increasing the barriers to that will leave us all culturally and materially poorer. Whilst I know that the vast majority of those who support Brexit are not remotely racist, I hate the effect that the fallout from the referendum is having on people I live and work alongside who happened to be born outside the UK.
The important thing is that, when all the votes were counted, more people had voted to leave the EU than to stay. In a democracy, that’s what should matter.
The thought that bothers me is probably trivial and selfish to bring up. Like a small piece of grit in a shoe, it’s irritating and not going away. So here goes.
Can I do more about this sort of thing?
Stallworthy’s poem is one of those odd bits of experience that has stuck with me since school. The poem contrasts the hero-poets of previous wars, the ones who went off to put themselves in physical danger, with more recent poets whose entire fight was with words written and said in safety.
We’ve just had a battle of ideas and ideals- arguably the most important and transparent that will happen in my lifetime. I knew what I believed, I also thought that the Leave case was a mixture of sense and nonsense, with some massive contradictions at its heart. I knew that there wasn’t a plan for what would happen next, and I’d worked out that there can be no plan that could achieve all the things that were promised. I recognised- having been involved in the footslogging bits of small town politics before- a campaign that was about winning votes, not winning proper power. Real parties have to be careful about the promises they make, just in case they are in a position to fulfill them.
I knew all this, and I didn’t do enough about it.
I voted, of course- I’m from a generation and a culture where you can talk about doing your “civic duty” unironically. I wrote and shared some tweets; I’m still quite proud of the one describing David Cameron as “the father of the nation, trying to persuade a teenager not to drop out of college and join a band”. I said friendly things to the people handing out Remain leaflets at the train station. (I live in Brexit Central, it was a significant thing they did). But that clearly wasn’t enough.
Whilst I still have hopes for the UK’s future relationship with the rest of the continent, I now worry for the future of politics here.
Politically, the 2010 coalition was broadly where I am. The financial numbers have to make a reasonable attempt at adding up, public services have to be decent, but balancing those two isn’t easy. There is such a thing as society, but it is “us” not “them” and needn’t be government. If my choices hurt other people, the state has a duty to consider intervening, but if not, it shouldn’t. Perhaps most importantly, the world is a complex mesh of interactions, and simplistic attempts to solve problem X by pushing button Y are doomed to failure or unexpected side effects.
The way things are going, I don’t know where this set of values are going to be in the party system. Boris will clearly say anything to get into Downing Street, and most of the Conservative alternatives are way to the right of this. Liberal Democrats are still atoning for the stuff which I quite liked, and Labour are off somewhere strange.
Like I said, it’s a bit of a selfish minor thing. Part of the whole “civic duty” thing is choosing the best/least-worst option, and working to inform it and nudge it to somewhere better. One of the reasons our politics is in a mess is because people (like me) have been too sniffy and lazy to do this. And while I mope about things I’ve not done, other people have got real problems to live with. Their jobs are at risk, or they feel personally threatened, in part because of democratic choices.
And I’m here, writing blogposts.