Political slogans, whether good, tasteful or not, have an ability to persist in the memory. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan that was produced in 1939 on posters to motivate British people through the ensuing Second World War, has re-emerged in recent years as twee homeware, marketing slogans, parodied to no end. It’s souvenir level in taste but many say that this represents the British character (those that are into that kind of thing); for some the polite, repressed, reluctant nature that people associate with Britishness is tied up in that mantra – just keep calm and just keep moving forward. It may have been emblematic of its times then, but it’s also emblematic of the times now. Ironic and self-conscious, its popularity and resurgence probably comes on the back of recent years fashions of vintage, re-selling, regenerating.
Now in the wake of the EU referendum, one asks how this is possible, one asks if this is tjat kind of Britain any more. It’s impossible to keep calm because nobody has any idea of what is happening, or going to happen, and as a result, one can not simply keep plodding on in a familiar direction. Keeping calm and carrying on also relies on a feeling of togetherness, no matter the ideology, and when at war that’s happening domestically as well as internationally, you would feel that regardless of political persuasion, togetherness is the only way you can physically and psychologically survive a war.
Of course, Britain has comprehensively shown its divides, quite literally split in half, as 48% and 52% differed in their vote on the E.U. The young and the old are divided as the demographics showed similar vote percentages but in the opposite directions; the two major political parties are split between themselves; the United Kingdom is split as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for remain, where England and Wales voted leave; and England is split between its liberal and professional metropolises and its towns and boroughs across the rest of the country.
And yet, this does not seem like a particularly divisive vote. Remain and leave are of course opposite terms and in terms of legislation, Britain in and out of the E.U are separate realities, but paradoxically, on the way to the polling station, it felt like that this was a vote between two different kinds of capitalism and inequality. It felt like a vote between a more obvious and fascist kind of capitalism, or the kind of capitalism that we’re familiar with in the form of neoliberalism. Post-referendum there was a wave of both obvious anger and cynicism, but an odder feeling of regret by those that voted leave, or considered voting leave, disbelieving that it had actually happened.
Social media allows us all to be experts (ahem), and whilst there are those that continue to propound their views, we have to honestly say that nobody really knows how the E.U operates both in relation to the UK and itself. You cannot help but feel that this is something that shouldn’t have been given to a vote, as Alistair Campbell suggested. For many of us, the E.U’s forty-eight years of existence means that it’s a mechanism that many people will not have lived without in their adult lives. There are many reasons to dislike its function, left and right. Whilst it claims to have been devised to bring together a continent ravaged by war and fascism, it was developed to accelerate those decimated economies. The introduction of the single currency has been disastrous. And so it replicates an emerging problem of sounding like a typically left, socialist sounding idea, a redistribution of wealth, and open borders, yet run by bureaucrats and bankers as a neoliberal project . This has been ramified when it has imposed austerity on countries like Greece.
Britain then could take back control of free movement, it’s economy and trade laws. Political Economist Will Davies has written about how that slogan is “a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic…to be a person without control is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence…it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it.” He also points to how this feeling of regret that some leave voters are now feeling is in part related to a feeling that this wasn’t a vote oriented to any kind of vision of the future. As he notes, Thatcher and Reagan came in to power promising a better future and one can still hear Tony Blair sauntering on to D:ream’s ‘Things can only get better’. But this apparent feeling of guilt and regret are feelings that instead operate in a conjecture between the present and the past, a persistent, almost spectral feeling of a past event creating a persisting, damning feeling of the present. It refuses to be comprehended and locate itself in a linear history, yet has an overwhelming feeling of causality. But guilt can also be irrational and demobilising, creating a reality that never actually happened, unlike when rationally and logically it preaches acceptance and teaches us some kind of lesson to right in the future. This referendum result cannot be amended despite the efforts of an online petition and we’re now living in a reality that doesn’t feel real and that we can’t retract. We can’t say we’ve learnt from it and we’ll never do it again. We can’t accept it. Where it might have promised a reality of leaving it all behind, it has instead done the opposite and created a guilty unreality.
We shouldn’t be, and I don’t think people are, surprised by the public retraction of many of leave’s proposals in the wake. It was only an hour so after the result that Farage said that the £350 billion saved by not being in the E.U wouldn’t necessarily go to the NHS; Daniel Hannan later said that immigration would not be stopped and there would still be E.U. nationals arriving in the country, and there was also the claim that Article 50 would not be invoked quickly and the process would be taken slowly and cautiously. Well, this already under threat as officials of other E.U. countries have stated that they want Britain to initiate its leaving sooner rather than later. And rightly so, the E.U is in a precarious position now, and after all, this isn’t Britain’s domain any more. You wouldn’t want the old tenants of a home you’ve just bought hanging around would you?
So what did the vote signify? I can admit to considering leave, believing that it may initiate the kind of political change that would inspire a left regeneration, but couldn’t do so knowing that it would be playing into the hands of the likes of Boris Johnson and Farage. There was no brigadier of the left advocating it, laying out a logical plan. Even though I would be considered one of the younger, University leaving, city-dwellers I despise that liberal, sanctimonious rhetoric. Davies says then that this a vote of self-sabotage. Indeed it almost seems a mocking of democracy, a rejection of a future; a meaningless vote and the apotheosis of what democracy promises to its citizens – an option to potentially be part of the construction of a country’s future governance.
In typical white, working-class heartlands, there were strong results for leave, and this is one of the saddest aspects of the referendum. Nobody can be blamed for voting leave, nobody can be blamed for voting for anything. There are irrational racists who will have voted both leave and remain, but this swing from a voice of the left, to become a vote for the right has been developing for a longer period of time than this referendum. It was concretely evident in the last general election when there were swings from Labour to UKIP in places like the North East. Who knows the definitive moment that people began to realise that they had been abandoned for a liberal project of globalisation, but they are not be blamed for voting the way they did.
We know the lies of politicians, and just because people may have less University degrees than you, it doesn’t mean that they don’t know that politicians lie, or are more susceptible to believing ideological rhetoric. That is the core problem of the liberal left; it still believes enlightenment can be achieved by removing the veil of ideology. So here is the feeling that the result, as Davies said, was one of self-harm, one of nihilism and hatred to all those from different backgrounds and positions (and of course, there are the typical votes from those on the right we would expect to vote leave).
I have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn; a half-arsed remain campaign (which appears now as a conceited leave campaign), half-arsed Prime Minister’s questions, and a half-arsed history teacher look. Corbyn’s resignation would be counter-intuitive. But despite the bids of no motion, public denunciations (he should be used to this by now), and the droves of resignations Corbyn’s speech on the following Saturday however sounded like the rhetoric a left so desired, and more importantly it avoided any kind of sanctimonious liberal assaults, and showed a genuine understanding of those that old heartlands that voted leave (and the Guardian, in typical liberal fashion seems to be reporting with glee both the chaos of the Conservatives and of a Corbyn led Labour). It has been the the only credible and measured talk that has left anybody’s lips, and yet they continue to revolt against him. The fact of the matter is that the majority of Labour members support him. The E.U referendum was based on lies and propaganda but the problem with Corbyn is that he appears to be surrounded by a delirium of unbreakable support, as if his position is fragile, there is no room for criticism and consequently progress. Despite preaching a brand of more honest politics then, and he may well be, Corbyn is a person impossible to infer. There’s been a year of ‘capitalism in its current form’ rhetoric and only now has their been anything which sounds progressive.
I sit here thinking about the pointlessness of words and rhetoric (after admittedly writing 2000 of them, the title of which comes from Macbeth). Many words that escape a politician’s mouth are empty and conceited. ‘Make Britain great again, take back control’. As with all political slogans, they are constructed for politicians and the voter to project their political and personal desires on to. One things for sure, the era of keeping calm and carrying on appears to be over. Nobody is taking control of anything at the moment, and maybe that slogan that was so genius, has been confounded, or unconsciously confounded by voters who don’t actually believe taking control is possible. Western liberal democracy has never looked in such a precarious position, and Fukuyama’s notion that we’re living in a post-ideological world has been replaced by a feeling that we’re living on the verge of a precipice, and that there is a different kind of history and many different potential futures possible. It’s a pregnant feeling after a mistaken union of opposites, like a regretful one-night stand, and nobody knows what the resulting form will look like, but it must be dealt with. It feels like an ironic action that has actually had a forceful and real recrimination. But through it, ironically, irony has been defeated, because it operates on a plane of knowing a reality, where now, nobody knows what is going to happen or happening. A second referendum is unlikely despite the efforts of an online petition (and a referendum isn’t binding. Scotland could veto it but i doubt they will). Both parties are now challenged by deep fissures, and although Labour may appear to be in turmoil, there is a chaos beginning to surround the ‘winning’ leave voters as they now must comprehend and reckon with their success, and the remaining Conservatives who were in remain. Maybe a snap-election would be the best thing to hope for with a left coalition going against whatever formed on the right,but continuing that feeling of disbelief, even the leave campaigners appear to be struggling to comprehend this new state that Britain finds itself in.
Even the wise old maxims seem redundant now. First as tragedy then as farce? It is the Conservatives that are enduring their tragedy, a martyred leader and a more stark than expected division, whereas Labour continue to play out the farce. Every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution? They’re not clichés but wisdom has gone out of the window. But what can a cliché teach us? Cliché’s withhold some kind of truth and there is an old sporting one along the lines of ‘History in the making’. It actually seems at odds with a western, capitalist rhetoric, because it was Marx who after all said, that ‘History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this.’ History is made and produced.
What is history, both personal and collective? Are we at the expense or the driving of its forces? On an individual level, in the anxious person’s mind when there is an overwhelming feeling of inescapable dread and fear, and past events continue to re-live themselves, it is impossible to keep calm. But it’s not impossible to carry on and a lot of the fear comes from the fact that it feels like an individual battle. And so, when a past event refuses to fit into our personal story, refusing to be repressed, alienating us from the self we believe that we know, eventually, not necessarily a lesson, but a meaningful history can be made of it. Only then will the future appear for the making.