Giles Fraser on People's Vote: what will they say to Walsall's people?
Imagine this: unable to make the Parliamentary mathematics work for any particular Leave option, the government gives in to the idea of People’s Vote and the Remainers go on to win a second referendum. Do yesterday’s marchers have a plan for what winning will mean other than a return to the status quo? More specifically, do they have a plan for addressing the desperate cry of not being listened to that bust out of the post-industrial towns of the north and the midlands, a cry to which Brexit gave voice? If they win 52:48, for instance, what will they have to say to those who have felt profoundly unattended to and whose voice - legitimately expressed during the first people’s vote two years ago - will have been overturned?
A few – though not enough - Remainers rightly worry about this as a problem. Among them, the admirable John Harris at The Guardian deserves particular credit. Throughout the Brexit wars, Harris has worn out his tyres and shoe leather travelling around Brexit supporting towns, trying to understand what went on. In video interview after interview, with mums at the school gates and struggling shop workers, Harris has shone a light on the atmosphere of gloom and despair that hangs over those parts of Britain of which many Remainers have little experience.
And among these places, one in particular Harris has returned to again and again as characteristic of the Brexit phenomenon: Walsall. It’s a place I know fairly well, having been a vicar on one the estates of north Walsall, very similar to those that Harris has visited. If Brexit has had any value, it is that these places have, at last, been listened to. Noticed. It is easy enough to paint the problem in economic terms, and economics is indeed a feature of the problem. These places have lost out because of globalisation. But the problem is not simply an economic one. There is also a deeper emotional problem of not having a voice, of one's voice being unattended to. Work in a vast warehouse of a packing factory for Amazon, or try and sell the local newspaper in the increasingly empty Walsall town centre: it is not just that you feel too insignificant to be bothered with, but also, that the powers that govern your life are so distant, so clouded in obscurity, as to be impossible to imagine, let alone engage with. Global capitalism has turned power into some distant god, too far away to care, too other even to barter with. The people who determine your lives live who knows where, in who knows what country. Do they live in China? Or Manhattan? Or Brussels? They are gods without a face, obscured by clouds of baffling bureaucracy and mediated through nameless offshore accounts. Even those who claim to be on your side live unimaginable lives in places that you have never heard of. In such a world, power radiates down from nowhere, sucking the life out of communities, and offering only servitude to the unknown gods of distant power.
If you are not religious, you may not like the following parallel. But the core appeal of Christianity is that it imagines a God that is not distant, but that has made himself close to ordinary lived experience by being born as a human in a shed, and has lived among us. This is a God that seeks closeness to people in their concrete reality, so much so that they call Him “Abba”, an intimate term that is better translated “Daddy” than the stern Victorian-sounding “Father”. Today’s global capitalism is a very different sort of religion. In theological terms, it is a form of Deism: a distant god that creates everything but does not intervene in the world. It is a god with whom there is no interaction.
The emotional core of Brexit, and the reason I remain a passionate Brexiter, despite all its problems, is that it seeks to collapse the distance between power and ordinary people. The shorthand for this is democracy; though, yes of course, democracy has many forms. For me, one crucial aspect of it must be this: to combat despair, ordinary people, poorer people especially, must have some access to the power that shapes their lives. At the very least, power needs a human face, and ideally a recognisable one. That is one of the reasons constituencies should be small (so, no to PR) and MP’s should come from the communities that have elected them. An MP should be a living, breathing embodiment of the access that ordinary people have to the forces that shape their lives. She should walk the streets, be seen in the pub. People should be able to approach her, tell her their stories, ask her to take their pain back to the temple and represent it. In my book, this is the nearest thing that secular politics has to being sacred. Or, to put it in properly secular terms, I remain a committed Bennite: in a democracy, the gods, any gods, have to know their place. Power comes from the people – it is emphatically bottom up and not top down. And it is not for the representatives of democracy to give this power away, even for gold, even if they think we will all benefit from it. It is not theirs to give.
So, let me try again: if Remainers overturn the wishes of 17.4 million people, what is their plan for making the people of Walsall, for example, feel that their voices count? In recent weeks, such people have been derided as stupid, as racist, as not knowing what they voted for, as being misled. It is not any sort of threat to say that if the result of the referendum is overturned there will be a widespread turning against democracy. If Remainers win, the alienation will deepen and darken. Remain really do need a plan to deal with all of this. But what is it?