Brexit and cultural dislocation

Image: @wgaronsmith (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence)

Brexit involves many dislocations: economic, political and (for those most directly affected, such as EU27 citizens living in the UK) personal.

Underlying all these, though – and a fundamental factor in why Brexit is happening in the first place – is the cultural dislocation that Brexit involves. That’s true whether the dislocation dismays or delights you.

This was called to mind when I read the following quotation today. It’s from Anthony G. Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner’s book, Minding the Law, but I came across it as the epigraph to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament:

All cultures are, inherently, negotiated compromises between the already established and the imaginatively possible. … cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality. In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible. What is alternatively possible comprises both what seems desirable or beguiling, and what seems disastrous and horrifying. The statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies of a culture are always in a dialectical relationship with contrarian myths, dissenting fictions, and (most important of all) the restless powers of the human imagination. Canonicity and the ordinary are typically in conflict with imaginable “otherwises”—some inchoate and even private, some vocal or even clamorous, some quasi-institutionalized as cults or movements of dissent. The dialectic between the canonical and the imagined is not only inherent in human culture, but gives culture its dynamism and, in some unfathomable way, its unpredictability—its freedom.

The idea that “cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality” is of particular interest at a time when “post-truth politics” – politics where the “contesting” of “conceptions of reality” extends even to the denial of basic, verifiable facts – has been so widely discussed.

What jumped out at me, though, was the reference to every culture having “both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible.”

A point that numerous commentators have made about Brexit is how, until the referendum campaign began, opinion polls had rarely shown a majority of voters wishing to leave the European Union. However unpopular the EU may have been for many people, our political culture’s “canonical version of how things are and should be” was firmly one of continuing EU membership. The “countervailing versions about what is alternatively possible” promulgated by Tory eurosceptics and Ukip seemed doomed to remain nothing more than “contrarian myths” and “dissenting fictions” in the face of the “[literal] statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies” of life as an EU member state.

What has happened since 23 June 2016 is a process – and still only the beginning of the process – of reversing the position of these “conceptions of reality”. As a previously “reluctant Remainer” prime minister intones that “Brexit means Brexit”, Brexit becomes the new “canonical version of how things are and should be.” Meanwhile, support for EU membership barely even manages to register as a “countervailing vision about what is alternatively possible.”

The point is that this represents a massive cultural shift, quite apart from the political and economic impact as Brexit unfolds over the coming years. Both Brexiters and “Remoaners” find ourselves with a new and unaccustomed cultural status, a reversal of our previous positions. Others (such as members of parliament) find themselves scrambling to endorse positions they would previously have disdained.

The result is undoubtedly a manifestation of cultural “dynamism”: it remains to be seen, though, whether events will vindicate those for whom the new orthodoxy is “desirable or beguiling,” or those of us who find it “disastrous and horrifying.”


6 thoughts on “Brexit and cultural dislocation”

  1. That’s interesting; thank you. I am personally neither beguiled nor horrified by the prospect of leaving the EU: my disposition can best be summarised as “anxious but optimistic”. In fact, I voted Remain; but I *think* I have all but changed my mind.

    This is directly connected with your “countervailing vision about what is alternatively possible”. I suspect that I, and others – perhaps including Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – supported continued EU membership pre-referendum because to leave seemed unthinkable until then. Too many risks and uncertainties, too much danger out there in that big bad world world all by ourselves – to say nothing of the feasible if improbable dislocation of actual people forced to “go home”. We could find ourselves impoverished, isolated global pariahs. Who needs all that while we are still recovering from a terrible recession and there is a slightly panicky perception of geopolitical instability? No-one, really. And yet there is a sense that a great opportunity has been given and cannot be wasted. That it is a bigger issue than current economic and other political circumstances. That something which seems to always to have gone against the grain of British understanding of who we are and with which we will never be comfortable, can, with some effort and pain, be sloughed off. That *this* is the “alternative possibility” that can after all be, not just imagined, but grasped. I do not suppose for a moment that many would express these things as I do; but I sense that this general feeling is subconsciously present on a very wide scale, and that that is the reason the “Remain” option, as you correctly say, now barely manages to register in the debate. I cannot count the number of people who, having voted Remain, have said to me that “we should just now get on with leaving”. I won’t go so far as to invoke anything as emotive and romantic as “destiny”; but there is a strong sense of a Rubicon having been crossed and a die cast; and that however foolhardy we might be to strike out alone as we are doing, we are doing what we need to do to be comfortable in our own skin once again. That we are doing what, by our own lights, is right.

    I reflect only that we are a fallen race (humanity, not just the British) and that, to quote last Sunday’s BCP collect “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves”. We may obviously regret what we are doing, at least in the short to medium term, and there will in any case be endless opportunity for post hoc analysis and recrimination. But who knows, we may surprise ourselves. We may be better than we think we are. SH

    1. Thank you for this. Yes, I think you are right that a great many people who voted Remain are now in the “well, I suppose we’d better make the best of it” camp (though opinion polls still show an even split among voters on whether Brexit is a good or a bad idea).

      Certainly, I find it hard to see how Brexit can now be averted, so by default we have no choice but to make the best of it. I hope that “the best of it” is substantially better than the dire predictions and fears of unrepentant “Remoaners”. Fundamentally, though, “making the best of it” is something you do in relation to things that are fundamentally bad, and nothing that’s happened since June 2016 has changed my view that even the best outcome for Brexit will be a less good place for our country to be in than continued EU membership would have been. But we’ll just have to see how things pan out: and cognitive dissonance can be a powerful force…

      Another element in my response to Brexit, though, comes from my ingrained lawyerishness. For lawyers, precisely how you get a good outcome is by thinking of all the ways in which you could get bad outcomes and then trying to do something about them. The alternative is to turn a deaf ear to such lawyerly “pessimism”, assume that the bad stuff either won’t happen or will work out OK even if it does, and plough on regardless. Which sometimes works, and sometimes… doesn’t. Those of the latter tendency – and its this tendency that is undoubtedly dominant in the government* at present – often mistake the former for “pessimism” or “obstruction”: it can be, but really it’s just a different approach to achieving the same goal. (*though not, critically, the civil service – which helps)

      In short: I wish Brexit weren’t happening; given that it is happening, though, I’d like us to find ways to minimise the damage and maximise any gains; I am unconvinced that the “plough on regardless” approach is the best way to achieve this; and so I fear that a highly negative and disruptive exit remains all-too possible. I seem to recall Sir Ivan Rogers estimating the chances of this at 30%: so, less rather likely than not, but I wouldn’t want to board a plane that had “only” a 30% chance of crashing…

    2. Incidentally, your words here:

      I won’t go so far as to invoke anything as emotive and romantic as “destiny”; but there is a strong sense of a Rubicon having been crossed and a die cast; and that however foolhardy we might be to strike out alone as we are doing, we are doing what we need to do to be comfortable in our own skin once again. That we are doing what, by our own lights, is right.

      strike me as a good argument for Scotland to vote for independence…… 😉

  2. “Making the best of it” and “muddling through” are characteristically British responses to uncertainty and difficulty; but I feel they often mask something steelier and more resourceful. They cannot in any case be avoided at the moment: we are in genuinely uncharted waters and the lack of a “masterplan” (which as far as I can see could not realistically exist) leaves us falling back on such sentiment. Plough on we must, one day at a time – but not regardless. With that lot in Brussels we need to be as cunning as serpents and gentle as doves: as my current reading is revealing, we are amateurs in the dark arts of political sleight-of-hand and plain corruption compared to big beasts in the Commission. We are messing up their grand plan, and we must expect no holds to be barred. They have hoodwinked and wrong-footed us repeatedly (and rather expertly) in the past: they will want to do so now in spades.

    My vote in the referendum was not based on a clear binary choice, but was made “on balance”: I have no particular admiration for or commitment to the EU, but I had a genuine doubt that we had the spirit to extricate ourselves from its smothering embrace. We would be (and are) committing ourselves to a period of uncertainty, of ups and downs, that may last at least a decade, and which I feared we were simply not strong enough to weather (you can imagine, can’t you, the howls of recrimination in, say, 2018 or 2019 when we slip back into recession and unemployment starts to rise again?). A lot will depend on our holding our nerve, and we have perhaps become rather panicky and unstoical. So I thought that the risk was not worth taking.

    In the first half of the 20th century, Britain lost a huge empire, and subsequently almost all the heavy industrial manufacturing base on which its prosperity and power had been built. It fought in two world wars, the first of which decimated its young manhood, and the second of which reduced its cities to rubble and left it broke. Its loss of confidence – well, loss of almost *everything* – was enormous and crippling. In the 60s and 70s, when we were begging to join the EU, our economy was weak, our morale low, and we thought that our history of independence was, well, just history. Yet this small island is still (arguably) the world’s 5th largest economy, and there might just be signs that we are emerging from our slumber of self-despair. I have often thought in the past that we are a nation in the process of re-inventing itself: perhaps Brexit is a part of that; and perhaps I was wrong not to trust us.

    Incidentally, re your post script: it is indeed “a good argument for Scotland to vote for independence”. But they didn’t, did they? SH

  3. Is Orwell right, do you think, that a great many people care more (and more viscerally) about flags and red post boxes and that kind of thing than about constitutional arrangements (unless those arrangements are self-evidently very, very good or very, very bad)?

    If Scotland becomes an independent country, I can envisage that we might hit turbulence in this sphere of ‘culture’ also. It’s the flag thing. Symbols matter; politicians sometimes make them matter a great deal. Can you imagine this kind of stand-off between Scotland and the Remainder U.K….?

    S: You’ll need to redesign your national flag now. You do realise that, don’t you?
    R.U.K.: No. What do you mean?
    S: Well, it symbolises a Union that no longer exists. The blue bits represent Scotland.
    R.U.K.: Yes, sure they do. It’s been this nation’s flag for over two centuries. The blue bits now represent the continuing friendship and accord between our two sovereign nations. Go re-design your own flag.
    S: No, the blue bits represent a territorial claim and we don’t take kindly to that sort of thing, thank you. Why not get a branding consultancy in, or get Queen Camilla to go on Blue Peter and launch a competition or something?

    I can.

    And then, with or without Scotland, there’s the relationship of our ‘self-governing’ U.K. (so what were we before?) with the rest of the world. Do you remember that Harry Enfield ‘father-in-law’ character who kept giving unwanted, intrusive advice about other people’s D.I.Y. projects and the like? His catchphrase was “is that what you want? Because that’s what’ll happen.” Tory Brexiteers, belonging to a party 18% ahead in the polls at the moment, have a collective gleam in their eye as they picture a low-tax, deregulated tax-haven kind of economy (with a bit of Christian Democrat-style window dressing – the living wage, for instance); they figure they’ll be in charge until, oh, at least 2025 (which isn’t, in any case, that long). But 2016 shows that no-one really knows anything about who wins elections – given some serious economic turbulence as Britain actually exists, a Labour Party with John McDonnell as Chancellor (and perhaps still Jeremy Corbyn as Leader) could easily take office. Result: Bennite Seige Economy v2.0. “Is that you want? Because that’s what’ll happen.”

    1. We’ll say the blue bits represent “the sea” or something. Anyway, we kept the St Patrick cross in post-1922 (rather than just the top right-hand corner of it…) so there’s precedent for shrugging and saying “I just think it still looks nice, that’s all.”

      As for the next election, among the ruins of a hard Brexit, post-UDI Scotland’s troops massed on its borders against rUK incursion, lorries tailing back from Dover to Cambridge: my money’s on Tim Farron sneaking through on the inside to take power in a shock Lib Dem landslide.

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