As the UK continues to reel in shock at the outcome of the EU referendum, Nathan Manning shares his thoughts on what it has revealed about the state of the country and the implications for democracy…
Britain’s referendum on EU membership has been an ugly affair. Jo Cox MP was brutally murdered in the street en route to her constituency surgery. Both sides of the campaign routinely reduced public debate to sloganeering and sustained misinformation, half-truths and flat-out lies.
Once again, political elites tended to ignore young people and were patronising when they did address them. It did get people talking, but public debate was a long way from the inclusive and public-spirited conversations we needed to help open up the political possibilities of the decision before us.
The Leave campaign offered no clear indication of what Brexit might practically mean and Remain rarely offered more than the status quo or the abject fear of the alternative. There was precious little space in which citizens could ask new questions, create new meanings or inspire one another.
Mark Twain told us that ‘if voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.’ The contemporary rendition of this has been that voting doesn’t matter because there’s no genuine difference between the major parties. And in recent decades many established democracies have seen declines in electoral turnout. But Britain’s EU referendum dramatically showed that elite control of politics isn’t quite so water-tight.
It seems extraordinary that a campaign led by key parts of government, supported by high profile international leaders, organizations and powerful corporate interests could come a cropper, but that’s precisely what’s happened.
“The referendum…has revealed a number of seething wounds in the body politic”
This probably reflects some hubris on the part of Cameron and Co, but it highlights just how disconnected these political representatives are from many ‘ordinary’ citizens – they seemingly had no idea that such dejected voters could be harnessed so successfully in the cause of Brexit.
The referendum may have provided a rare platform to chunks of the citizenry who feel flouted by mainstream politics, but the process has revealed a number of seething wounds in the body politic.
That so many were willing to step into the figurative dark in support of Leave is but a symptom of the gross social and economic inequalities that characterise contemporary Britain; and it’s becoming clear that a Britain free of the EU will not reverse recent cuts in public spending. It’s also clear that turning our backs on modernity and seeking refuge in the primal shelter of a ‘sovereign’ nation is simply not a genuine option in our globalised, interconnected world.
The referendum has left Britain deeply divided and vulnerable. Whatever form Brexit ultimately assumes, we will need to begin to repair the rifts. At stake is more than access to the single market or perceived control of levels of immigration, but our civility and the very fabric of our democratic political culture.
Nathan Manning is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. His PhD research explored the ways in which young adults understand and practice politics and has featured in: Journal of Youth Studies, Journal of Sociology and Sociological Research Online. Recently his interests have turned to adult political dissatisfaction and the role emotions may play in political (dis)engagement with work published in The Sociological Review, Citizenship Studies and Sociology. He is currently using the Mass Observation Archive to explore political (dis)engagement and feelings of dissatisfaction longitudinally. You can follow Nathan on Twitter @
He is editor of a the volume Political (Dis)Engagement: The Changing Nature of the ‘Political’ which can be purchased from the Policy Press website here at a 20% discount price of £56.00.
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