ICR316: Victor Seidler, Making Sense of Brexit
After the shock decision to leave the EU in 2016, what can we learn about our divided and increasingly unequal society and the need to listen to each other? This episode isn’t strictly about personal finance, but the points we discuss have significant implications for the economy and politics, and therefore personal finance.
My guest on the show today is Victor Seidler.
Vic is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology, at Goldsmiths University of London. His research interests include social theory and philosophy; Marxism and critical theory; moral theory; masculinity and sexual politics, and he has written on social theory, ethics and gender, particularly in relation to men and masculinities.
This engaging and accessible book addresses the causes and implications of Brexit, exploring this moral anger against political elites and people feeling estranged from a political process and economic system that no longer expressed their will.
Here’s my conversation with Victor Seidler, author of Making Sense of Brexit, in episode 316 of Informed Choice Radio.
Martin: Well, welcome back to Informed Choice Radio. Vic, welcome to the show. Could you start by telling us a bit about you and about the work you do?
Vic: I teach at Goldsmith. I’m an emeritus professor in social theory, and I work around issues of gender, often in terms of men and masculinities and also around cultural events. I’ve worked around the impact of the 7/7 London bombings, and also, I’ve done work around just the current global impact of Diana’s funeral and death, and also on 9/11. I’ve tried to focus on events, and Brexit was a moment when it just seemed as if we didn’t really know how to think about what was happening, particularly in relationship to the referendum. I had time, I thought. I couldn’t really think about anything else, and this was a really important issue, both for the country, but also for Europe and world more generally.
Martin: Our listeners may be thinking to put Brexit in the same context as 7/7, 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, maybe isn’t how they view Brexit. Was it such a damaging event for many people that it gets put in that same category?
Vic: Well, I think it was an enormous event for many people who felt shocked by it and really wanted to make sense of what was happening, particularly those who were main voters. They suddenly felt that they were living in a country that they didn’t understand and really felt that they needed to understand what had happened, because the media in large part was reporting people on both sides, leaders of a campaign on both sides, but often not really giving a clear sense of what was happening in the country.
Martin: And assuming Brexit is damaging, and it’s obviously having a big impact, as you say, mostly on remainers who feel they don’t really understand the society they’re living in anymore. Is that damage repairable, assuming that Brexit proceeds, and we leave European Union as per the government’s current plans? Does that group of people stand a chance of seeing that damage repaired?
Vic: Well, I think one of the problems was that when May got elected, and she became prime minister and opened up the beginning on her first speech in Downing Street, a kind of real dialogue, which recognised the enormity of the event. There were gonna have to be major changes in relationship to the real economy and also the growing inequalities. At that moment, it seemed the government had some grasp and understand, but after that, there was a very strong feeling that anybody who voted remain simply had to accept the will of the people and had to fall behind the decision.
Because so little has been communicated by the government, this feeling that things haven’t really moved on on either side, the people feel that what should have been the government’s responsibility to open up dialogue. Recognising how close the vote was, there was a kind of damming of information, a closing bell, which is why you can feel even more present when we’re really in the second stage of the negotiations, but the country’s really split and divided. So, I think there’s a way that the government, particularly after May’s election and loss of the Tory majority, has meant that there’s a kind of bitterness and uncertainty, and a lot of that was unnecessary. There was a way that the government could have recognised the country was really divided and needed to move toward some kind of compromise.
Martin: Thinking specifically about Brexit and, I guess, loss of identity, because part of Brexit is we’re no longer going to be members of European Union, will members of society be able to still appreciate themselves as Europeans post Brexit?
Vic: I think this is partly generational. The Brexit vote, the referendum vote, showed really split across different generations and that young people carried quite a strong resentment that their freedoms to work and travel across Europe, to have relationships with people that they wanted to love and care far, that a lot of their sense of European identity as the younger generation, was being threatened. So, I think it’s that if we find a way in the post Brexit situation where people can still see themselves as Europeans and have a very close relationship to Europe even if we’re outside it or outside the formal structures of EU, that would really help I terms of opening up dialogue across generations it’s missing.
The recognition that age was a really important element and that the younger generation felt in some way betrayed that they were gonna have to live with the consequences of Brexit and that somehow they hadn’t listened to. And also we found that in the election that happened in 2016 that a lot of the younger people, 16 to 18 year olds who couldn’t take part in the referendum, and also people who wanted or said they wanted to be part of it, but didn’t vote turned out to vote for Corby Labour Party, because they felt so strongly that they hadn’t been given the voice in the referendum. So, I think the generational issue is really a significant one.
Martin: I’d like to come on and ask you a question about Corbyn in just a moment, but beforehand, from a sociological perspective, what do you think Brexit, and the Brexit vote tells us about the current state of our society?
Vic: Well, quite deep things, because it shows how in large part the traditional working class areas, the practises of globalisation and the de-industrialization that has followed, has left the politics, which has meant that many people feel, and the phrase has been left behind, but it’s more complex. They feel like politics and democratic politics in Britain on both parties didn’t really serve or represent their interest, and that goes back to the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008, which seems to have a much longer period memory. The fact that the austerity programme was at the expense of people who felt that they weren’t responsible for that crisis has made a real difference and left a lot of bad feeling.
I think that was part of the element within the referendum. The referendum was the first vote in which a lot of people felt that their vote counted, because it counted because every vote counted in a way that in a normal election, if you’re in a safe seat, then your vote doesn’t have the same weight. So, there was a determination in the referendum to develop a message to the political elite to both parties. If you were there watching telly in the months before, years before, you got the feeling as though it makes no difference who I vote for, because the same people gets in.
So, that was the creation of this kind of dialogue. Not a helpful dialogue, because it removed political elite in both parties. There was a moment of democratic demilitarisation, really, the people feeling distant from a democracy and that the political parties somehow didn’t represent them in a way that they felt they should have done. The referendum vote, it was a high vote, came out as a determination vote. At this time, people are gonna have to listen to what we say.
But what they were saying was not just, “We want to have control over immigration.” They were saying that we want to have a different kind of economy or a different relationship between the economy and the society that leads, that takes into account the different areas of the country in Scotland and Whales, and that people should have a voice in really imagining what British society could look like in a more fairer and a juster way. This realignment was part of what was being asked for in the referendum vote.
But it was apart from that initial speech that May made, which I felt had a wide consensus behind it. There were no actions. Nothing was put into practise. There was a recognition of how the growing social inequality, what got framed as the difference between the 1% and the 99%, which struck a chord and that May had somehow heard that. Once the government got established, it was if nothing had happened and nothing changed. Then, the remain votes was asked to just fall behind, and you had this kind of nastiness, this kind of feeling that if you didn’t fall behind and just accept the vote, then you were somehow not democratic or not accepting the will of the people.
That was a very dangerous element and a kind of nasty element that has been part of the hard Brexit vision. People wanted to leave the EU, but they didn’t have a sense of what the difference was between hard and soft Brexit, and they have felt, I think, cut out, left out of the political discussion that the government has felt that they couldn’t share their strategies for the negotiation, because somehow then their moves would be, their negotiating positions would be undermined. There might be some truth in that, not against the idea that leaving a country outside of the development of the political discussions as it’s emerged, which is why you’ve got this fixed position even as late as we are now.
Martin: You mentioned nastiness there. Something that I witness on a regular basis is it’s very difficult to express any sort of political opinion now without being shouted down and all sorts of nastiness coming into the equation, as well as this backlash you described against the political elite. Do you think that lack of willingness to listen to other people’s positions and arguments and actually have properly informed debate could contribute to what we’re seeing now?
Vic: Yes, absolutely, and why I wrote the Making Sense of Brexit was to say the people had to listen to both sides and that even in the southeast, there was this sense that people who voted for Brexit had to be racist, so in some ways [inaudible 00:11:22] and had narrow visions, while people in the southeast, the remainer vote was somehow virtuous. There was a lack of listening or responding on both sides, and the government in some way perpetrated that by just saying that you had to fall behind it, and if you didn’t fall behind, you were somehow a traitor. Those seams outside of the lower courts, when the Supreme Court was decided, that nastiness was really corrosive to a democratic ethic.
Then, the failure of the government to support the judiciary, the judiciary was actually making a decision that the courts and parliament should be involved in the decision making. To lots of people across the country, the feeling that the idea was that we were gonna regain through Brexit some sense of parliamentary sovereignty, but somehow parliament was gonna be cut out of the decision making process. I think that struck a chord with people. People then wondered what was the real motivations behind the hard Brexit on the Tory line if they didn’t see the real importance of listening. They were pushing through on agenda and taking people for granted, people who voted for Brexit were not any longer consulted. They were spoken for. They weren’t listened to.
Martin: You mentioned a moment ago that the age of austerity was a lingering thing post the global financial crisis. Do we live in an unjust, capitalist society today? Is that part of the issue, too?
Vic: I think it’s dramatically part of the issue, and I think in some way the Brexit vote was a vote against the growing inequalities in this society, and that that was much more important people in the southeast got to recognise. It’s the growing inequality that feels like it’s undermining democratic legitimacy. People sense that the economy could be more organised in a way that was fairer and more balanced between the north and the south, between different areas of the country. The assumption that somehow if the southeast in the financial sector was deregulated, then in fact the whole society could benefit. I think that was a mistake in the new labour government, because it just didn’t work out, and it meant that people had lost jobs, and in the losing of their jobs, they were undermined in a sense that they felt that they had no part of the democratic politics. The difficulties or dangers of in growing social inequality is on the very fabric of the democratic society.
Martin: I promised I’ve come back to talk about Corbyn. One of your research interests is Marxism and critical theory. We’ve, of course, heard in the past week or so that the labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is firstly vowing to curb the city of London’s power, but also telling the Free Press that change is coming, which a lot of people took as a very sinister comment. What’s your take on Corbyn, and what about the scenario of him becoming prime minister could mean for the country?
Vic: Well, I think he’s raising questions about the relationship between the financial … The speech in relationship to the city of London, which was important, was talking about rebalancing the relationship between the financial sector and the real economy. It wasn’t, in some way, very … May had certain kind of moves when she first got elected, but we needed think about the relationship of financial sector to the real economy, and the idea that you could just deregulate the financial sector, which partly led to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s actually still part of people’s memory, so the idea that people were not held to account, and this isn’t a banker bashing or anything like that, but that somehow the law didn’t allow people to be made accountable, and that the financial sector hasn’t really reorganised itself in a way that has funded the real economy. So, the people talked about the real dangers of the second crisis, because the lessons haven’t been learned.
I think Corbyn, who wasn’t strongly, he didn’t play the part he should have played in terms of the remain vote. It should be, in my opinion, opening up much deeper questions about how the Brexit vote should be carried through or realised. I didn’t interpret it as an attack on the city. I interpreted it as a kind of wake up call to think about what the relationship is between the financial sector and the real economy and the difficulty even in the reforms that have been made for the real economy really to be invested in. The low levels of investment and the way in which the investment strategists that were supposed to follow 2008 didn’t.
Martin: Yes, absolutely. I’m thinking about connections between the real economy in various sectors and thinking about the future. Do you think society is going to need to change fundamentally because of new realities like automation and artificial intelligence? We’ve heard people speaking about universal basic income of one possible solution.
Vic: [inaudible 00:17:49] has opened up that discussion around basic income, and I think it’s an important one that we need to have, because of the implications of the new technologies. I think they will have profound effects, but I think the impact of the organisation has not … I think this is an insight that’s emerged in the last few months, that Britain’s position within the relationship with the EU gives it more power and more influence in the world so that the business and industry, and this has been clear through statements from the Japanese ambassador and other people, and also as a consequence of May’s visit to China. In both those situations, which was supposed to show the importance of Britain creating new trade deals, what was said by the industries in those two situations was that Britain’s position’s gonna be much weaker, because industries have positioned themselves in the UK in order to be part of, given access to the EU. This somewhat empire, post empire nostalgia that Britain can suddenly make all these deals has been really challenged in the examples that people have made in the corporate negotiations.
The idea that we can somehow just separate ourselves from Europe, I think a younger generation, and also people who voted Brexit, have been reconsidering, because they realise, because the information wasn’t there, how the supply chains or different manufacturing industries after 40 years, go right across, not just across Europe, but they globalised supply chains. The loss of that, by disconnecting, will mean that it’s very hard to anticipate the self harm that can be done through the Brexit vote. The move, the evidence has become clearer, because people have come to realise what the consequences of a hard Brexit are, with the increasing tariffs, what the impacts of.
If it’s true that they want to follow in, say, an American model of deregulation, even in relationship to farming, in relationship to farming, it’s going to mean that we’re gonna have cheap imports in deregulation in a way that will undermine the possibilities of a renewed economic transformation.
So, I think people learned. Facts have changed, and the referendum, and I’m not even sure about the outputs of a second referendum. But, frankly, people now know, because of the intense discussion. The way that people are making sense of this, they’re actually wanting to think again, or rethink as these facts and understandings have been developed, not only by academics, but just generally in the economy. People want the chance to think about a compromise that will bring the different sides together.
This isn’t utopian, but it’s a matter of being prepared to listen on both sides and recognise that the decisions and the negotiations that are happening are going to have enormous consequences. We can’t just say, “The people have voted.” There has to be almost kecked in a fixed position. We have to recognise how people have felt closed out of the negotiations and that the government has in some way failed to open up the possibilities of a kind of form of Brexit.
Corbyn, I think, has been too silent. I think he could have been a much more significant role in opening up the questions and actually opening up the questions of what was important. Even though the labour manifesto, which he was attacked for, is only a kind of social democratic manifesto in the context of Europe or different countries. It’s not an extreme fugue, but it shows how many people who voted Brexit, younger people, but also older people, moved away from the UK politics, voted labour, because they felt that Corby was in some way listening to their needs for a larger engagement with the issues of social inequality and injustice.
Martin: Thank you so much for joining us today on Inform Choice Radio. It’s a fascinating subject. Of course, there’s much more within your book, which is Making Sense of Brexit. Could you tell us a bit more about how we can connect with you and, most importantly, how we can get a hold of the book?
Vic: Yeah, through Policy Press, Policy Press in Bristol, and just go to every water [inaudible 00:23:16] and encourage people. The book should be available and also online. I think it’s an important conversation for us to open up and that there hasn’t been a citizens’ Brexit discussion, a discussion that’s outside the terms of just the political parties who have their own interests. It feels like there needs to be a citizens’ Brexit, which opens up a much wider discussion.
And last, people say, “I changed my mind.” I can hear what you’re saying. I can hear that we need a different form of captive economy. We need a different kind of post-capitalism, which will in some way make these questions around social inequality. People in the city in the financial sector also are rethinking what their relationship is, because they know the terrible consequences of what followed the 2008 financial crisis. If Britain is to be competitive, it has to be able to reorganise and contribute to the real economy and understand how it can be developed.
I think Corbyn is asking or being forced to oblige by remainers to rethink some of his positions. When they talk about putting the economy first, for many people, it means developing a much more equal and socially just society.
Martin: Thank you so much for your time. We’ll put links in our show notes to your book and to more information about you as well. Thank you for joining us.
Vic: Lovely. Great conversation.