Oh dear. For what was the United Kingdom, it seems the worst has happened. Not only have we voted ourselves out of the EU, but some of the people who voted Leave are already wishing we hadn’t. And Johnson and Gove, who it seems may have been gambling on the vote not going their way, aren’t exactly walking bundles of joy. Having shot himself and the UK in the foot, Cameron is stepping aside and letting his successors deal with the mess. Meanwhile both Scotland and Northern Ireland are wanting out, and without the Scottish vote England may well be condemned to Tory government for ever. As for those on the left who voted Leave, did they really imagine that without Europe we could somehow turn the clock back to the pre-Thatcherite, pre-EU days and re-empower the trade unions and re-nationalise the railways? If only… Leaving the EU is much more likely to give carte blanche to the neoliberals to dismantle even more of the welfare state, the NHS and all our legislation on employee protection and human rights. And of course the mendacious, rabble-rousing Farage is popping up all over the place and trying to get his oar in now that racism has stormed out of the woodwork. He’ll be putting his supporters in black shirts next.
I’m afraid that for the past week I’ve been spending an unconscionable amount of time on Facebook, reading articles, watching videos and hearing of people’s very real distress and concern. Of course the majority of my Facebook friends are middle-class lefties like me, so I’m only getting one side of the picture and not seeing such rejoicing as there may be, but if whole counties like Cornwall are already realising they are going to be worse off and asking the government to do something about it, it’s not looking good. There’s a huge petition going round – which I’ve signed too, though I don’t think it will do much – pointing out that the referendum isn’t binding and it’s for Parliament to decide, but the EU are already making it clear that now we’ve voted Out, they want us out as quickly as possible – and not on favourable terms. The pound has fallen disastrously, financial institutions are moving their operations from London to other capitals, and nobody really seems to know what the hell we’re doing. People are either disappointed by Jeremy Corbyn or fanatically trying to keep him in place, despite the fact that most of his parliamentary party won’t work with him and it’s not clear how Labour could form any sort of government in those circumstances. Sadly, he’s one of the few good men around in politics – everyone still says that – and what he says makes an awful lot of sense, to me at least. Perhaps the time has come for a new party that actually represents people. As things stand, there’s every likelihood that where there is an election the Tories will get in again (who do you fancy as leader? Michael Gove or Theresa May?), probably with a bit of help from UKIP who’ll mop up some of the disaffected Labour supporters.
The situation is there and it won’t go away, and its effect is huge and touches everyone. ‘The personal is political’, that great feminist slogan of the 1970s and 80s, isn’t around much any more, but what this whole referendum debacle is showing, in case we’d forgotten it, is that the political is profoundly personal. What’s happened to this country will affect all of us, whatever age and class we are and no matter if we’re immigrants or part of the indigenous population, i.e. immigrants from farther back. Whether we like it or not – and Margaret Thatcher didn’t – there is such a thing as society. We’re not just a collection of individuals and families all looking out for ourselves:we are members of smaller and larger communities and the way we relate to those communities both affects and is affected by the political situation around us. The actions of those in government set the parameters for our lives, and unfortunately we’ve seen all too clearly how self-serving and irresponsible those who govern us have been.
I’ve always been aware of politics. My father was a Marxist, though not a very active one , and I grew up believing the majority of politicians in this country had got it wrong. Later on, in my sort-of-hippie days, I almost got to a no-society-only-individuals place where I just wanted to do my own thing and be left in peace to do it. But even then I couldn’t not acknowledge that I was able to do my own thing because of the social and political infrastructure around me. And I’ve always protested, been on marches, carried placards – not entirely comfortable at being swept up in a mass of people shouting slogans but nevertheless feeling my presence counted.
In the 1980s, when I worked in Camden, I was surrounded by Militant Tendency supporters, but although I considered myself left-wing and was passionately anti-Thatcher, I never became one of them. The black-and-whiteness of their position, their contempt for anyone who didn’t wholly support them, put me off. I admired and respected Michael Foot but, man of integrity, orator and thinker though he was, it was painfully obvious that he couldn’t lead his party. (Unfortunately I can’t help seeing parallels here.) I remember hearing him speak at a CND rally, definitely the worse for drink, and feeling sad for him. Later, when Labour finally made it back into power in 1997, I rejoiced, even though I wasn’t sure what kind of political animal Blair was and thought Benn (Tony, not Hilary) talked a lot of sense. Then, as the Blairite project revealed itself for what it was and Blair took us into the terrible Iraq war, I became disillusioned. Politics in this country no longer seemed to represent me, or people like me, and even the Green Party didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I was busy getting on with my life and writing what I wanted to write, which on the whole wasn’t political.
Where we are now is a right mess, and I defy anyone to say it isn’t. A lot of the poets I know have been writing poems about it. Until the other day I didn’t feel able to, and then what came out was a song with the refrain ‘Oh, don’t you wish you’d voted Yes?’ (Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m a middle-class university graduate, albeit of baby boomer age.) Most of the time I’ve felt too depressed and pissed-off to write anything, especially as I’d already been feeling depressed and pissed-off for other reasons. But I’m still managing to write about it here and keep posting little nuggets on Facebook, or replying to other people’s nuggets.
When it comes to more serious writing, I’m seeing clearly how much in poetry and fiction I tend to favour the personal over the political. I’ve written a few political poems and in a novel I’ve looked at issues of class and ethnicity, but it all tends to be in the microcosm – the ‘little me’ rather than the broader picture. Now I’m questioning that, just as years ago I came to question my ‘little me’ desire to drop out. If I’m truly part of society, if I’m affected by what’s going on, how can I not write about it? And how can I do so in a way that’s honest and real and stays in touch with the personal too? Perhaps that takes more skill as a writer than I possess, or perhaps what it takes is a willingness to open myself fully to the bigger picture, to be deeply affected by the suffering of the earth and the beings on it. To see myself, in fact, not as ‘little me’ but as part of everything: the refugees in Calais and the people being bombed in Syria and the Poles and black people suffering racist attacks here. And that hurts. I don’t know if my heart is big enough to do it.