On Brexit - Thinking about a Bad Dream

We are living in very strange times.

When I meet my friends, we don’t roll out the usual greetings. “Hi, how are you?” “Fine. How are you?” “Fine”. None of us is fine. We’re carrying around that queasy feeling you get when something terrible has happened.

It’s down to Brexit.

It’s odd that I should be so unnerved because I’ve never had a love affair with the European Union. I didn’t even vote in the 1973 referendum because I just didn’t know which way to turn – the only time I have ever not used my vote. But as the years went on, I felt increasingly happy to be European while remaining critical of the bloated, unaccountable bureaucracy that ran it. Anti- EU feeling shifted from the far left of the Labour Party to the right wing of the Tory party, hardening with the arrival of the hideous anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

But when the EU clobbered the radical Syriza government in Greece, I lost sympathy with an institution that seemed to exist to prop up big business in the rich countries.

So what happened? Earlier this year I listened to Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, a man who has every reason to be a strong detractor of the European Union. He warned that the break up of the EU, starting with Brexit, would not lead to any kind of progressive outcome but to a xenophobic nightmare. He predicted hyperinflation in the poorer countries south of the Alps leading to recession in the richer countries now unable to sell their goods. “If you think a low waged, employed German working class is frightening, then imagine an unemployed German working class surrounded by refugees from the Middle East and Africa.”

I remained Remain from then on. Of course there was a left wing argument for Leave but those leading the Leave agenda were from the Right, led by a buffoon with blonde hair that looks like a bad wig and the far Right with the nauseating Nigel Farage centre stage.

Two weeks after the vote, our lying politicians are a laughing stock across the world, all the key players have resigned and racist attacks have risen five fold. Individuals I know have experienced racism in multicultural London for the first time in their lives, the Polish Community Centre in West London was daubed with polish vermin go home and my Facebook is full of young people in other parts of the country reporting being called ‘nigger’ for the first time in their lives and videos of random acts of racist violence.

As a white (actually pinkish beige) person I haven’t heard anything like this since the 1970’s.

It’s true that in metropolitan London it’s easy live in a bubble, which is why many were astonished by the result of the referendum. It was not just conservatives who voted to leave Europe but disenfranchised, poor people too. Marginalized white people voted to Leave and marginalized black people didn’t vote at all. 

I wasn’t surprised. Over the last thirty years I’ve made films in Wales, in Yorkshire and in the Midlands and my way of working involves spending months in communities and then maintaining relationships for many years. So I know there are large pockets of extreme deprivation and segregation and that the people who live in them have zero investment in civil society.

The deindustrialization pursued so vigorously by Margaret Thatcher in the nineteen eighties, destroyed the coal and steel industries and decimated whole communities. People were not left to starve but festering on welfare. Nobody enjoys feeling they are surplus to requirements, without meaningful work, resigned to being grateful for handouts for the rest of their lives.

Everything is connected. In 1979 Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the United States and the United Kingdom enthusiastically armed the Mujahedin (who later morphed into the Taliban) because they were fighting the Communists. We turned a blind eye as they funded their military campaign with opium and cheap heroin flooded our streets. Unemployment meets drugs. It was love at first sight, a match made in heaven. Many of those who had nothing to do got busy, either selling drugs or consuming them. Building prisons to incarcerate large numbers of newly criminalized people and employing other unskilled people to police them, was an efficiently dreary way of maintaining social control and mopping up the left overs.

During the 1984/5 miners strike I lived in Oxford, our Miners Support Group was twinned with Mardi, the last pit in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. Mardi was self-policing, nobody even owned a front door key, there was a strong trade union, male choirs and a Miners Institute nearby with a library. Only ten years later, in 1995, I returned to make a film, Mad Passionate Dreams in Penrhys, the next village up the valley. It was full of burnt out cars, out of control teenage boys and ruled by drug dealers selling whizz, smack and weed. That’s how quickly it happened. “Why we haven’t had a civil war yet is beyond me”, said one of the characters.

My main interest has in been exploring the margins where the people we throw away live out their lives in this new globalized world. Instead of seeing it as a great opportunity that we no longer need to force people into repetitive, unrewarding menial jobs and investing in green technologies, science and art, we avoid social unrest by heavy policing and welfare. The next generation in mining villages were much smaller than their parents, and their pinched little old faces told a story most of us didn’t want to hear.

I don't want to join those who have either contempt or pity for those who are left out. Time I spend in these communities is rich in humour and I am full of admiration at their resourcefulness and liveliness. But neither do I want to romanticize the downtrodden. If poverty and oppression are so good for the soul, turning us all into lovely community minded people, let’s make them compulsory! There are very low levels of trust, high levels of violence, lower life expectancy and massive mental health problems.

People have no investment in civil society because nobody has listened to them for thirty years. Whoever you vote for the Government gets in pretty much sums up why people can’t be bothered to vote in general elections. This referendum seemed to offer change rather than more of the same and many of those who voted Leave wanted to give a massive two fingers to the establishment.

Between 2007 and 2012 I made two feature films with Jamaican heritage inner city gangs in Birmingham. The first film, 1 Day, was a street cast fiction and the second One Mile Away, was a documentary in which some of the cast came together to try and bring peace to two big city gangs that had been killing each other for twenty years.

One day when we were filming One Mile Away, one of the young men, a good man who was risking his life to prevent more of his friends being killed in a pointless turf war, casually tossed a foam container with a half eaten burger on the pavement when he’d eaten enough. I protested that he should stick it in a bin nearby. “Why should I?” He replied. “I hate this country. It’s done nothing for me.”

He was born here and had access to free school education until he didn’t feel like it any more. His daughters from different mothers go to school too. He’s been on welfare many times and received housing benefit. The state paid for him to be moved to a rented apartment away from a dangerous area when he requested it. His three baby mothers gave birth in NHS hospitals and he was nursed back to health after he was shot in a gang incident. If you’re a Daily Mail reader your blood is probably boiling already and I was angry when I picked up his crap and dumped it in the bin. Then I started to think about it.

Living a marginalized life in a community that was born out of genocide and slavery, where you are supposed to be grateful for any crumb they deign to give you, is a joke. Where is the dignity in this?

It’s not about stuff. All we need is a roof over our heads, interesting things to do, food and love. That’s it. But this is not about absolute poverty but gross inequality.

It used to be that the enemy was an identifiable boss and you could put up a good fight. But who is the enemy now? In the hood most people believe in the Illuminati conspiracy theory. The Illuminati are a sinister elite from another planet. They are shape-shifting cyborg lizards who control everything and they include Freemasons, Bankers, Jews, the Media, the Royal Family, Barack Obama and Jay Z . You cannot challenge or defeat them so you turn your anger where it can be most effective – by stabbing or shooting someone just like you. And there is no point in voting because nothing is going to change.

It sounds crazy but drop the bizarre shape shifting lizard part of the story and the Illuminati look exactly like the 1% of insanely rich people gorging on yachts and gambling vast sums of money, while the middle classes graft and the rest fester on welfare or in servitude.

Although there is speculation that the goons running the Leave campaign were just playing a game they didn't expect or want to win, the 1% are die hard leavers. The dream is true globalisation,  no annoying EU regulations on movements of people, capital or goods, replicating neoliberal dystopias like Dubai. A world where there is complete freedom to import slave labourers, boot them out when you want, slosh money around tax havens and produce and sell goods anywhere.

Paul Mason, a progressive economic journalist who “voted Remain with gritted teeth” argues that the reason Leave won is that Remain had no story about how people’s lives would be better. Leave had lies – about money and immigration - but they were whopping good ones.

We need to tell better stories. 

As filmmakers we are storytellers. We’re part of the picture. Let’s not let the devils with bad hair have all the best tunes. Let’s go into this weird time as generously, as creatively and boldly as we can. We can imagine things better.

Penny Woolcock