Brexit: Get Informed, Get Critical, Get Literate

We have been subjected to the Milgram Experiment, but instead of a red button, we were given a vote.

I am not suggesting that the only reason Britain voted to leave the EU is because people don’t understand the election. That would be patronising in the extreme when more than half of those who turned up at a polling station decided to give their X to Leave. There are a range of reasons why people voted for Brexit. Some of them may include a genuine belief it is better for Britain, a distrust of European institutions, a sense that Britain is not making its own decisions, a distrust of migrants, a feeling of being ‘taken over’, a general malaise about the status quo and yes, in some cases, blunt and unadulterated racism and Islamophobia.

In effect, there were two campaigns to Leave, and I don’t mean the Farage one and the Boris/Gove one – in practice, they merged quite fruitfully and both benefited from each other. The mainsteamness of the Tories gave authenticity to UKIP. The reputation of UKIP allowed the Tories to push an increasingly extreme agenda whilst not being ‘the real bad guys’. Classic Good Cop, Bad Cop, essentially fighting the same campaign.

The real division was between the campaign of what was said, and the campaign of what was heard.

Some could suggest that the politicians are not responsible for how the public interpret their words and pledges, but I think this lets them off the hook. They would love this argument, and we ought to get used to it, because with every idiotic instance of race hate that is likely to proliferate in the coming weeks, in our big cities but especially in our smaller towns, we will see the same arguments peddled by the Brexit politicians. They will condemn it unreservedly, they will be outraged at the insinuation and they will keep wilfully ignorant of the fact that the heightened anxiety felt by the young Muslims in the street, the gritted teeth of galvanised bigots in town centres and the racist graffiti are all part of the same package of outcomes that includes the out-vote.

Because although the Out campaigns just about steered clear of explicit hate speech, they self-consciously fed the concerns that they know reside within many Brits.

It’s like when people say the ‘f-word’ or ‘effing’, forcing you to do the swearing yourself in your head, without them having uttered the profanities.


So Farage can say there is nothing wrong with this Breaking Point poster. It is merely a real and undoctored photograph of some people trying to get into Europe. Farage hasn’t said much more than that, because he doesn’t need to.

People have the story they want in their heads already; he knows this, as we all do, and that awareness serves his needs perfectly.

For some of  us the story of this poster is a detailed tome of the history of empires. For some it is a terse political analysis. For some of us it is a Bravo Two Zero-esque military page turner. For some, it is some apocalyptic manifesto of the death of civilisation. And for some, it is an Oswald Mosley speech.

Just look at Nigel in the picture above. He knows what you are doing. He doesn’t need to point and get red in the face. He can stand their, innocence-in-pinstripes, whilst you get yourself frothing with indignation, fear and rage.

Devoid of the context that these refugees are fleeing the ISIS that we are also expected to fear, Farage plants the idea in the head of the masses that there is not a humanitarian crisis, or if there is, the crisis is the one where A MILLION JIHADIS ARE MOVING INTO YOUR LIVING ROOM, SO GET MAD.

The Leave campaigns flirted with hate rather than propagating it openly. They provided the dot-to-dot and gave the disillusioned and let down white communities the pencil, nudging them to join them up to complete the picture.

Today, just two days after the vote was announced, we have seen attacks on the Polish centre in Hammersmith, women have reported being racially abused in the street in Walthamstow and it appears that two Polish men have been beaten to a pulp in a racially-aggravated assault elsewhere in East London.

But this isn’t the politicians’ fault right?

Imagine the incredulity spreading instantly all over Michael Gove’s rubbery Pob face if anyone attempted to allege a link between the words of politicians and the actions of individuals out on the street. How patronising of us to think people can’t make their own decisions. How naive.

‘Ridiculous!’ shouts Farage, blowing the froth of his pint over you.

Imagine the hands flying up into the air, open-palmed and wide eyed, hoping we don’t see the thin threads of silk that wrap around their fingertips, cascading down to the high streets where politics moves from words to actions, the site of consequence.

The British people are being duped. We are so easily manipulated, and we have been primed to be this way.

We have voted, and I think the vote should stand. I don’t want us to leave the EU but to my mind, the referendum as an exercise in direct democracy, has spoken. My criticism is not with where we have ended up, but with the duplicitous route that brought us here.

You know what? There are many convincing economic arguments for Brexit actually – from the left as well as from the right – just as there are many for remaining in the EU, but this is not the level at which most people experienced this election. Behind the insulating layer of economic argument, which shrouds all behind it, lays a phantasmagorical array of ideas which the public and the politicians dallied with: national pride, alienation, fear of difference, diversity, global competition, autochthony and belonging, inclusivity and exclusivity, hate, rage, suspicion.

If the election was conducted with anything like democratic integrity, I would be pissed off with the outcome but that would be as far as it would go. It would be like losing a horse race – my gee-gee didn’t win, but I don’t need to see it as some kind of equine conspiracy.

Instead we have witnessed a mendacious dive in standards, politicians competing to see quite how much the public will take in and tolerate. And we proved ourselves to be pliable, gullible and manipulable playthings.

We have been subjected to the Milgram Experiment, but instead of a red button, we were given a vote.

We deserve more from our civic life, and from our political representatives, but we should hold ourselves to higher standards too. We have allowed ourselves as a society to become increasingly politically illiterate.

In primary schools, Citizenship has become non-statutory meaning that in most schools – which are already starved of time for their curriculum – it has slipped off the agenda. And with the loss of Citizenship, there has been the loss of discursive space in the most formative years of a child’s life.

It is notable that despite the government putting so much stock on the importance of what pupils know at the age of 11, it is not thought necessary for them to have even the most rudimental knowledge of their own contemporary society and its workings until 11. Most useful for them.

This may sound odd for those who don’t work in primary, but I suspect many primary teachers would back me up here – 11 is too late to begin a child’s social and civic education. Children have an acute sense of themselves, their place in the world and of those they share it with, and this is in place considerably before they are 11. Primaries are sometimes good at teaching the wider positive social values, but few have the ability to tackle society head on – to get stuck into the hard graft of unpicking injustices, -phobias and -isms that may be present in the school communities. And even fewer schools develop an understanding of politics that moves beyond the general value of a voting system to elect a school councillor.

Our political leaders are all elected this way, but it doesn’t mean they serve our best interests. By just saying to children that voting is good and fair, we validate all that slips through the cracks in our democratic system.

We have just had a referendum on an issue of sovereignty, only to realise (and I am guilty of this one too) that it is in no way democratically-binding, but it is essentially a very expensive focus group. Funny that many of us are learning this after the vote which shapes the life chances of our and future generations.

A real political literacy is required among all of us as citizens if we are to fully enjoy the benefits of living in a democratic society.

Perhaps we placate ourselves by looking at banana republics, rogue states and cartoon despots overseas, and then look proudly at Big Ben, and at our voting slips, and remind ourselves that our system is comparably great. If we are to really love Britain, we should expect more of it so that it holds true to the values it purports to represent.

We should expect great integrity from our political leaders and we should see a wider representation in parliament; we should be critical, we should hold them to account and dispose of those who overstep the line; we should be able to spot the bullshit and call them on it; we should have an intellectual resistance to the roles, politics and biases of the media, taking nothing at face value; we should understand the money behind political parties; we should understand how the voting systems work and what different parliaments do and do not control; we should understand the force of rhetoric and persuasion and how it can cajole us as well as inspire us.

Political literacy among the electorate is a vaccine against the bullshit that politicians can weave into threats and promises. Political literacy among the electorate is a catalyst to a more grounded and realistic understanding of society and all of its challenges – wealth, employment, migration, diversity, community and so on – and it would allow for discussion and debate in the public sphere to take place from a foundation of knowledge rather than conjecture, and of optimism rather than fear.

But fear, threats and bullshit are the order of the day.

And for that selfsame reason, political literacy among the electorate is anathema to the status quo of our political system.

The politicians won’t help us to be informed. The media converts our ignorance into their wealth, and the gutter press long since gave up the pretence of any kind of public service. We need to be the ones to push for this. If it isn’t on our curriculum, political literacy should be. Our responsibility as educators goes beyond the consistent delivery of a scheme, or the regular adherence to a DfE directive. Our responsibility as educators is ultimately to society itself, through the young minds we encounter and cultivate. It is to the children who will be sitting in your class this week, perhaps all too eagerly seeking your view on things to guide them to make opinions. Don’t let them get away with it.

Anger and frustration are of very limited utility here, but they can be made useful is channelled into action. Inform yourself and inform your children. Engage with politics. Criticise the news, and encourage them to do so. Encourage them to use their freedom of thought and their freedom of speech.

Shake them from the docility of ignorance, and armour them against fear and hopelessness.





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