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Welcome to UKoslavia? Liquid Identities and Liquid Politics in the Age of Brexit

We now have the democratic will of the people ‑ unambiguous and clear. Or so we were told on the morning the EU referendum result emerged by politicians from both sides of the campaign. Since then the country has been in a state of flux, heightened not only by the onset of immediate political and economic upheaval, but driven by the question nagging so many on the Remain side as they woke up to the result: Who are these people? They are certainly not us.

The pronouns of ‘us’ and ‘them’ of course dominated the campaign and its coverage, reinforcing the Leave campaign’s fundamental assumption of diverging interests between the United Kingdom and the European Union. After the vote, however, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ has quickly taken a new form: Brexiters vs Remainers.

One of the common themes in social media discussions, online comments sections and call-in programmes about the referendum was voters claiming that they didn’t know anyone who wasn’t going to vote the same way as they would. Indeed many of us don’t. It is hard to overstate the significance of this divide and of understanding its causes in mapping a way forward. The referendum was not decided by economic considerations — Leavers’ case was barely credible — nor was it decided by immigration, but, as The Guardianobserved, by perceptions and fear of immigration ‑ Castle Point in Essex, with its net migration figure of 81 in 2015, for instance registered one of the strongest Leave votes in the country. These concerns over immigration as well as the two other key Leave themes — sovereignty and democracy — were thus fundamentally driven by questions of identity and community.

Herein lies the key problem that will let post-referendum calls for unity fall on stony ground: for all the success of a campaign that was built around an essentialist notion of nationhood — of those who belong by the ‘virtue’ of their (British) origin versus those who do not , of the (democratic) will of the British people (EU residents in the UK were not given a vote), and of the sovereignty of that given people — these categories and the communities and identity positions to which they translate have long lost their primacy, reflected in the lines of divisions between the Remain and Leave camp: education and age emerging as key predictors of voters’ preference as the young and those with high educational attainment overwhelmingly opted for continued EU membership.

It is far from coincidental that it is those groups that tend to shape participation in many fields of (popular) culture, enthusiasm and fan cultures. To those who in the digital world of the 21st century have found varied and different forms of association, group and community membership, national identity is of declining importance, particularly among the young. While our engagement in culture is both structured and structuring, youth and fan cultures as well as social movements offer new forms of inclusive and electivecommunity membership. It is to those who derive their sense of self primarily from their leisure and lifestyle choices, the music, sports and films they love, to whom former key markers of identity such as work, kinship and, most of all, the monolithic category of nationhood, mean least. On the weekend following the referendum the fields of Glastonbury and the streets of London hosting Pride thus served as marked counterpoints to the new realities of Brexit Britain: spaces in which these communities — structured and elective, yet inclusive, defined by interests, passions, pleasures, sexualities — gathered; spaces that shape and are shaped by youth and fan cultures in particular.

At the other end of the spectrum we find those to who do not participate in these elective communities and who, in Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of globalisation, “cling fast to the sole identity available” . To the ideal type Brexit supporter, resorting to essentialist categories in their search for the ‘sole identity available’, community membership and identity thus remain singular and binary, defined by territory and origin. As exit polling suggests, it is among those who defined themselves as exclusively ‘English’, rather than as also ‘British’, that Brexit support was overwhelming.

And while individual voters of Remain and Leave will fall somewhere along the spectrum between these ideal types, the clustering of supporters towards both ends of the spectrum is remarkable. The anecdotal sentiment among Leave and Remain voters is correct: they are indeed unlikely to know many who voted differently and likely have little in common with the other group.

In parts this is reflected in the referendum’s electoral map, structured by cosmopolitanism instead of traditional party association. Tory areas in the home counties such as Wokingham, Mole Valley, and West Sussex rank alongside London and the metropolitan centres of the North (Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds) as bastions of continued EU membership, while long standing Labour areas in the North East strongly supported Brexit. However, while helpful in our initial analysis, trying to map the different camps territorially misses the wider problem: Remainers and Leavers share the same places, but they live in different lifeworlds. Lifeworlds that no longer map onto a system which operates through territoriality and origin.

In analysing how these lifeworlds have become separated, some on the Left have been quick to validate racism and xenophobia as inevitable expressions of resistance to material conditions of neoliberalism. While there is a correlation between the geographical distribution of the Leave vote and maps of the indices of social deprivation (the aforementioned Wokingham, for instance, is home to the least deprived area in England) , non-reductive methodologies appear better equipped to appreciate the role of culture, education and (digital) media literacy in this process of separation.

Regardless of the causes of this separation, the very fact that Remainers and Leavers have so little in common presents a fundamental problem for the Leave side. Their project is premised upon the universality of their identity position: of assuming that nationhood can still take primacy to provide an umbrella under which both sides of the argument can come together. They will not and cannot. While to many Brexiters, ‘Englishness’ or, less frequently, ‘Britishness’ may seem a most natural identity position, it is no less an elective one, if one extraordinarily successful in a campaign fuelled by the particularities of the UK’s media ecology that leading historians and media and communication scholars have been quick to identify as a critical force in translating deprivation into jingoism and anti-Europeanism.

To the young, to the more highly educated, to those whose primary attachment is to the cosmopolitan city spaces in which they live, the national(ist) frame of Brexit holds no appeal and no future. It is as alien to them as the idea of Europeanness to many older voters. The problem of Brexit is not only that it proposes a likely irreversible path that is quickly set to no longer be supported by the majority of the electorate on the basis of demographic shifts alone, but that it has no answers to the emergence of a deeply divided country when its very premise is the assumption of profound commonality defined through territory and origin.

Ironically, the nationalist project of Brexit thus only accelerates the disintegration of the nation state it sought to revive. The divisions between the different communities of Remainers and Leavers have continued to deepen since Friday. Scotland is seeking to ditch its Union with England in favour of the European one; individual citizens in the UK have leapt from internationalism to transnationalism by campaigning for the EU and members states “to offer a means for UK citizens to retain their European citizenship.”The EU is well advised not to turn their back on those within the UK who wish to remain — they are its future.

As for Project Brexit, the last comparable attempt in European history to impose a nationalist frame on centrifugal forces of diversification in the face of globalisation — then, as now, driven by naked political ambition and hunger for power– led to the violent disintegration of a state not dissimilar in its multi-regional and national makeup to the UK: Yugoslavia. Much like Yugoslavia over the past three decades we might soon find out that the answer to accommodating different groups with their diverging lifeworlds in shared territories lies in a wider, more flexible form of political organisation and citizenship that in balancing the national and the transnational, the singular and the diverse, can accommodate diverse and opposing identity positions and communities — something like, one suspects, the European Union.

Cornel Sandvoss

Professor of Media interested in participatory and popular culture, globalisation and politics. Member of the Green Party, though views are very much my own.

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