Sunday, 6 August 2017

Living Lives of Quiet Desperation...

I, like many others, was very struck by the recent YouGov Poll outlining that a majority of over 65 Leave voters think their family losing their jobs is an adequate price to pay for Brexit. God knows what dreams they have about the benefits of Brexit, but it is very shocking at quite a visceral level, before you get onto how Boomer Leavers expect us to pay for triple-locked pensions from a reduced GDP.

British Nostalgia, or a million iterations of the same Keep Calm and Carry On font and poster design, the station in the Railway Children, Paddington Bear's coat and hat, George Smiley, Dunkirk, Vera Lynn, Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards and other lines from songs by The Kinks.

That's what I thought Brexit was about, nothing to do with the EU - and it's still not really to do with the EU, if you ask me, more about a reckoning with ourselves. Strangely, recently, I've started wondering if the older generation have just as much problem with us as we have with them, post Brexit anyway.

When we agreed to go into the EU, before I was born, in 1974, we were the sick man of Europe. Better trade co-operation and our comparative advantage in services led to increased prosperity. However, as the late Paul Daniels might have said, not a lot of people know that. People doing better makes for a more prosperous country. I was struck when I spend time abroad in Malawi when I was 19, that there was a difference in "just the basics" like roads, what shops sold, transport and local amenities like cinemas or leisure centres that felt like a yawning chasm between where Malawi was, development wise and where I had grown up. Before I did that, I thought the Britain was rubbish, as people are around me in Britain kept telling me so.

Britain has some unfortunate aspects of our culture - the belief that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing every singe thing, all the time; that there are "people like us" and "people not like us", that it's safe to be just rude enough that a British person would feel put down but someone from somewhere else would think you were unfailingly polite, the ability to be kind to animals and cruel to other human beings. And I love my country - god knows what it would be like if I didn't!

This, combined with what I have learnt is anchoring - the ability to think you deserve your prosperity, and a virtual disregard of any understanding of structural advantage or disadvantage, mixed with Brexit nostalgia, led to a result that I am not even sure Vote Leave understood. As Dominic Cummings said, he took the result of focus groups that said "give the money we give to the EU and give it to the NHS instead" - a simple answer on the face of it. So they won with simple answers to a deceptively simple question. But now I understand more about Britain I see we are a very mixed bag of people like us (I use this deliberately) who have grown up with the prosperity of being in the EU, understand how things are balanced and somehow think we will continue to prosper with it, and people who not exactly liked the old days, as they were hard times, but think that because they went through them, so should we.... almost like time served. But, as much as we like the increased prosperity, Britain itself and our collective failure to deal with structural problems of it's own has led to us not doing as well as our parents already and Brexit is just going to make that so much worse.

So we have these two parties, Gen X and Millennial Remainers and Boomer Leavers, who seem to have diametrically opposed interests - Gen X + would like to stay in the EU/EEA and keep as much prosperity as possible and Boomer Leavers, with their pensions, think we should do worse because back in the 60s and 70s they had to.

I can't see a resolution to this. I don't know why older Leavers would think a period of penurious living is a good thing, unless I suppose they think we are weak in character and also, more weirdly that being poorer would help us build character? Can we show them we are strong in character without such a drastic step? Can you show anyone that has formed a judgment that if they went through something so should you, even as we have children of our own? Do those children have to have the "sins of the fathers" (i.e. us), whatever they might be, visited upon the children?

Although I am concerned about the result of Brexit and obviously would still like to Remain, I have at bottom a belief that certainties like the U.K. being generally risk-averse as a nation and fairly pro-trade (and liking a lot of the new innovations in cooking in food brought to us from the last 20 years of globalisation) will probably prevail either in a relationship a bit like the EEA, and/or a bespoke trade deal which does not bring prosperity to a standstill (but the latter will probably take 10-15 years). I've become much more concerned about the divided state of the country, and moreover, exactly how easy it was to cleave. When that cleaver fell between families, I'm even more shocked.

People have been talking about culture wars for a while now, and now I see that there are some advantages to being Gen X and younger - more of us have gone to university which probably makes you happier and certainly makes you smarter (in the aggregate). Technology has led to better outcomes and medical advances. We are healthier, and will probably live longer. Our children are less likely to die. Through the psychological revolution we understand ourselves and each other better, we are more comfortable with people from different backgrounds and lifestyles.It is easier to be open about different types of sexuality. It is easier to leave an unhappy relationship. Multiculturalism is not just social policy to many of us, it's an article of faith. Does this, in fact, make us an alien species to a Boomer Leaver? Are we cuckoos in the nest? How much are our assumptions about each other and these Boomer Leavers a function of the times we grew up in?

I realise these are mostly questions, and no answers, however I did really need to write them down see if I could move the thought process on at all. Still stuck.... any assistance welcome!

Now, there was of course a man who did believe in order to be free, you should be poor - as well as of course many others - including whole religious sects - founded on this principle. His name, of course, was Henry David Thoreau and he said:
            "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things."

Is Brexit an act of desperation ? This is probably my final question and one I might have to return to.

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