Immediately after the result of the referendum vote on 23rd June 2016, a jubilant man turned up early in a supermarket car park shouting at black and Asian shoppers that they should immediately ‘go home’ and leave the UK. It was put to him that the vote was about membership of the EU, but he shouted, ‘I went into that place [the polling station] and I put a f*****g big cross next to Leave. So they got to leave, right? A f*****g big cross. That’s my vote. We’re getting our country back.’
This took place in Thurrock, Essex, which returned the fourth highest Leave vote in the UK (72.3%) and was followed by a sharp spike in hate crime. In response, as convener of the Mission Theology Advisory Group, I conducted a short piece of research, particularly among Leave-voting churchgoers, to find out what they said had prompted them to vote against remaining in the EU. If there is to be a Brexit for the common good, these voices, however obnoxious, need to be understood. The vote offered a permission-giving for the unsaid to be expressed, including within Christian congregations which outwardly offer voices of welcome, reconciliation and inclusiveness.
Leave voters talked especially about what might be called ‘the Babel effect’, – a feeling of what Freud called ‘the Unheimlich’ (the Unhomely or Uncanny), when what is familiar feels disturbed or disturbing. Many focussed on the presence of other languages being spoken around them and the apparent silencing of English voices as their migrant neighbours talked on phones or to their friends in trains, churches, coffee shops and public spaces. A number of people reported feeling newly afraid of not being understood in localities which had always been places of safety for them. Locally felt grievances, worsened by rapid social and demographic change, were common explanations for their Leave vote.
Many said that they had been both powerless and voiceless, effectively silenced and rendered inarticulate by their neighbours. The vote gave them a new opportunity for expression. Leave voters repeatedly argued that they were not listened to by those in power (including their leadership within churches), and pointed to what they felt were alternative voices speaking ‘their’ language, notably the forthright, male, ‘blokey’ discourse of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Ross Kemp and Jeremy Clarkson, something capitalised on by a strong UKIP presence in Thurrock. Speaking up for ‘our’ threatened NHS was repeatedly offered as an important use of political voice at the ballot box.
There was a new word made possible however, and one which the prophet of the supermarket and many of his kin found liberating. It was, quite simply, ‘Leave’. That word seems to have become detached from its political consequences and assumed a life of its own, as a way of getting back something people can cope with, whether that is law, locality or language. A Brexit for the common good might well ask what else Leave voters really want to see gone.
About the author
Anne Richards is the National Advisory for Mission Theology, New Religious Movements and Alternative Spirituality for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. She is the convener of the Mission Theology Advisory Group which creates academic and practical resources for churches in matters of spirituality, theology, reconciliation, evangelism and mission. https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/mission/mission-theology.aspx