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‘It’s not too late to save Brexit’, Boris Johnson proclaimed in his resignation speech on Wednesday 18th July 2018. But what sort of Brexit are we really talking about? Well if you are confused, join the queue. There’s hard Brexit and soft Brexit and one might suggest every type of Brexit imaginable if it scores political points. There are calls for another referendum and a referendum on the final deal and probably a referendum on a referendum. With all the furore around Brexit it’s easy to forget what it was the British people were voting for in the first place.
As I recall, and I stand to be corrected, it was control of immigration foremost, they didn’t want any of those nasty little foreigners coming in here, taking our jobs and scrounging off the state whilst abusing the NHS. Then they didn’t want to be told what to do by Brussels and they didn’t want to be paying Brussels billions that could go into the NHS. We only had to look at increased waiting times for doctors’ appointments or the fact that we couldn’t find an NHS dentist to prove beyond doubt that immigration was out of control. Scattered in amongst this was the opportunity to be great again, masters of our own destiny and to shatter the manacles that have held us back for so long.
The rhetoric smacked of xenophobia but above all else, it aligned with historical parallels where the others are to blame for the state of a nation. The instant response of people facing difficulties is to find a scapegoat. Net migration has been a political hot potato for decades, duly made so by politicians and the media. The papers report it as if every person that comes into the country is of little value and yet people fail to look around. Who’s going to pick the crop this summer, who’s going to look after old people in nursing homes, who’s going to clean the hotel room, who’s going to do your dentistry or save your life in the operating theatre? Don’t make the mistake in thinking its British people because there aren’t enough of them that are prepared to be paid peanuts for doing menial work and not enough of them highly skilled enough to enter into medical practice.
The problem is that the ideas that so many people had about Brexit have been nurtured by politicians and newspapers alike. I rarely agree with Alister Campbell, but his comment about Paul Dacre the outgoing editor of the Daily Mail as a ‘truth-twisting, hypocritical, malign force on our culture and politics’ certainly has ring of truth to it. But its not just the papers, it wasn’t that long ago that Theresa May as Home Secretary was lambasting Europe about Human Rights legislation and the fact that she couldn’t deport Abu Hamza, a hate preacher. Anyone with a bit of savvy might have worked out that you can’t pick and choose human rights according to political whim and votes. There’s a suggestion that we could have a British Bill of Rights, a bit like Human Rights but maybe with a proviso that the government and its agencies don’t have to abide by it if they don’t fancy. A bit like Pick ‘n’ Mix, only not as sweet or tasty. Theresa May as Home Secretary promised to bring immigration down but as so much of the media hastily reported, failed to do so. Then there’s that Brexit bus proclaiming we would save billions that could go back into the NHS. What a wonderful idea except that nobody mentioned there were debts to be paid first and as every good householder and economists know, the books have to be balanced. Fanciful notions filled people’s heads, Boris and Nigel Farage are very persuasive, and president Trump thinks Boris will make a good leader. A real vote of confidence. So, what we ended up with was not so much a narrative about the benefits of staying in Europe and there are many, but a narrative about how Europe was to blame for the state of the country. Government did their job well helped along by right wing lobbyists and pseudo politicians.
And I wonder, just a little bit, whether the country would have voted as it did armed with all the facts and cognisant of all the ramifications. Boris is right, its not too late, its not too late for the government to ask the nation what it really wants, its not too late to put their hands up and say we were wrong.
One image, one word, one report can generate so much emotion and discussion. The image of the naked girl running away from a napalm bombed village, the word “paedo” used in tabloids to signal particular cases and reports such as the Hillsborough or the Lamy reports which brought centre stage major social issues that we dare not talk about.*
Regardless of the source, it is those media that make a cultural statement making an impact that in some cases transcends their time and forms our collective consciousness. There are numerous images, words and reports, and we choose to make some of these symbols that explain our theory of the world around us.
It was in the news that I saw a picture of a broken window, a stone and a sign next to it: “Leave my country”. The sign was held by an 11 year old refugee with big brown eyes asking why. This is not the only image that made it to the news this week; some days ago following the fatal car crash in New York the image of a 29 year old suspect from Uzbekistan appeared everywhere. These two images are of course unconnected across continents and time but there is some semiology worth noting.
We make sense of the world around us by observing. It is the media that are our eyes helping us to explore this wider world and witness relationships, events and situations that we may never considered possible. It must have been a very different world when over a century ago news of the sinking of the Titanic came through. We store images and words that help us define the way our world functions. In criminology, words are always attached to emotion and prejudice.
I deliberately chose two images: a victimised child and an adult suspect of an act of terror. They have nothing in common other than both appear foreign in the way I understand those who are not like me. Of course neither of these images is personally relatable to me but their story is compelling for different reasons. Then of course as I explore both stories and images, I wonder what is that remains of my understanding of the foreigner?
Last year, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo produced a caricature of what would little Aylan would have done if he was to grow up, presented as a sex pest. The caricature caused public outcry but at the time, like this week, I started considering the images and their meanings. Do we put stories together based on the images we see around us? If that is a way of defining and explaining our social world then the imagery of good and bad foreigners, young and old, victims and villains may merge in a deconstruction of social reality that defines the foreigner. In that case and at that point the sign next to the 11 year old may not be voiced but it can become an implicit collective objective.
*At this stage I would like to mention that I was considering to write about the media’s “surprise” over the abuse allegations following revelations for a Hollywood producer but decide not to, due to the media’s attempt to saturate one of the most significant social issues of our times with other studies with varying levels of credibility. We observed a similar situation after the Jimmy Saville case.