It’s 2014, and I’m sitting in a university classroom in England. Right now, I’m a dance educator and studying for a more theoretical MA in the subject at the same time. This class is about contextualising performance practices within the political sphere. But most art isn’t political, I think. Our lecturer goes on to explain. Politics, I hear, is really a term about power relations. Almost every action performed by a human when there are other humans present is political, in so much as it is an assertion of status, whether higher or lower, in the greater game of power relations. We act out of a desire to attain something, perhaps to create order, perhaps to make things work for ourselves, but it’s impossible, I hear, to create art that is not an assertion of status in the context of human relations in some capacity. From now on, I look at government-funded art in a different way. I look at all art in a different way.
It’s 2015, and I’m performing as a dancer in a community opera created to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. It’s at Her Majesty’s Royal Albert Hall. As a country, we’re celebrating the beginning of a time in our history when kings were taken down a peg, when the barons at Runnymede forced King John to sign a document pledging himself and future kings to obey the law. We’re celebrating the birth of principles that have shaped the modern western world, the principle of keeping unrestrained, autocratic power in check, the principle of keeping authority accountable. I leave the Albert Hall with lyrics of freedom swirling round my head, keeping me awake at night. Next year, my head will be full of words of a different sentiment.
It’s May 2016, and I moved to Sweden three months ago because my husband was offered a job here, and I liked the idea of a fresh start. Talk of the upcoming referendum flits across the North Sea to my ears. I wonder what I’ll vote. It seems this is a bigger deal than I was expecting.
It’s still May 2016, and I’m encountering my first Brexit-themed debate. I’m sitting across a table from a stunningly blonde, Nordic specimen of a Swede. He asks why some Brits want to leave the EU. I say that one example of a reason would be EU-imposed legislation messing with people’s livelihoods, for example fishermen having to throw their catches back into the sea because they can’t exceed a quota of stock. I also point out that one member state’s experience of the EU could be completely different to that of another member state, for instance a country surrounded by water in the case of fishing in comparison to one surrounded by land. He says that the UK should count the EU’s benefits and focus on them rather than the negatives. Be grateful, he says.
It’s still May 2016. Broadcasted conversation in the UK is becoming increasingly heated. People have started putting Leave or Remain banners as their Facebook profile pictures instead of their faces. I’ve heard claims from certain Leave campaigners that the EU is undemocratic. This is a serious claim, I think. I’d like to validate this. I go onto the EU’s website and try to pick apart its structure. I read that legislation that reaches the European Parliament is proposed by the European Commission. I learn that the Commission consists of one person from each member state, chosen by recommendation from each state’s leader. I learn that the democratically elected Parliament only has the power to amend laws and not to propose or repeal laws. If an MEP wants to block a law, I discover, they must gain support from the MEPs of other countries as one country’s total MEPs is insufficient to block a proposal. I wonder how some countries who feel they are a net contributor to the Union rather than a net benefiter fare when a piece of legislation benefits other countries at their expense. I wonder what impact this legislation might have on the lives of that country’s citizens. I wonder how good a job of representing the British people our European Commissioner does when he involves himself in the legislative proposal discussions that happen around a table in Brussels. I wonder if his voice might be drowned out, or, actually, if his voice even reflects ours. Has he got that much to lose if he doesn’t represent us well? His job’s secure for five years. He’s got a pretty big salary and friends in high places. Oh, hang on, the EU Commission states on its webpage that the Commission, “represents the interests of the European Union as a whole (not the interests of individual countries).” So, our Commissioner is not even claiming to represent us, is he. I watch a documentary that follows lobbyists’ daily activity around Brussels. I learn that they are very involved in the Commissioners’ lives and that their offices surround the EU Commission and Council’s buildings in Brussels. I use an independent fact-checking charity’s website to ascertain how much UK law is influenced by the EU. It’s impossible to get an accurate figure, but I find the plausible range of percentages too high. I’ve made up my mind. Keeping authority as accountable as possible and disseminating power as much as possible is, in my opinion, the most effective way to minimise corruption and the pursuit of lawmaking for personal benefit over the pursuit of lawmaking for the citizens’ benefit. I make a video explaining my findings and subsequent opinion and share it on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. On Facebook, it gets somewhere between nine-thirteen likes. For the next week or so, I’m partaking in a written debate or two in the comments sections.
It’s early June 2016, and I’m awake at night. Instead of songs about freedom, my mind is whirring with economists’ warnings about financial disaster if we leave. It’s full of imaginary accusations that will come from friends who voted remain and then in the wake of leaving, blame the fact they lost their house or job on people like me who voted Brexit. It’s full of immigrant voices saying they don’t feel welcome in the country any more, that racism is on the rise. There are voices suggesting that someone like me may be required to leave Sweden – where life is already so much better – if we leave the EU.
I’m still voting Brexit.
It’s the evening of 22nd June 2016. I come on Facebook and instantly regret it. The majority of my friends on here are a similar age to me: in their twenties. Remain sentiments are plastered to timelines, sometimes accompanied by a Guardian article. These people, I notice, don’t provide any analysis or discussion of their own. They don’t justify their views, but they get thirty-plus likes for something like, ‘I’m voting remain!’ or slapping an emotionally-manipulative, void-of-fact meme on their wall. My video, on the other hand, which was the result of days of research, caps at around thirteen. Others are predicting a win for Remain tomorrow, some neutrally, some with excitement. You’re just doing what you’ve perceived to be socially acceptable, I think, and shut my laptop, making the resolution for the third time in my life to leave Facebook soon; it’s really just a clever tool for social conditioning.
The result will be Remain, I think, as I fall to sleep.
It’s the 23rd of June. My husband wakes me up hooting in my ear. He can’t stop laughing. He tells me the result. I also start laughing. We’ve agreed to meet some friends on an island in the Stockholm archipelago to celebrate midsummer. One’s an Italian, the other is non-European. We end up involuntarily gate crashing a neighbour’s party. We meet a tonne of Irish people for some reason, Swedes, understandably, and a Dutchman. Brexit is on the tip of everyone’s tongues. None of them are happy about it.
It’s the 25th of June. I wake up and brave Facebook. It’s gone berserk. Everyone’s crying and moaning and shouting. These statuses are still reeling in the likes. You’d have thought the world had ended. I’ve had enough with everyone. I write a status aligning the EU with an emotional abuser in a relationship, the UK with the abused, mainstream media coverage as propaganda and people calling for a revote arrogant individuals. A wave of supporters relieves me, some people were those too scared to throw in their support before. In continuing the discussion, I make a blunder by calling outspoken Remain-supporters who also claim to be Labour supporters ‘moral posers’. OK, it’s a generalisation, but I feel it’s true right now. Underprivileged areas voted overwhelmingly in support of Brexit. Why else aside from a desire to appear on the moral high ground would these loud Remain-supporters be so proud to broadcast their unjustified opinions at the same time as claiming to stand for a party that supports the working class? Now, the offence comes in from Facebook friends, and from here, I lose friends.
It’s the 30th June 2016. I’m still fighting my corner on my status’ comments.
It’s July 2016. I’m chatting with a Swedish friend who’s huffing about Brexit until she asks me what I voted, and then she goes, oh. She looks frustrated. You should look at the positive effects of the EU, she says, not the negative ones. You should focus on the good things it does. I gape. She’s responded with a nigh-on-identical-phrase to the one the guy at the party used. They don’t know each other.
It’s the last day of November 2018, and I’ve never regretted voting Brexit. I’ve got a job here in Sweden now, and I’m getting on with the language, but I don’t consider myself to have an inherent right to live here. It’s nice of them to have me. EU membership currently allows Brits to be employed in Sweden in a smoother way, but it’s still possible to be hired if you’re from outside the EU, it’s just via a more expensive, complex and less guaranteed process. But in the context of modern, first-world immigration and emigration, I don’t believe we have an inherent right to live wherever we want to live. We have to be accepted.
I voted Brexit because I believe in keeping authority as accountable and transparent as possible. I believe that if powerful, rich people are given the capability to hoard power and wealth away from public scrutiny, they will begin to work for their own gain rather than for the gain of the normal citizen. I believe people in power are in power to do the best for the people they’re leading, and that these people’s views should be represented as closely as is possible. As an extension of that way of thinking, I believe in national sovereignty and think that any step towards a financial and therefore political globalisation takes power away from the individual and the people who can represent them. I believe that the more distant a ruling body becomes from the people it’s supposed to represent, the more capable they are of not empathising with those people, and therefore the less capable of representing them they become. I believe you can’t turn man into a god without turning him into a devil; I believe power is addictive, and allowing it to thrive in hidden spaces facilitates its ever-more-rapid growth. I believe that democracy can truly work in small communities, and while we can’t keep communities as small as they need to be to accurately heed their needs, the smaller we can keep groups that can be represented, the more accountable authority will be. In my humble, twenty-nine-year-old female, mixed-race, British-expat-living-in-Europe, author opinion, allowing the EU to maintain its power over the UK is a vote cast in favour of globalisation, and globalisation, as I see it, only goes one way: where citizens’ voices fade until they disappear.
Esther Lawton is a British author who currently lives in Sweden. She used to work in dance education but now teaches and writes. Fabler is her debut novel.