The twin curse of masculinity and male-dominated politics helped create Brexit
Professor Jacqueline Rose
Professor of Humanities, Birkbeck London
Professorial Fellow, Institute for Social Justice
It has mainly been men. On both sides, men who have taken the floor, to the streets, hogged the limelight. But in all the post-Brexit commentary, we are in danger of ignoring the chilling display of masculinity presented throughout the referendum campaign, as well as in the week since: David Cameron and Boris Johnson exchanging verbal blows as if the country’s future could be settled by an Old Etonian brawl; Nigel Farage proclaiming victory on College Green surrounded by a posse of indistinguishable men as though his authority had to be propped up by multiplying versions of himself; Jean-Claude Juncker up close and personal with Farage before they started trading insults in Brussels.
All these moments have confirmed an argument familiar to feminists: men in public life rely on a type of closet desire. However important a role women might be playing on the political stage, indeed as one way of countering that role, men only ever really do business with each other. Indeed, they must be seen as only ever doing business (friendly or angry – it is the intimacy that counts) with each other.
The problem lies at the heart of the mantra “Take back control”, by general consensus the most effective slogan of the Brexit campaign. In fact, it was clear from early on that the fear this slogan taps into would be the emotion exploited by remain and leave alike.
It was Cameron who insisted that the deal struck in Brussels in February would allow Britain to control the influx of migrants by withholding benefits for four years. Challenged on a Question Time special days before the vote by a woman who insisted Britain would have a duty of care towards child refugees on our shores, Cameron was visibly flustered, and could only repeat the formula – nonsensical in relation to a child – that no one without a job in the UK would be allowed to stay.
The hideous Breaking Point poster released the day Jo Cox was killed, with its pictures of mainly Syrian refugees, belongs therefore in sentiment to both sides. The idea of a “breaking point” is eloquent, evoking the deep-seated anxiety at play. We must take back control or we – nations, bodies, minds – will break (the irony being that the “break-up” of Britain via Scottish independence is one likely consequence of Brexit). The idea of control gives false comfort in a perilous world. Politically, it always seems to punch above its weight. As the reply to the woman on Question Time beautifully demonstrated, the slogan “we have a duty of care” would not have cut it.
What vision of hearts and minds, as well as of nation states, are we being asked to buy into? It is the curse of masculinity that men are expected to shed any sign of vulnerability, to hold themselves erect as they strut across the world’s stage, above all behave as if they have always, with no flicker of doubt, believed in themselves.
And it is a curse of male-dominated politics – still the case, despite Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, and now possibly Angela Eagle and Theresa May – that it tends to be the kiss of death for a politician to suggest things are uncertain. It is rarely wise to say that what we most need to do in political life, indeed not only political life, is hesitate, slow down and pause for thought; to allow space for the complexity of who we are. As Edward Said pointed out, there is only a short distance between believing you can subdue the mind and believing you can subdue the world.
The idea of control always presents itself as an island of self-sufficiency or a law unto itself. In fact, the idea of control is meaningless on its own. In a world of rampant inequality and injustice, I can only seize control at the expense of someone else. We succeed in controlling our borders; migrants drown at sea.
It would be naive, as well as inaccurate, to suggest that no woman has ever bought into this, or that all men do. But some men, especially those in positions of power, embrace the sham certainty, the posturing, with alacrity. Just for a second Boris Johnson, in his first public appearance after the result, looked stunned and lost, as if his victory was his undoing. In a flicker of insight, he seemed to realise that getting what he wished for might be a catastrophe, and not only for himself.
But despondency is not an emotion that would-be political leaders can permit themselves. Today half the nation is in mourning, and some in the other half are anxiously wondering about the consequences of a vote they never truly expected to win. Meanwhile everyone from George Osborne to Mark Carney to Cameron insists it is business as usual – as if the most we can hope for is to settle back into the economic order whose inequalities and insecurities determined the result, and which a newly confident rightwing Conservative government, uninhibited in its aims, will surely exacerbate.
For me one of the worst moments of the campaign was the Brexit helicopter shamelessly trailing its banner over the Jo Cox birthday memorial in Trafalgar Square the day before the vote. Since the result, no one seems to be talking about her any more, partly out of respect for the grief of her family, partly it seems because – temporarily, we must hope – her vision of unity has been defeated.
Cox was forthright and committed to her aims but, from the accounts of family, colleagues and friends, it does not sound as if control was her thing as she juggled the competing personal and work demands of her life, as women do.
Certainly she was not interested in borders. “Far more unites us than divides us” is the slogan with which she will forever be identified, one which does not call for minds and bodies to be fortresses or for borders to be erected, but for barriers between races, nations and people to be brought crashing down.
We could say that as a woman she paid for this vision with her life, whether or not she fully knew – since she did not live to see the outcome – the brutish stakes of the reality which we now find ourselves up against.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian UK