Brexit and the aftermath of austerity narratives
By Irene Gedalof, author of Narratives of Difference in an Age of Austerity
What can we learn when we treat policy documents as narratives? In my work on austerity policies during the UK Coalition government (2010-2015), I argued that paying attention to the narrative techniques deployed to justify austerity is useful for understanding how consent was manufactured for the neo-liberal project of shrinking the welfare state and instituting a rationality of rationing entitlements (Bhattacharrya, 2015) to social support. Understanding how policy discourses impose particular chronologies of past, present and future, how they construct the narrative arc of crisis and resolution, and how they deploy a politics of address to invite audiences to identify with or disavow certain kinds of people or certain qualities, norms and ideals is crucial to determining the long-term effects of these policies, and how they might set the terms for a wider political culture. Ten years on from David Cameron’s announcement that Britain would be entering an ‘Age of Austerity’, how might the UK political climate still be living in the aftermath of these austerity narratives?
The current political discourse might appear to have moved on from the need for austerity, dominated as it is by Brexit and the hard-line taken by the Johnson government. Indeed, in its preparations for both a hard Brexit and an election, there is talk of an end to austerity with promises of large increases in public spending to come. The language of crisis appears to have moved away from a culture of dependence bred by too much public spending and such demonised figures as the benefit scrounger, the troubled family, and the immigrant. Instead, attention seems to be on the particularly ugly turn of contemporary politics in which the ‘will of the people’ is pitched against those – parliament, supreme court, a ‘liberal elite’, etc. – who are refusing to hear that will, and who are increasingly being characterised in toxic terms of surrender, betrayal and enemies of the people.
Yet, if we look at the ‘political grammar’ of the austerity project – the ways in which narrative techniques are stitched together to secure dominant meanings and reproduce their status as ‘common sense’ (Hemmings, 2011) – we can see that the discursive ground for much of the current political toxicity was laid during the decade of austerity policies. Three elements of the austerity narrative seem particularly pertinent to the ways in which the current Brexit crisis is unfolding. First, austerity narratives invite their readers to disavow a series of stigmatised figures whose failure to embody the ideal of the independent, neo-liberal subject-citizen makes them part of the crisis that needs to be resolved. These include those who make excessive claims on the welfare state – the benefit claimant, the disabled, the migrant, and those who fail to resolve their family problems within the confines of the private sphere. Importantly, austerity narratives gave their audience permission to demonise these figures – remedial citizens and non-citizens – by entangling this invitation to disavow the stigmatized with a simultaneous appeal to a sense of fairness and justice. Ten years of austerity narratives in which self-righteous outrage has been directed at those who are out of step with the neo-liberal project have not only fuelled the anti-migrant sentiment that played a large part in the Brexit vote, but have also prepared the ground for very similar affects to be deployed even against establishment figures who oppose a hard Brexit.
Second, much of the heat of the current political climate revolves around notions of speaking for ‘the people’ – since June 2016, Brexit, or a particular version of Brexit, has been repeatedly evoked as ‘the will of the people’, with those in opposition quickly morphing into enemies of the people. Here again, attention to the politics of address deployed in austerity narratives is salient. From David Cameron’s early austerity claim that ‘we are all in this together’, arguments across the Coalition and then Conservative legislative agenda deployed an address to ‘the people’ in order to justify a wide range of divisive policies that define those ‘people’ – hard working families who give rather than take, who do the right thing, who stand on their own two feet – against a series of gendered, racialised and disabled remedial citizens who are to be disavowed. Austerity’s narrow and exclusionary vision of the citizen, produced through relentless repetition of these rhetorical devices, is in many ways a precursor to the current narrative, which again represents ‘the people’ and their will in highly selective and exclusionary ways.
Finally, we can draw a line between the proposed resolution in the narrative arc of austerity and the terms within which Brexit has been narrativized by its most enthusiastic proponents. The ideal hero of the austerity narrative, the one produced by that narrative, is characterised by a set of neo-liberal fantasies: that the good citizen never relies on the state or the social realm, but resolves their needs within the private realm of the normative family and through individual engagement with the labour market; that inequality is best addressed through an individualised equality of opportunity rather than any structural, systemic or collective redress; that individual autonomy must be valued over any form of interdependence or mutuality. It is especially this latter fantasy that has been entrenched and magnified in the context of Brexit, with troubling consequences.
Irene Gedalof is a research associate at the Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS, University of London and a member of the Feminist Review editorial collective. Her research focusses on the intersections of gender and race, and on the place of the reproductive in migration and austerity policies and discourses.
Bhattacharyya, Gargi (2015) Crisis, Austerity and Everyday Life: Living in a time of Diminishing Expectations, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Hemmings, Clare (2011) Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory, Durham/London: Duke University Press.