Meet the Young Australians Fighting Against Brexit With Memes
A few months ago I was invited to Democracy Sausage—a meme-filled Facebook page run by Australians living in London, who are fighting against Thursday's Brexit vote.
A few weeks ago I was invited to a strange little Facebook group called Democracy Sausage. This name soon changed to CAKE: "Canadians, Australians and Kiwis for Europe," a self-described motley crew of Commonwealth citizens living in Britain hoping to get their compatriots to vote in the upcoming EU referendum—and vote to remain "In."
From afar it might be difficult to grasp how much this debate—whether to leave or remain in the EU—has seeped into UK politics. It's a strange campaign that, until very recently, rarely came up in conversation at the country's pubs. But over time Brexit has come to touch every aspect of British political discourse.
Over the months that it's raged, the referendum debate has sparked a civil war within the Conservative party, with Prime Minister David Cameron on one side and former London mayor Boris Johnson on the other. Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and other Leave campaigners have gone hard on immigration. The Remain campaign, buoyed by famous supporters including Bob Geldof, has largely focused on how getting out of the EU would affect the UK's national economy.
Just days ago this all hit a point of utter surreality with the BBC reporting, "Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof fishing flotilla clash." The two faced off on opposing ships in what's come to be known as "The Battle of the Thames," backed by hundreds of fishing boats crammed with for and against campaigners, all sailing along London's famed river to boost their own causes.
Horrifyingly, tragedy then followed farce, with the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, a passionate Remain campaigner. Both campaigns suspended momentarily out of respect, only to quickly resume with renewed venom.
Amongst all this, by some strange quirk, Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK are allowed to vote on June 23. This is what CAKE is fighting for, trying to get their fellow Australians abroad to vote In, leveraging the indisputable power of memes.
With the vote looming, I asked two of the team behind CAKE, Claire Harman and Meg Brodie, why—as Australians—they were so invested in seeing the UK stay in the EU.
"The EU is by no means a perfect institution, or a bastion of democracy," Meg admits, "but in the last 40 or so years that Britain has been a member, it's brought a lot of benefits." Claire is more blunt, "Leaving the EU would be bloody reckless."
Both women point to the EU's worker protections, that it has the world's largest international development program, and a plan to tackle climate change as some of the benefits of Remain—as well as the single financial market and freedom of movement across borders within the EU without a passport.
While acknowledging that there are genuine concerns in Britain about the stability of the labour market and stretched public services, Claire argues, "the Leave campaign has has been effective at using these concerns for political gain, with the age-old tactics of fear-mongering, deception, and outright racism.
"Voting Remain is our way of saying that we reject this rhetoric of intolerance and fear. We'd rather live in a Britain that's In."
The racial tone of the Leave campaign has been a topic of increasing focus in the debate, especially with UKIP unveiling a billboard depicting a queue of refugees under the banner text "Breaking Point." But given Australia's own treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, does the CAKE team really feel they can comment on British policy?
"As an Australian, I feel a deep sense of shame about our immigration policy and treatment of refugees," Meg says. "I think it's completely fucking nuts that it's being held up as a model that Britain should emulate."
But she's resolute, "I don't think being an Australian complicates my ability to comment on this—in fact it means that I have pretty sound understanding of our policies: their ugly history and ongoing brutality. I dread to see the UK follow this lead. It's downright dangerous."
Taking that on board, I still have to ask why Australians should vote Remain when politicians like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have said the UK could make it easier for Australians to live and work here if Brexit goes through. Purely out of self-interest, wouldn't it make sense for Aussies to vote Leave?
Claire argues that for a lot of young Australians and Kiwis, London is seen as a gateway to the EU, and post-Brexit Britain would be far less appealing. She also doubts their claims: "Seeing as most of Boris and Farage's campaign has centred around reducing net migration (of which non-EU migrants make up about half), it seems unlikely that immigration laws will be loosened terribly quickly in the wake."
These young Australians are forthcoming that they want their fellow expats to support remain, but their campaign is also getting the word out about voting rights. "A lot of people have come to the UK on the Youth Mobility Visa or for study, and a large portion are young, urban, and educated—so are more likely to vote In," says Meg. "The biggest barrier is that they don't know they can vote."
Claire says that CAKE's campaign has managed to get a lot of these young Commonwealth voters on board. "We managed to reach over 250,000 people in the week before registrations closed, and directed almost 3,000 to register," she says.
Just before I go, I ask what they think will happen come Thursday, is there a chance Britain may actually end up leaving the EU? "It's going to be closer than anyone thought possible just a few short months a go," says Claire. "The polls have been swinging... so to any CAKErs in the UK: your vote really will count."
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