As I mentioned two posts back about the niqaab controversy, Boris Johnson found an ally in the former (and possibly future) UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who made a comment on BBC London radio to the effect that the people in “the country” were behind Johnson and that it would increase rather than decrease his popularity. This notion that the “real England” consists of its small towns and villages is a common trope of Brexiteers because it its strongest support is in some (though actually not all) of these places: while a lot of urban areas outside London (Birmingham for one) voted by a majority for leaving the EU, the strongest support was in areas surrounding the Wash on the east coast, Boston in Lincolnshire in particular. A few weeks ago a Twitter acquaintance pointed me towards this article by Matthew Goodwin on Quillette, which describes itself as “a platform for free thought” and whose associate editor is Toby Young. The article traces British “scepticism” towards Europe back to traditional English anti-Catholicism, citing Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation (which I studied at university).
Goodwin notes that the debate over Brexit has been “utterly dry, sterile, and completely lacking in imagination” and overly focussed on such things as the overspending of the Leave campaign, and which shows “no engagement whatsoever with the growing pile of evidence that we now have on why people actually voted for Brexit”. Most Leave voters had, he says, “a clear and coherent outlook and had formed their views long before the campaign even began”. He said he hoped that there would be a “long-overdue debate” about the “divides, inequalities, and grievances that had led to this moment”, but nobody wants such a debate “because conversations require a reply”; their focus has been simply on overturning the result. In this he has a point; putting aside the Tory Brexiteer voters in places like Lincolnshire, a good many working-class voters voted to leave the EU because of long-standing neglect of their parts of the country which coincide with our being a member of the EU or its predecessors, and Labour also made the enormous mistake of opening the doors to hundreds of thousands of workers from eastern Europe, after both Labour and Tory governments had spent years cultivating and appeasing anti-immigration sentiment, perhaps assuming nobody would mind because they were white.
Neither of these issues has been addressed. The idea of rebuilding industry devastated in the 1980s is still dismissed as backward-looking stupidity or inward-looking economic nationalism. Admittedly, the iron and coal deposits which made some of these industries profitable in the past are no longer there, but some of the destruction happened because Tory governments preferred to sell off national assets than turn them around. This is significant because a large proportion of the pro-Remain vote in England came from the southern shires, a tract from Gloucestershire through Oxfordshire and down into Surrey and Hampshire, much of which consists of safe Tory seats, and these are some of the people who should be contemplating the effects of the policies they supported throughout the 80s. Goodwin notes that the tendency to simply oppose Brexit rather than engage with it is “particularly strong in the academy” whose teachers tend to vote for left-wing and ultra-liberal parties. This sounds like a stereotype — I graduated 20 years ago — but it rings true to the attitudes I have encountered on Twitter: ordinary people’s perceptions of the effect of immigration on their wages and jobs are dismissed as fallacies with references to economic theories. No matter if the explanation is not nearly as simple as “immigrants drive down wages” or “immigrants take jobs so British people cannot get them”, people are instinctively resistant to any theory that frames immigration as anything other than a positive.
To be clear, immigration is not the only reason why working-class people’s jobs, wages and conditions are under threat: another is the casualisation of a number of lines of work and the resulting weakness of unions. In many industries, including mine (transport), a lot of the labour is sourced from agencies — many companies do not hire frontline staff (e.g. truck drivers) themselves but get everyone from an agency. Staff do not know each other very well (perhaps inevitable with single-man truck driving). However, with an unregulated labour market, employers are dissuaded from investing in new talent because they have a ready supply of experienced workers from abroad: many transport bosses here will not take someone on who has less than two years’ entitlement as to do so would increase their insurance premiums.
However, it is not only Remainers who are often impervious to the facts. Speaking to a group of fellow drivers and a minor transport boss a few weeks ago, I found that many were firmly pro-Brexit; when I pointed out that it would mean isolation from the huge trading bloc on our doorstep, they pointed out that there were still lots of foreign trucks on the road bringing things in and taking them out — proof, they said, that the economy was not collapsing (this is a lot like those who say “global warming, what global warming — look, it’s snowing!”). I pointed out that we were still in the EU and the problems would begin when we actually left, particularly if it was without a favourable deal. They then accused me of being ‘negative’, as if positive thinking could affect the outcome of anything that is independent of one’s behaviour. And this says nothing about the very wealthy Tory Brexiteers who are well known to be too rich to personally lose out much if the economy collapses as a result of our falling into isolation, yet continue to push for a hardline Brexit. Some of them are known to be shifting money abroad already.
Goodwin bemoans the lack of debate about the long-term causes of the Brexit vote. However, the date for leaving is getting closer and closer day by day and there is no longer a long enough term to have such a debate; it is becoming increasingly obvious that a favourable deal other than remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA) is not available to us. The EU will not agree to it because some of the demands Britain makes is not conducive to their security (e.g. allowing a non-member to collect tariffs) and also because of the fear of other states seceding in Britain’s wake. It has to be remembered that the move towards European integration began after World War II because politicians realised that if goods were able to cross borders, armies usually did not: trade barriers caused poverty and discontent, which at different times made both fascism and communism popular. I have seen younger Tories boast that their generation are no longer affected by the fear of war in Europe and the idea that European integration is key to making sure we do not slide back into the past. Personally, with only the UK isolated outside the European Union, I am more afraid of the civil unrest that might erupt here, or the ease with which anger at the loss of jobs or the rise in food prices (or its unavailability) might be deflected towards a visible minority.
A common test I do when reviewing pro-Brexit articles, or those highly sceptical of the media’s role in fomenting the pro-Brexit sentiment, is to search the article for mentions of the press, papers or media (a previous article to this effect scored zero). This one mentions a “jingoistic press” in the paragraph about Linda Colley’s book, and ‘media’ a few times, often in reference to social media. This is, in my opinion, a major weakness of that argument: the debate about the legitimacy of the Brexit vote has been focussed on Russian interference and the Leave campaign’s overspend, but rarely touches on the bias in the commercial print media which is known to have circulated a number of falsehoods about the EEC and EU over the decades since European integration became the watchword in the late 1980s (rather than the EEC as being good for business). The right-wing press have particularly campaigned against the European Convention on Human Rights, enshrined into British law as the Human Rights Act of 1998, which it portrays as giving unwarranted rights to illegal immigrants, terrorists and people in both categories with often mendacious claims (e.g. that somebody could claim a right to a family life on the basis that being deported would mean leaving his cat). The benefits to ordinary people (e.g. a person with a learning disability securing rights not to be detained indefinitely on the say-so of one doctor) are never mentioned. Admittedly, the ECHR is an instrument of the Council of Europe, not the EU, but referring to it as coming out of “Europe” blurs the distinction.
The issue of the extent to which the electorate “knew what they were voting for” is only of limited relevance given that we are a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary one, and Parliament is meant to weigh public opinion against the greater good. A memorable passage from Linda Colley’s book was the section on the Catholic Emancipation Act, which attracted a record volume of petitions in opposition which has yet to be broken. Parliament had behaved, she wrote, as neither a conservative oligarchy nor a representative assembly. It could do this because it knew that the views of the general public about Catholics — that they were a fifth column, loyal only to Rome, regarded Protestants as heretics and would persecute them given half a chance — were based on myth and propaganda. More recently, Parliament has resisted public and press demands for the reintroduction of hanging, aware that innocent people had been hanged and would have been (e.g. Stefan Kiszko, the Guildford Four) if it had been retained.
Very much the same is true of many of the public’s beliefs about the EU and the difference here is that some of the Brexiteers in Parliament who are leading the charge are those who have been peddling the myths about the EU in the press for years — Boris Johnson being the most notable example. Goodwin mentions the ethnic minority vote for Brexit; I can state that myths were behind some of this too. Some believed the European Parliament was going to ban halal slaughter; some believed that shutting off migration from the EU would lead to the gates being opened to migration from South Asia again; some simply believed that the EU was hostile to Muslims and that Muslims were safer in a Britain that is outside Europe.
Goodwin does not really address the issue of the narrowness of the vote either. 48% of those who voted, voted to remain in the EU and this is considerably greater than the share of the vote traditionally required to win a general election. Put a specific deal on the table which does not make it easy for British people to holiday in France or Spain and does not guarantee low food prices and easy availability and it is unlikely to garner the 52% of the vote that went to Leave in 2016. Divide the vote up as you would a general election vote and Remain comes out the winner. Now that people are more aware that Brexit is unlikely to be a simple process and that the politicians charged with it are incompetent and in some cases venal, evidence is showing that support for Brexit is ebbing away, especially in Labour-voting constituencies — the ‘true English’ in the provinces are hardening in their support for it, perhaps perceiving a “stab in the back”, but small towns in Lincolnshire are no more or less the “real England” than inner-city London and Birmingham or the old mining towns of Yorkshire.
There is a song, Rex Bob Lowenstein, about a fictional radio DJ who resisted his company’s demands to implement playlists and went to jail for his efforts; in the last verse, the singer and songwriter Marc Germino sang that his efforts were “just to find what the people W.A.N.T.” (which was also conveniently the station’s call sign). The song is often played as a tribute to DJs who play “real music” rather than pop, but when I heard this final verse I could not help but be struck by how banal and anticlimatic it was. This is real life, not a radio request show, and whatever the merits of Rex Bob Lowenstein’s approach, it does not translate well into politics. What the people W.A.N.T. does not always mean the greater good and a majority, especially a very slim one, and however well-distributed, does not have the right to destroy the prosperity that is vital for everyone’s well-being. As the Rolling Stones (and, I suspect, your mother) said — you can’t always get what you want.
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