Brexit: the most expensive tug of all

I am slightly off-piste, writing about Brexit – but it’s a hard subject for an Englishman to avoid today, and I’m returning to this blog after three months off. Reflecting this morning on the referendum result, I took down from the shelf George Orwell’s essay, The Lion & the Unicorn, in which he wrote of England: “At any normal time, the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.” This is one way of looking at the Brexit vote in yesterday’s referendum, as a salutary tug from below with which the rude common sense of Old England pulls the locomotive back onto the rails, in what Orwell called this “land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly,” but owning an “emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.”

The problem is that Britain, and England, have changed a great deal since Orwell wrote in the dark days of 1940 (“As I write,” he began, “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”). Politicians are younger, if no less silly. The emotional unity has gone (though it emerges occasionally, as the response to Jo Cox’s assassination fleetingly and poignantly demonstrated), and we are watching a moment of supreme crisis unfolding today with no indication at all that Britons feel alike or act together. A more or less even split over Europe demonstrates all too clearly that the country is now bisected. Marginal, hard-pressed, post-industrial, elderly England feels deeply hurt, and deeply alienated. “Taking back control” has been the theme of the Brexit campaign and of enthusiastic responses to it. This England is profoundly worried by immigration, though not always in quite the ways – or places – one might expect, and that worry has been adroitly massaged by unscrupulous politicians who know well the power of harnessing identity politics to personal ambition. But look at these maps – published last year. The lefthand map shows the percentage by area of the population born abroad: the righthand, the likelihood of support for UKIP. The fit isn’t perfect, but it is clear that outrage is on the whole strongest in areas with fewest immigrants. As an angry Out-voter said on the television news last night, “Well, there aren’t many here, but I’ve heard all about it.”


The division is not just geographical, not just a reflection of Mrs Gaskell’s North and South. The depressing thing about the map of England, coloured blue and yellow for the results, is that the blue extends to most of the country except for a few of the great cities. London, of course; Oxford and Cambridge, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester, Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle, York, all are islands of yellow in a sea of blue. In contrast, like much of rural England, Uttlesford in north Essex where I sit writing now, voted blue, (albeit marginally) to leave the EU. But almost everywhere, blue and yellow alike, there are large numbers of ‘Inners’ and ‘Outers.’ These divisions are horizontal, not vertical. Every place in England, on a range from Boston (76:24) to Hackney (22:78) and Lambeth (21:79) is divided into unseen communities with very different world views and mutual incomprehensions.

I have been thinking about this today, and about the fact that (consciously at least) I know very few people who have voted to leave the EU – and equally that those who did vote Out perhaps know very few who didn’t. We really are become two nations, two tribes. And the division is not about logic, or argument, or debate: if it was, we would not be teetering aghast this morning on the lip of the steep slope of national disaster. It is all about emotion – the emotional community that shapes identity – and the relentless chipping away of the self-respect and prosperity of half the nation, by globalisation, austerity and the policy choices made by successive governments, in a London that is morally as far away as Brussels. They have, many people feel, nothing to lose by leaving the EU; but as a prescient tweet said this morning, “Those who think they have nothing to lose, will soon find that really, they did.” And this is one strand of the national tragedy.

There is an overpowering sense amongst these people – the other England – of being left behind, excluded from the loud and brash national community, unheeded and unconsulted, unrespected and unnoticed. A sense that the elite, as transnational as it is British, with its offshore bank accounts, its trust funds, its public schools, its villas in France, its casual, asset-stripping profiteering, and its eyes turned south and west from London, has lost all contact with the less privileged. less ‘modern,’ half of Britain, has moved out of the range of tugs from below. And tugging from below is a crude but useful way of describing democracy (at least the slightly bizarre version of it that we cling to in Britain). When the tugging ceases to work, other measures are called for, and this is what the referendum campaign has been – a last, great, despairing tug-o’-war, a visceral statement from much of our own country that even the desperate occasional yanking from below that has long passed for democracy, is no longer effective. And with that comes a rejection of the biggest symbol of unaccountable power, so long held up for scorn by politicians who knew better but wanted a whipping-boy: the un-tuggable EU.

There is much muttering about a domino effect, of ‘Brexit’ beginning an unpeeling of Europe. Marine Le Pen has already demanded a ‘Frexit’ referendum across the Channel, and there will be more demagogues doing the same right across the EU. The problem is that there are so many dotted lines along which to tear, so many unheeded fractures in our societies that have been ignored and papered over, so many large groups of people left behind. The nations of the EU have become more illiberal, more dog-eats-dog, more red-in-tooth-and-claw. And, naturally, those at the sharp end of claws and teeth look for ways of expressing their dissatisfaction.

I finished by taking down another book from the shelf, Emmanuel Todd’s Who Is Charlie? (Qui est Charlie?), an alarmingly relevant examination of the way long-term divisions – and Todd starts with the multi-staged secularisation of France since the Revolution – poke through the skin of the present, like bones. He says of the Maastricht referendum in France in 1992 (and it is no coincidence that tensions over the European project are one of the more potent layers of division that he adduces), the French electorate approving the treaty by an uncomfortably familiar 51:49 percent. Todd continues:

The electorate’s approval of Maastrcht brought out a vertical dimension of position in the class structure and a horizontal dimension of geographical location in the centre/periphery axis. The referendum first and foremost highlighted the notion of social class. It brought to national awareness – one might even say it gave birth to – the now permanent theme of an opposition between the elites and the people. At the top of the social structure, 70 percent of ‘executives and superior intellectual [i.e. liberal] professions’ voted ‘yes,’ and in their wake 57 percent of the ‘intermediary professions’ were also positive. At the bottom, the poorer classes were spontaneously hostile to the treaty. Only 42 per cent of workers approved, and 44 percent of employees; the figure was the same for artisans and small shopkeepers.

The European project has been a powerful solvent of national solidarity.

There will be much analysis, and much more scientific than these musings, in the comings months and years, but what is very clear is that last night’s vote on Brexit was less about Europe than about Britain – a judgement that took Brussels as a proxy for the sins of a remote, blind and self-obsessed metropolitan elite.

But understanding brings no solace: the damage that has been done to Britain will last a generation, perhaps two, perhaps more. Those who brought it down carelessly on our heads are indeed, as Orwell put it, silly – and their silliness will cost us all very dear.

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