The Corner

Bremain/Brexit: In the Balance

The pound/dollar continues to tell the story:

Basically the Brexiteers have been winning by far bigger margins in the regions where they were expected to do well. That makes this a good time to look at a perceptive article by John Harris in The Guardian from last week. Remember that he was writing from the perspective of the Left. Here’s an extract:

To quote the opinion pollsters Populus: “Both socioeconomic groups C2 and DE disproportionately back the UK leaving the EU.” To be a little more dramatic about it, now that Scotland has been through its political reformation, England and Wales are in the midst of a working-class revolt.

To be sure, there are many nuances and complications among leave voters. In the inner-city Birmingham neighbourhood of Handsworth, I met Sikh shopkeepers who claimed that the country is full, with just as much oomph as anyone white; in Leominster, Herefordshire, there are plenty of Tory voters gleefully defying Cameron’s instructions, and fixating on questions of sovereignty and democracy.

But make no mistake: in an almost comical reflection of the sacred lefty belief that any worthwhile political movement will necessarily be built around the workers, the foundation of the Brexit coalition is what used to be called the proletariat, large swaths of which are as united as in any lefty fantasy, even if some of their loudest complaints are triggering no end of anxiety among bien-pensant types, and causing Labour a great deal of apprehension.

In Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire, the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into cliches, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. “I’m scared about the future” . . . “No one listens to us” . . . “If you haven’t got money, no one cares.”

And of course, none of it needs much translation. Instead of the comparative security and stability of the postwar settlement and the last act of Britain’s industrial age, what’s the best we can now offer for so many people in so many places? Six-week contracts at the local retail park, lives spent pinballing in and out of the benefits system, and retirements built on thin air?

It may have been easy to miss in the London-centred haze of the “knowledge economy” and the birth of the digital future, but this is where millions of lives have been heading since the early 1980s – and to read that some Labour MPs have come back from their constituencies, amazed by the views they encounter on the doorstep, is to be struck by a political failure that sits right at the heart of the story. How did they not know?

Let’s go back to John Wilkes, that great champion of British liberty, writing in the North Briton in 1762:

You politicians of the town are so totally engaged in the transactions of the great world, that I suppose you will hardly think it worth while to take notice of any occurrences, however important, that happen amongst the obscure folks of the country.

Harris, meanwhile, turns his attention to immigration:

Between 1991 and 2003, on average about 60,000 migrants from the EU came to the UK each year. Between 2004 and 2012, that figure rose to 170,000. The 2011 census put the number of UK residents from Poland alone at 654,000. To state the obvious, that’s a lot. If people had felt more connected to politics, public services had been quicker to adapt, and the Blair/Brown government had opted for transitional controls, perhaps such huge changes might not have triggered quite so much rage and worry. But such thoughts are now for the birds: for millions of people, the word “immigration” is reducible to yet another seismic change no one thought to ask them about, or even explain.

To maintain a narrow zone of ‘acceptable speech’, the Asiktskorridor, to borrow that useful Swedish phrase (I wrote about it here), is not only a democratic failure, it also paves the way to the dramatic political disconnect that we are now seeing manifesting itself tonight, a disconnect for which British membership of the EU must bear some, but by no means all the blame.

To go back to Harris’s question:

How did they not know?

That, of course, may be too kind. They may well have known. But they may well have been content to ignore what they were hearing.

Chickens. Home. Roost.


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