It was, without question, a bloody nose for the political establishment, the biggest it has received for decades. And many have read the unexpected success of the Leave camp in the British EU referendum straightforwardly as a revolt against the political class and as a victory for democracy.
Yes, it was a revolt against the political class in London and in Brussels. But the referendum result was also far more complicated than that. The anti-EU sentiment was not UK-wide. It was most deeply felt in England, outside of London and the northern cities, and in much of Wales. But in London, Scotland and the nationalist areas of Northern Ireland, the popular sentiment was strongly pro-EU. If we take account of the vote across the UK, rather than simply in England and Wales, the picture that emerges is one of disaffection with the political establishment that expresses itself in different, often contradictory, ways in different regions.
Two years ago, during the Scottish independence referendum debate, I observed that:
For Scottish nationalists, London rule represents a suffocating conservatism. Many in England see London, on the contrary, as too liberal, too diverse, too supportive of immigration. UKIP, the populist anti-immigration, anti-EU party, made sweeping gains throughout England in this year’s council election. The one place it did not make much headway was in London. The irony is that many in England support UKIP for much the same reasons as many in Scotland support independence: because they feel disengaged from mainstream politics, marginalized and voiceless.
One can see a similar pattern in the EU referendum too. In Scotland, the hostility to the political establishment has been expressed as hostility to London (to ‘Tory England’) and to the Labour Party. This led many to give the SNP a crushing victory in last year’s general election and to vote to remain in the EU in this week’s referendum. In Northern Ireland, many traditional nationalist voters expressed their political dissatisfaction by voting against London, and for Brussels.
In the Labour heartlands of England and Wales, on the other hand, the revolt against the political class took the form of a revolt against the Labour Party, against immigration policy and against Brussels. While London, as a whole, voted solidly for Remain, those boroughs on the eastern fringe of London with a high proportion of traditional working class, Havering and Barking & Dagenham, supported Leave (by 70% and 62% respectively). Immigration and the EU have here, as in many European countries, become symbolic of uacceptable change. (Many traditional Conservative voters also, of course, supported Leave; that support can be seen as part of a debate within the Tory party, but not as a revolt against the political class.)
In different regions of the UK, in other words, the revolt against the political establishment expressed itself in both pro- or anti-EU forms. Or, to put it another way, different people in different regions give different expression to the desire to ‘Take back control’.
The fragmented character of disaffection with the political class reflects in turn the fragmentation of the broader progressive social movements that in the past acted as mechanisms for turning social alienation into the fuel of social change. Over the past few decades, trade unions have weakened, social justice campaigns eroded, the left crumbled.
One consequence of this shift has been to lead many on the left to look to bureaucratic or managerial means of creating a more progressive society. This is one reason that the EU has become so important for many as an institution for protecting social needs and equal rights. It may also be one of the reasons for the generational division over the EU – many young people who have grown up from the 1990s onwards view the EU both as a vital component of their lives and identities and as a crucial institution for the enabling of social change.
A second consequence of the erosion of broader social movements is the creation of more fragmented, parochial, even sectarian, forms that popular disaffection increasingly takes. In an age in which there are few collective mechanisms to bind together the experiences and grievances of different groups and communities and to channel them into a common goal of social transformation, people often express their different experiences of discontent in very different ways.
It is against this background that much of the Brexit debate became polarized between, on the one hand, a liberal Europeanism that celebrated the managerial over the democratic, and ignored, or underplayed, the undemocratic character of EU institutions, and, on the other, a Euroscepticism that played on hostility to migrants, and that, in conflating democracy and national sovereignty, advanced a narrow, divisive notion of democracy. What was missing was the argument for a pan-European solidarity built from the bottom up, and which sought to break down national barriers through the extension of democratic institutions, not their emasculation. Part of the reason is that the very notion of solidarity itself has become misshapen by social fragmentation:
Social solidarity has become defined increasingly not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. The relationship between the two is, however, complex and fluid.
As the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change eroded, so the two questions have come more and more to be regarded as synonymous. The answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions we want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that we imagine we are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ defined less by the kind of society we want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly we belong.
Being outside of the EU is not necessarily the same as being inward-looking or isolationist or un-European, as many pro-EU figures suggest. One would hardly call Norway, for instance, outside the EU, more inward looking or xenophobic or anti-European than, say, Hungary or Austria, both EU members. There are, of course, many difference between the political cultures in Norway and Britain. Whether, in the case of Britain, being outside the EU becomes a means of looking inwards or ouwards, and how we navigate the new post-referendum political landscape, will depend to a large extent on whether we can construct such broader forms of from-the-ground-up solidarity that, up till now, have largely been missing.
The top image is ‘Fracture’ by the sculptor Mike Fields.