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.
“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”
True, but this is not how the most vocal parts of the Leave camp has built their narrative (*); and that’s why they have had success where they had and tanked where they had – the divide big cities/smaller-(usually ex-industrial)towns&country was deeper than class, as you yourself notice – I’ve also read that there was a correlation between EU funds and Leave votes, but I wouldn’t be that surprised, EU projects often go to deprived areas [(*) I know there’s a very different pro-Leave argument, but it was scarcely heard besides the tiny circles in which the most politically engaged move.]
There’s a big divide between communities along the lines of their interconnectedness to the world market. If you live in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, etc. globalisation has delivered and become part of the “what you are” you talked about (it hasn’t been costless, but the benefits outdo the detriments). If you live in rust belt-type towns, globalisation has fucked things up big time and destroyed a world that, even if it might look shit to a lot of us, it was tight-knit and communal. I know this is a bit of a charicature, but I think that it explains a lot of recent electoral results.
What I see at the moment (in the immediate aftermath of the vote) is that the people who are in charge of negotiating the Brexit want a relationship with the EU like Norway or Switzerland; but I’m not sure that’s what most Leavers voted for. The problem is that I can’t see a way of stalling immigration and the connection of Britain to the world market without changing its economy substantially (and if done by these men, for the worse). The negotiations could result in a lot of anger and frustration… probably in apathy, but also in some kind of fascistic movement (it doesn’t have to be like that, but the risk exists).
A key political question now is how you spread the benefits of globalisation and reduce the bad impacts on those communities… and how you disentangle political affiliation from consumer habits/cultural behaviour (a conflation that only deepens this divide)
Yanpol1974, this is an excellent comment, on target.
Based on the United States, however, your statement “…EU projects often go to deprived areas…” is truer as a perception than a reality. Our richest counties (a small unit of local government, typically 200 to 600 square miles) surround the DC area — all of the top five by family income, four of the top five by household income (bit.ly/2996NSk). The money thrown off by the non-democratic regulatory apparatus goes to the non-democratic regulatory apparatus. Much (most) of this goes to a vast dark blob of corporate consultants operating beyond supervision and control. These are the ones who supply the obscene wealth of the DC suburbs: Loudoun, Fairfax, Howard, Montgomery, Falls Church, and Arlington Counties. (I worked for one, and lived there.)
I bet the same exists in the UK. The rust belt workers see their jobs lost, and many of them filled by immigrants that bust unions and work cheap. Meanwhile the regulatory state grows fat on taxes while trickling money into areas with declining standards of living. The apparatus expects such workers to be grateful for these dregs, and dependent on the bottom-level protections they provide. In reality it just makes them mad.
This technocratic hegemony pushes open immigration. They benefit from it. But rust belt workers are hurt by it. Immigration, not the wealth surrounding the capital, is what these workers see. It is their symbol for a hijacked democracy.
Yanpol1974, I agree that the issues of globalization and immigration are key to understanding the Brexit vote. I have written at length on this issue, and observed more than once, including article just before the referendum immediately before the referendum, that:
What I have also written about is the importance of recognizing that immigration is not the cause of the economic and social problems that working class communities face, but that the hostility to immigration is the form taken by fears and anger about such changes.
I agree too that ‘there’s a very different pro-Leave argument, but it was scarcely heard besides the tiny circles in which the most politically engaged move’ – I made that point myself when I wrote ‘Whether, in the case of Britain, being outside the EU becomes a means of looking inwards or outwards, 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.’ As I wrote in an article just before the referendum:
One of the reasons that we have failed to address those issues is precisely because we continue to see immigration as the cause of the problems, rather as the symbol of unacceptable change.
I don’t disagree per se with your analysis but I don’t find it particularly revealing on this occasion.
Scotland’s pro-EU Vote is of a piece with their pro-SNP vote at the general election – they don’t feel that their interests are being served by the London-centric, financial industry centric nature of ‘English’ politics and the Tory party in particular.
Northern Ireland in it’s ‘Nationalist’ areas clearly sees that the EU moves it closer to the Irish Republic and the isolationist Anti-EU campaign works against this. Whereas the ‘Little Englander’ nature of the Brexit campaign is a perfect match for the strong ‘Loyalist’ political parties.
The bigger picture that you don’t mention is why a sufficient majority of English & Welsh voters to swing the outcome voted for a racist campaign based on easy to spot lies. I would answer as follows:
1) Why do these Brexit voters exist?
Long-term failure of the political class to deliver the benefits of real global growth to ordinary people.
2) Why has this situation come to pass?
This failure based upon the undue influence of the ‘1%’ (actually 0.001% (?)) which has allowed them to sequester the profits of the global growth rather than allow sufficient redistribution
3) How have the ‘1%’ exercised this control? (Focusing on the UK)
i) By control of the British tabloid press, and increasingly the broadsheets as well, for 40 years, feeding anti-EU and anti-progressive propaganda to their readers day-after-day. Remember that Johnson and Gove were both journalists before becoming politicians.
ii) Due to the fact that a portion of the Conservative party are in politics simply to perpetuate their personal, historic, family wealth.
iii) By tabloid support only for the oligarch-compliant candidates come election time.
4) What about the ‘City’?
The financial industry in the City of London is one major component of the UK’s wealth and is important to preserve. However, the concentrated wealth in the seat of government has led to London-centric, finance-centric, anti-redistribution policies that have directly contributed to the disaffection of the general populace.
5) Where was the BBC? Isn’t is supposed to be our bulwark against extremism?
The BBC has been under attack from the Conservative party for 30 years whenever they dare to present an explanation that shows up the manner in which Tory policy takes away from the ordinary voter in order to give to the top 10, or 5, or 1%.
In a global context:
Globalisation is a good thing – it drives growth in both rich and poor countries.
Immigration is a good thing – it allows growth in the UK by increased labour force. More dyanmic and better educated individuals are more likely to be immigrants. Immigrants are net contributors to the tax base of the UK whereas as UK citizens are net drain. (Side note: how does this comaprison look if you ignore the first 18 years of life where indivuals are not ‘economically productive’?)
The ‘European Single market’ is a good thing – it makes it easier for goods and services to be sold both inside and outside the EEA.
The political effect of being in a club with the more left-wing countries of Europe is beneficial to the working class of the UK – and no doubt the root of the long-term Conservative antipathy towards the EU.
The political influence of the ‘1%’ and the multinationals is very difficult to resist, especially for a small political entities. The size of the EU has allowed it to continue to promote _some_ policies that benefit the ordinary people beyond the capacity of it’s individual members to do so. (And thus it is in the interests of the 1% to subvert these supra-national entities)
However, if the economic benefits from the above are sequestered by the multinationals or the 1%, (by low tax rates and the dogma of trickledown economics) then governments cannot afford to address the needs of their local populations leading to resentment.
An interesting comment from a Left point of view.
While both the Left and the Right were split by Brexit, two differences divide the Left’s Remainers from the Right’s Leavers. First, the left believes that the core problem is dividing up the pie equally and that a technocratic apparatus is needed to do this. National governments can’t be trusted to do this, so we need the EU. Right-wingers want to make the pie bigger, and believe that expanding the technocratic apparatus makes this worse. Leavers want to get rid of a particularly noxious and superfluous layer of the apparatus.
Second, the Left believes that ordinary people are incapable of looking after their own interests. This is why we need a technocratic apparatus, to order the chaotic and undisciplined lives of the common people. This is the subcarrier of your Point #3: common folk are stupid enough to be fooled by tabloids and would vote correctly if they only read The Guardian. (Maybe The Guardian should start putting naked women on their third page.) Such people need to be guided by an intelligentsia who could protect them from, among other things, newspaper pictures of naked women. (This objectifies women and exploits their bodies to bolster 1%er propaganda.) Common people need to be guarded from media that would lead they astray.
Felix, you are right that ‘Scotland’s pro-EU Vote is of a piece with their pro-SNP vote at the general election’: But why did the SNP sweep the board in the general election? Largely because the old Labour vote, especially in cities such as Glasgow, collapsed. What is striking here is that the same kind of working class vote, with the same kinds of social and economic grievances, and the same resentments of the Labour party, and the same sense of being politically voiceless, that in Sunderland shifted towards UKIP and voted against the EU, in Glasgow shifted towards the SNP and voted for the EU.
You write of working class SNP supporters that ‘they don’t feel that their interests are being served by the London-centric, financial industry centric nature of ‘English’ politics and the Tory party in particular’. That’s partly true, though much of the resentment is actually anti-Labour too. But, in any case, the same could be said of voters in Sunderland or Boston or Ebbw Vale. But the voters in Sunderland and Boston and Ebbw Vale expressed that disenchantment in very different ways. The reason it is important to understand this is because it is important to recognize the deeper problems that drive that disenchantment. And, far from ignoring the wider issues, I seem to have been writing about little else for the past few years – as here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. In fact, I addressed some of these issues last week in my pre-referendum essay ‘Beyond the Brexit debate’.
It is easy to blame everyone else from the bankers to the press for the failure to convince people of one’s arguments. Strikingly, that is also what many UKIP supporters and Leave campaigners do (or did, before Friday). The irony is that the ‘1%’ – in the sense of big business or the finance industry or the political establishment – was largely behind the Remain camp. Even the Murdoch papers took different sides, with the Sun against the EU and the Times for. The Leave vote, if anything, shows the fallacy of blaming the ‘establishment’ for rigging the game.
It also easy to dismiss the Leave campaign simply as ‘racist’. In the post-referendum debate, many Remain supporters, in a mirror image of the Leave rage prior to the vote, have vented their spleen at the ‘bigoted’ and ‘xenophobic’ and ‘idiotic’ voters in Sunderland and Boston. It may be comforting for the losing side, but does it make much sense to dismiss half the British electorate as racist or as having been bought off by racism?
Yes, the Leave campaign often promoted odious ideas about immigration. But why do those ideas have popular purchase? Because, as I wrote last week, all politicians, on all sides, have helped create an anti-immigration climate:
So, yes, we do need to look at the bigger picture. But your approach is, I would suggest, neither broad enough nor addressing the difficult issues.
I tend to agree with Felix Oxley, I think more history is
needed in this analysis. Much of what has happened has long
roots, including Boris Johnson’s learning of truth-diluted
propagandising when he was a Brussels correspondent for The
I think one particular part of this history is highlighted by
Felix Oxley’s first question and answer:
1) Why do these Brexit voters exist?
Long-term failure of the political class to deliver the
benefits of real global growth to ordinary people.
Since when was the “political class” expected to deliver the
benefits of global growth to “ordinary people”?
I would say history tells us that ordinary people have to
fight for any share of benefits. They have not always won,
but they have often organised themselves to do this. Or at
least, they used to. As I see it, Thatcher’s bashing of the
Unions brought on the end of effective organisation of
ordinary people in the UK. That was a long time ago, and it
seems to have ushered in a widespread passivity in ordinary
people. So much so it seems they have forgotten they must
fight for any benefits, and to do this, they must get
themselves organised. Waiting for the political class will be
like waiting for Godot.
Donostia / San Sebastián
The Basque Country
Similarly, I wrote:
So, I am not sure why you disagree?
Perhaps an attempt at brevity confused my comment.
I don’t disagree. Like Felix Oxley I basically agree with
what you say. But, illustrated by the words you repeat here,
you offer only a description of what has happened and some
consequence. You offer no analysis for why these things
happened; no account of what was behind these changes. You
just list the changes.
It is important to identify important changes and their
consequences, and I think you do this, but I think it’s also
worth trying to understand what gave rise to these changes and
You end your passage saying
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.
But we are often told that today’s Social Media afford new
ways for collective organisation and action, and are given
examples such as the 15-M Movement (also called the
indignados), the precursor to Podemos in Spain, and the Occupy
Wall Street movement and it’s various offspring, which have
lead to rather less. Are these not examples of new
collectives of diverse groups and communities coming together?
What are examples of your
people often express their different experiences of
discontent in very different ways?
And what makes your examples different from things like the
15-M and Occupy movements, would you say?
There is some truth here but too simplistic. It’s not simply a revolt against the political establishment that took different forms. It is a genuine fear of the threat of competition for jobs and services from EU migration and the new migration crisis and it’s a revolt against loss of control. It is about an absence of a United and effective political left and a viable route to express frustration, fear, anxiety and alienation. It’s an anger at the middle class. It’s a frustration with people being told that they are racists for seeking limits to migration. It’s a belief promoted by the media that Europe is the cause of our problems. It’s the experience of increasing inequality and injustice. It’s a reaction against educated ‘experts’. It’s a deep anxiety about the pace and nature of economic, technological and social change. It’s a consequence of the rise of click activism and social media and the loss of dialogue and debate. It’s about simplistic politics where big is pitched against little and PC is against common sense. It is about drawing up the drawbridge and a retreat to localism.
38% Scots voted for leave because they share the anxieties of the working class in Borthern England and Wales. An interesting question is why so many didn’t vote to leave. Could it be that political trust in our Scottish leaders is stronger, or distrust in the Brexit leaders greater, or that Scots are more cautious, or that Scots have not experienced the levels of migration ? I am not convinced that we are truely more European at heart in Scotland than anyone else. The Scottish referendum galvanised a positive progressive, confident social movement in Scotland that sees its future as very different from the rest of the UK. The Yes campaign shaped a nationalism that was pro civic activism, pro Europe and pro migration… but no one knows whether that will mean Scottish people will take the step of voting to leave the UK. As Ian McWhirter said on Radio 4 today. People in Scotland are ‘scunnered’ with referendums
You write as if there were a simple tension between Westminster democracy, and Brussels technocracy. But I think you should be deeply concerned about the health of that Westminster democracy, for three reasons: the breadth of change being imposed by a government supported by a mere 38 percent of voters, or 25 percent of the registered electorate, or an even smaller fraction of the potential electorate; the fact that the young aren’t bothering to vote (if they did, Thursday would have produced a very different result); and the weakness of support for the position advocated by Labour in Labour’s traditional English heartlands.
The contented wished to Remain; the desperate voted to Leave.