Referendum blow back

Britain needs to reassemble its politics.

Jeremy Fox
28 June 2016

"If the various ‘Leave’ voters have anything in common, it is a desire to kick Westminster for its failure adequately to represent them". Image, Wikimedia

Lamentation, shock, anger among the 48%, bewilderment among at least some of those who voted for ‘Leave’, retracted promises from the most prominent Brexit campaigners as early as breakfast on the day after the referendum. Bawling, however, won’t take us far. Even a second referendum, petitioned by over 2.5 million would carry no guarantee of a different outcome and could expose its petitioners to the definition of lunacy famously attributed to Einstein: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Meanwhile, attempts to account for the victory of Brexit multiply: the lies of demagogues about the costs of EU membership, the manna from heaven that would fall into our laps on leaving, and the hordes of Turks and other n’ere-do-wells massed on our borders and hungry to gang-rape our women; immigration and its corollary – border control; loss of sovereignty to faceless, unelected bureaucrats in Brussels; the uncountable evils of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – a prime example of the EU’s malevolence and particular hatred of the UK; and not least, the bitterness of so many communities in England and Wales (notably) where industry has been hollowed out, and where entire districts are run down, dispirited and seemingly ignored.

All these factors played a part, and were used and misused during a campaign marked by snarling insults, preposterous accusations, irresponsible promises, and appeals to ugly tribalistic instincts. Old divisions have been exposed and new ones identified not only within the body politic but in the country: north versus south, Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England and Wales, London versus the hinterland, graduates versus non graduates, working class versus middle class and so on. Seemingly endless permutations of discord and disaffection can be found by those who seek them.

Among the widest divisions is that between young and old. Roughly three quarters of 18 to 24-year-olds voted for Remain – no doubt conscious of their kinship with fellow Europeans and used to rubbing shoulders with them both at home and on the continent. Older voters, by contrast, were heavily in favour of Brexit perhaps because they looked back to a heroic Great Britain struggling against European fascism, and are proud of her hard-won independence and sovereignty. Many would have been quietly conscious of Germany’s recent bullying of Greece (often wrongly attributed to the European Commission) which in some people would have evoked unpleasant recollections of the conflagrations of the last century. Mention of “the war” is no longer politically correct even as a joke, but that does not mean that it has been banished from the consciousness of many of those who respond to UKIP’s mantra of “getting back our independence”.

Immigration replete with xenophobic overtones became an icon of the Leave campaign though immigrant numbers do not appear to have correlated positively with voting patterns. Nevertheless, in some localities immigrants are felt to have swamped not only local housing, schooling and health facilities, but also to have taken jobs. Though the evidence does not support all the misgivings of recipient communities, their discomfort at experiencing a rapid inflow of strangers has to be taken seriously, as the heavy vote for Leave in Boston, for example, clearly demonstrates.

Acute economic disparities between different areas of the country arguably constitute the most significant of the issues that divide the country. It is also the one that has evoked the least comment during the course of the referendum campaign – adding to a widespread sense that none of the traditional political parties represent them. That a feeling of having been abandoned is strong in places where industrial decline and lack of employment opportunities are the norm is hardly surprising. Whole neighbourhoods in the north and east of England, for example, have been and look neglected.

I have walked some of the streets in England’s most deprived areas – in Manchester, Blackpool, and East England – conversed with the people with whom I felt much more comfortably at home than I ever could with the plummy-voiced denizens of Mayfair and Chelsea – perhaps because I also come from a deprived background. What I found was a moving level of friendliness combined with a sense of utter alienation from Westminster and of betrayal by all the political parties – with the occasional exception of UKIP. Danny Dorling memorably described the growth of inequality in the UK as a ticking time bomb.

If the various ‘Leave’ voters have anything in common, it is a desire to kick Westminster for its failure adequately to represent them and address their concerns; a failure in other words of representative democracy itself. What our political arrangements have engineered in its place is government by a tiny elite of mainly privately-educated Oxbridge graduates presiding over parliamentary majorities achieved – as is currently the case – with the votes of a minority of the electorate. Government, moreover, that neglects much of the hinterland beyond the capital city, runs the country in cahoots with big business and the financiers of the City of London, makes the poor pay when bankers and speculators put the country in trouble, and turns a blind eye to wealthy tax avoiders. Disaffection with Westminster – which means with the two main political parties – is profound simply because, as Peter Hitchens notes with customary assertiveness, they have ceased to represent their natural constituencies. Practically the entire Labour party plus the Tory leadership campaigned for Remain yet could not persuade the people to their view. Nor is their hold on the electorate likely to improve if they continue to act as children of Thatcher in defence of narrow interests.

Among MPs, Corbyn is an outlier both politically and philosophically, though he likewise failed to carry Labour’s natural constituents in the referendum vote. Both in the House and on the stump, he gives the impression of drifting in a cloud of banalities. His final referendum campaign speech – described by Anthony Barnett as having “all the passion of passing a turd” – aimed to galvanise listeners by telling them, after a glance at the text of his speech, that “Britain is better off in Europe”, a peroration lacking, like his campaign as a whole, the least sign of creativity, emotion, thoughtful commitment, or even rehearsal.

All of us, no matter how we voted, have been betrayed by our politicians; but Remainers in particular should avoid the temptation to dismiss Brexit voters as dupes. Some may have been swayed by Johnson’s flippancies or Farage’s undeniable charisma; but most will have picked from the campaign those elements that best expressed their own experience of living in 21st century Britain. And at the heart of that experience is a sense, one that I share, of effective political disenfranchisement.

What is to be done? Lenin’s answer was revolution. Ours might be something akin to revolution – not in order to bring down the State in the course of a violent attack on its institutions – but to reassemble our politics. In concrete terms we need to rearrange our electoral system so that those who legislate in parliament on our behalf reflect as closely as possible the people whom they represent. This has already been achieved to an extent in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales where representatives are elected by forms of proportional representation and whose parliaments/assemblies exercise a broad albeit incomplete range of powers. Of the four nations, England is the odd one out, unrepresented as a nation, and poorly represented, as are all four nations, at supranational level by a first past the post electoral system for the Commons and a wholly unelected second chamber. 

Democratic accountability stood at the heart of the referendum. Yet neither the UK nor England has either. Brexit will not return sovereignty to the people because they never had it. Instead, sovereignty will remain vested where it has always been, namely in an abstraction called Great Britain which has been governed for most of its history – as it is now – by the privileged. Proposals for embedding the status quo are already underway, a fine example coming from the pen of none other than Peter Oborne, he of the ethical resignation from the Telegraph, whose post referendum advice is that the government should immediately sack the governor of the Bank of England, arrange a coalition of Tories with right-wing Labour defectors, and elevate Nigel Farage to the Lords as a reward for his xenophobic propaganda. That should restore order well enough, with our rightful rulers safely in their rightful place.

There may be no avoiding an outcome of this kind unless we the people decide that we have had enough of our factitious democracy and set about trying to create a true one – a parliament for England, and a UK parliament for the four nations together, both elected via a proportional voting system. Such a change is up to us; and if we do not seize the moment the next opportunity may not occur for several generations.

As far as concerns the referendum, what has emerged from the exercise is not a satisfying answer to a conundrum, but a deep wound in the national psyche. Half of us are smiling, while the other half weeps. No country can long survive such a schism. Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking that matters will calm down or that Remainers can be soothed by a few emollient words and a box of tissues. I think the latter will fight to minimise the implementation of Brexit, not least in order to defend the rights of the young who will most bear its consequences. Sometimes – indeed quite often – the minority view turns out to be the right one and here we may have a case in point. Staying in Europe and collaborating with others to make it work for all the peoples of the region is almost certainly where we should be both emotionally and practically. What we want for ourselves – democracy, accountability, economic justice, support for the underprivileged, a healthy environment etc – we should also want with equal ardour for others. None of these ambitions can or will be achieved by casting ourselves off from the mainland. Though much is wrong with the EU, there are no sunny uplands awaiting us on our departure despite the promises of Johnson and Gove. As Nick Cohen argues in a coruscating article in The Guardian, the leaders of Brexit, far from telling the truth, have shown themselves to be snake-oil salesmen peddling fake remedies with a fervour that, unfortunately, the Remain side seemed unable to match. Johnson, one of the victors, is already back-pedalling. In Yeats’ memorable phrase:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

Margaret Thatcher once referred to referendums as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues’, something Cameron should have both known and heeded. We cannot ignore the result of the Brexit victory, however much it bears out Mrs Thatcher’s warning. But we need somehow to mitigate its worst consequences, not least those that affect our least advantaged regions and our relations with our European neighbours. Democracy is not an event but a continuum; and there is yet time for some steerage and for proper restoration of responsibility for the nation’s welfare to parliament where it rightly belongs. If we simply bow our heads and give way to whatever takes the fancy of Johnson, Gove and the Murdoch tabloids, we will be leaving the country, as James Galbraith observes, in the hands of simpletons. We must try not to let it happen.

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