The decision by British voters last week to leave the European Union has brutally exposed two features of contemporary British politics. The first is the depth of popular disaffection with mainstream political institutions. The second is the paralysis of the political class in the face of this disaffection.
The Brexit victory was buttressed by a coalition of disparate social groups. Traditional Conservative supporters in the shires and the suburbs have long been suspicious of the European project. Few were surprised that they voted in large numbers against EU membership. What shocked many politicians and pundits about the referendum result was the extent of hostility in traditional Labour Party heartlands, in the North of England, in the Midlands and in the Welsh valleys.
A key slogan of the Leave campaign was ‘Take back control’. It was often derided as hollow and meaningless by Remain supporters. For many sections of working class voters, however, whose world seemed to have been turned upside down by forces they could not shape, it was a sentiment that resonated deeply. ‘One of the biggest failures’ of contemporary mainstream political parties, the American philosopher Michael Sandel recently observed, ‘has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives’.
In 1950s Britain, manual workers accounted for 70 per cent of the male workforce in Britain. Nearly ten million people belonged to trade unions. The Labour Party had strong links to the working class. The so-called ‘postwar consensus’ – the cross-party acceptance of Keynesian economics, the public ownership of industries and services, and the welfare state – allowed union leaders to influence government policy. All this helped incubate in working class communities a sense of identity and solidarity, and fostered a belief that ordinary people could shape the political process.
All that is no more. The postwar consensus was shattered in the Thatcher years through the entrenchment of free market policies. Britain’s manufacturing industry has all but disappeared. Public services have been savaged, and austerity imposed. Trade unions have been neutered. The Labour party has cut most of its roots to its traditional working class base. Society has become much more atomized and more riven by identity politics. The world seems much more precarious. The forms of social organization that once gave working class lives identity, solidarity, indeed dignity, have disappeared.
And where once labour movements could bring down governments, today the working class has become largely an object of contempt and derision – ‘chavs’. For politicians and journalists, council estates are synonymous with fecklessness and criminality. ‘Their clothes, accents, taste in music, and just about everything about them were ridiculed’, the journalist Natalie Bloomer has observed. ‘Shows like Jeremy Kyle and then later Benefits Street treated them like entertainment to be laughed at.’ ‘The only other group to receive such a vicious press’, she added, ‘are immigrants’.
All this has left many feeling angry, voiceless, politically abandoned and detached from mainstream institutions and culture. It has also helped redraw the political map. The main political faultline today, not just in Britain but throughout Europe, is not between left and right, between social democracy and conservatism, but between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the new globalised, technocratic world, and those who feel left out and disempowered. It is a faultline perfectly expressed in the EU referendum vote, particularly in England.
The reasons for the marginalization of the working class have been economic and political. But many have come to see it primarily as a cultural loss. As people have become disenchanted with politics, and as class-based politics in particular has become deprecated, so the language of culture has become increasingly important as the means through to make sense of society and social relations. The same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of sections of the working class have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms.
As economic and political change is perceived as cultural loss, so those regarded as culturally different come to be viewed as threats. ‘Taking back control’ has become translated into a desire to protect borders, defend national culture and keep out immigrants. The failure of the left to address properly either the democratic deficit, both at home and at the European level, or the sense of social dislocation felt by many sections of working class, has meant that a progressive desire, within many working class communities, for a democratic voice has become intertwined with regressive arguments about immigration, nationalism and protectionism. Feeling abandoned by the left, many traditional working class voters have abandoned the ideals of the left, looking instead to populist politics as a means of regaining a voice, of seemingly taking back a modicum of control.
And yet, in the wake of the referendum vote, rather than address the fundamental reasons for popular discontent, those on the other side of the political faultline have responded with same kinds of attitudes that led so many to vote Brexit in the first place. Supporters of the Remain camp have raged against the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ easily swayed by xenophobia and lies. Many have demanded a second referendum to overturn the result of the first. They have urged MPs – the majority of whom support British membership of the EU – to block any moves towards Brexit in the best interest of voters who know no better. They have, in other words, treated the working class, and the democratic process, with the same contempt that first created the chasm between the political elite and large sections of the electorate.
The American journalist Matt Taibi observed the similarities between the response to the Brexit vote and to the rise of Donald Trump. In both cases, many commentators have diagnosed the problem as one of ‘too much democracy’. As the British-born US commentator Andrew Sullivan put it in an influential essay about Trump, ‘Elites matter’ because they are the ‘critical ingredient to save democracy from itself’. ‘If you think depriving people of their right to make mistakes makes sense’, Taibi sardonically observed, ‘you probably never had respect for their right to make decisions at all’.
The only consequence of all this can be to make the disaffected even more disaffected and to fuel support for the populists and the far right. Two figures who have made much of the running in the past few days have been UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Marine le Pen of the French Front National. The latter even had an op-ed piece in the New York Times, applauding the ‘courage’ of the British people to ‘embrace their freedom’ and calling on the rest of Europe to launch a ‘People’s Spring’. It may be repugnant to see the leader of a far-right, racist party appropriate the language of freedom and liberty. She is only able to do so because parties like the Front National have been allowed to march on to the terrain, and to speak to the constituencies, that the left has abandoned. Groups such as UKIP and the FN draw upon racist support. But many others are drawn to such parties not because they are racist but because these seem to be the only organizations willing to give voice to their disaffection.
In Britain, not only has a wide swathe of the electorate become disaffected from the political class, but the political class itself seems to have disintegrated. The Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has been barely seen since last Thursday, despite both the stock market and sterling plummeting in value. Only when the Conservative party chooses its new leader, and hence Britain’s new Prime Minister, in September, will the negotiations over British withdrawal even begin.
The Brexit victors seem equally shocked and unnerved. Boris Johnson, favourite to replace Cameron as party leader and Prime Minister, had the demeanour, in his post-referendum press conference, of someone who had lost, not won. He then disappeared from public view, not even showing up for Monday’s Parliamentary debate on Brexit. Those Leave campaign leaders that have put in a public appearance have done so largely to disavow the promises made during their campaign, from reducing numbers of migrants coming to Britain to spending more money on the NHS.
The most spectacular implosion has, however, been in the Labour party. Three-quarters of its MPs supported a motion of no confidence in the leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has refused to resign and may face a formal leadership challenge. Some dissenters are talking of splitting off from Corbyn’s Labour party and creating a new organization. A party that has already lost wide swathes of its voters now threatens to tear itself apart, possibly terminally.
Britain currently is a nation seemingly without a functioning government or a credible opposition, and unable to formulate any policy to help navigate through its current crisis. That crisis, though, is not simply one of Brexit. It is of economic and social policies that have devastated communities and left them feeling voiceless. It is of politicians who would rather scapegoat migrants than address problems of austerity and the democratic deficit, and who then have the gall to condemn disaffected voters as racist. It is of a left that has abandoned its traditional working class constituencies, and one which sees internationalism more in the top-down structures of the EU than in the creation of pan-European solidarity built from the bottom up, to defend the peoples of Europe – and beyond – from the regressive policies of both nations states and of the EU.
These are not simply British problems. They are issues that now face every European nation. It is not how London and Brussels negotiate their messy divorce arrangements, but how we, as peoples across the continent, navigate through the deeper, more fundamental crises, of solidarity, justice, democracy and dignity, of how we challenge regressive attitudes and regressive policies, in the name of a more elemental, more universal, European ideal that will determine what becomes of Europe in the coming years.
A shorter version of this essay was published in the Swedish newspaper Expressen.
The images are ‘Europa’ by Jacek Yerka; ‘Europa’ (or ‘The Rape of Europa’) by Titian; and Goya’s etching ‘The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters’.