Friday, 24 June 2016


So Britain has voted by 52% to 48% for a course of action that experts lined up to tell them was unwise, while its proposers responded that "people have had enough of experts."


Two things seem clear enough: a high proportion of leave voters were c2de (the lower socio-economic classes) and the issue with most traction in the leave campaign was immigration. In other words, a lot (though not all) of the leave voters were people whose lives are shit and who blame immigration for that fact.

If we accept this interpretation (which seems a fairly widespread one) then we still have to ask ourselves why the 'disenfranchised working class' put the blame for their ills on immigration and immigrants rather than elsewhere. Was it racism, a rational response to the destruction of their security, or somewhere in between?

The lives of the poor, the low-waged and the otherwise disadvantaged in this country are pretty shit these days and showing no prospect of getting better any time soon. Theirs is a world of zero-hours contracts, of overpriced and/or unavailable housing, of unobtainable benefits, of vanishing pensions and of bewildering social change. So who is to blame?

Most people, I reckon, would put it down to four groups: the bankers who gambled away our prosperity and financial security; the Tories/Lib Dems whose punitive austerity made the poor pay the price; the corporations that took advantage of the financially vulnerable to rob them further through zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships; and the Eastern European immigrants who saw even that sort of pitiful employment as superior to what they had at home and so took (at least some of) the jobs on offer.

Of that list, it seems pretty clear from all the analysis that I have seen that the group whose impact was the least damaging was actually the last. So why is it that they have emerged as the chief scapegoats?

Partly I believe this is an issue of power imbalance. The poor and poorly-employed may recognise that a lot of their problems are down to the banks, the government and the big corporations, but what the hell are they supposed to do about that? The banks have all of their money, which sort of gives them the upper hand, and without the big corporations there would be no jobs at all. As for government, not only they are aloof and powerful, but what option have you got anyway in terms of getting rid of them? The parties are all as bad as each other and/or incapable of running a piss-up in a brewery.

Immigration and immigrants though are a different manner. Like Bob Ewell turning on Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird it is far easier for the disadvantaged in society to look down on swarthy Bulgarians in pleather jackets queuing for casual labour outside Wickes than it is to join Occupy and picket major financial institutions. And in the EU referendum the 'disenfranchised' were suddenly given a large stick to lash out at at least one of those four factors that they considered to have ruined (or at least threatened) their lives. And in retrospect, are we surprised that they used it?

The leave vote was largely fuelled by anger, I am in little doubt of that. And when you are angry and armed with a big stick it doesn't really matter much whether the person within range is your real enemy or not. It still feels good to hit him.

And of course it wasn't just immigration and immigrants that the leave voters hit out at, it was the EU itself, and this is where the other explanation comes in too. Because it seems to me that what made both immigration and the EU into appropriate targets was what they have in common, and what sets them apart from the other major factors in the working poor's problems: they are both clearly foreign. Immigrants are visibly and audibly foreign, particularly in communities with no historical tradition of immigration, and the major problem with the EU is that it is political leaders and civil servants from other countries, like Germany, Belgium or France, that can determine our future, and they are by definition foreign.

It is easy to see the desire to lash out at that which is foreign as synonymous with racism and therefore anti-social and deviant, yet in some ways the impulse is the opposite of anti-social. To define a group as 'them' you have to first define an 'us', and that is increasingly difficult these days. In fact of course, the typical member of the working poor has almost nothing in common with the financial futures traders in the city or the ex-Etonian trust-fund kids in cabinet, but it doesn't FEEL like that when you can tell yourself that what you are doing is fighting to get your country back. People want and need to have some sort of sense of an 'us', and that certainly is the language one is hearing from the triumphant Leavers today. "This is our independence day," they say. "Now Britain can be great again." There'll be street parties soon.

The point is that, to many, both the immigrants who they fear are about to 'flood' into their towns and the 'Brussels bureaucracy' with its mythical banana obsession are unmistakable more foreign than the bankers, the government, or even the multi-national corporations. Particularly to the generations and populations that grew up in a largely mono-ethnic community and have never lived in another country.

And that is the other interesting thing about the leave voters. There was a strong direct relationship between average age and likelihood of voting Leave. 18-24s seem to have voted overwhelmingly to remain. Could it be that the young, who have had so much more exposure to ideas and people their parents and grandparents see as 'foreign' do not make the divisions in the same way? Some of the young certainly do seem to regard the bankers and the big corporations as 'the other' just as strongly as their elders see immigrants and the EU.

So is there hope for us all after this?

Of course there is. If Brexit leads to the diminution in the power and influence of Britain in the world that many commentators seem to expect then maybe that's not a bad thing. And if our young people start seeing more clearly who the authors of their misfortune are then that certainly isn't.

The only problem is that from here on in it is pretty clear that one of the major authors of the future misfortunes of the young is the generation who voted to take away their EU citizenship from them. My generation.

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