Left wing advocates of Brexit labour under a number of misapprehensions, says FRANCIS BECKETT – such as a mistaken belief it will make their aims more achievable and that all Remainers are middle class.
Paul Embery is one of the brightest stars of Lexit – the faction that says that all proper socialists are Brexiters. It’s not large, but given the tightness of the 2016 referendum and the fact that Labour’s then leadership was stuffed with closet Lexiters, its influence was probably decisive. Without it, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
So it’s useful to have a primer on how Lexiters think, and Embery’s new book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class is short, lucid and luminously written.
Born and brought up in Barking and Dagenham, Embery became a firefighter, and later an official of the Fire Brigades Union. Always fluent, clear, calm and well-briefed, he was a natural choice when they needed someone to represent the union on television and the charismatic general secretary Matt Wrack wasn’t available. He was spoken of as Wrack’s eventual successor, but he has now fallen out seriously with the union, partly over Brexit, and is no longer a union official: he’s a firefighter again.
The FBU is the background to his thinking. It stayed robustly independent during the trade union merger mania of the 1980s, and today it is a proud craft union with a disciplined and loyal membership, whose full time officials have all been firefighters themselves.
It has the drawbacks of its strengths. For example, it has to overcome some resistance if it is to be as supportive of women firefighters as most of its activists would wish. It is where Embery gets his impatience with identity politics.
This causes him to ask some useful and sensible questions. Has identity politics distracted Britain’s left from its main task of redressing the imbalance between rich and poor, and made it intolerant? Has Labour been too quick to dismiss as racism the concerns of its traditional supporters about immigration?
But having asked useful questions that too few people on the left have asked, Embery comes up with some dreadful answers. The first and worst answer he offers is: Brexit.
He writes of the 2016 referendum: “Millions who had witnessed their beliefs and values ignored or scorned by an arrogant liberal establishment had suddenly been handed a weapon with which to hit back… They had been handed a gun with one bullet, and they felt obliged to use it, no matter the political or economic fallout… Over 17 million people voted leave because they felt the political establishment had stopped listening to them.” It wasn’t hatred of the EU, but “a blow struck by a brooding and resentful electorate against the British ruling class as well as the EU elite.”
Did Brexit voters really think less about the EU than about kicking the “liberal establishment” where it hurts? Were they really so careless of their future that they would risk any economic fallout for the satisfaction? And did they really think they were kicking the establishment by voting for the policy endorsed by a host of well-heeled Tory grandees led by Boris Johnson? Embery accuses Remainers of thinking that Brexiters are thick, but I don’t believe most of them were as thick as he makes them out to be.
There are some Brexiters who had a more sophisticated reason, he says. If Britain wants to become a socialist country, it will be held back by its membership of what is essentially a capitalist club.
This argument had some small merit when it was first advanced, in the 1975 referendum. Then, we were the Britain of the Attlee settlement, with a strong and confident public sector, a comprehensive welfare state, strong trade unions, and a Labour government under Harold Wilson. Since then, many European countries have gone further in that direction, and we have retreated at breakneck speed. Small advances in workers’ rights proposed in Brussels were met with furious opposition by the government in London, which more often than not managed to stifle them.
The idea that Europe was holding us back is now laughable. We were holding Europe back.
But suppose that Britain suddenly found itself with a government that wanted to go further and faster towards socialism than most of the rest of Europe. Should that day dawn, Embery lists 12 things we could do, if only we were not shackled to the EU. And there is no EU rule against any of them. Every one of them could be done, if the British government wanted to do it. They’re like Boris Johnson’s wretched blue passport – a thing we could have had any time we wanted it.
Outside Europe, it will be much harder. Take the first two on Embery’s list: “Reversing the privatisation of key utilities and industries and restating the need for public provision as a public good” and “Challenging the assumption that austerity is the correct response to a faltering economy and instead pursuing investment-led growth”.
No problem for an EU member. But a government which desperately needs a trade deal with the USA is going to have to tread pretty carefully around ideas like that. And it would have been even harder if Johnson’s gamble on Donald Trump’s re-election had paid off.
Brexit is a hard right policy, which will strengthen, not weaken, the power of international finance, and increase, not decrease, the gap between rich and poor. Left wing folk who embrace Brexit find themselves irresistibly drawn into parroting the tone and language of the right. Embery finds himself harrumphing phrases like “become a self-governing country again” with the best of them.
But, he protests, he cannot be reactionary, because he is defending “the working class – particularly the English working class”. He is with Ian Lavery, one of Corbyn’s closet Brexiters, who was on hand to advise his leader against addressing the People’s Vote rally in March last year because the million-strong march and the six million signatures were all middle class people.
Embery boasts impeccable working class credentials, and then he boasts about them again, in case his reader has forgotten, for his case rests on the assertion that Remainers are middle class and Brexiters are working class. But he declines to define working class, saying there will “likely never be a universally accepted definition”.
That won’t do. I say I’m working class. I have no inherited wealth and no investments; I have lived by selling my labour. But Embery would object that I work in a profession (journalism) and (even worse) I live in north London and am occasionally seen at north London dinner parties, events for which he has a well articulated contempt. Is Embery working class? He would say yes, but Matt Wrack talks of “the profession” of firefighting, and why not? There’s as much difficult stuff to get your head round to be a firefighter as there is in most professions.
The danger signs are all over this book. If you find yourself peppering your narrative with defensive phrases like “there is nothing reactionary about saying….” you are on a slippery slope. If you catch yourself going on a rant about one parent families, it’s no good protesting that a lot of working class people agree with you. And if you embrace a reactionary policy like Brexit, which will make the poor poorer, don’t start telling us that it’s fine because a lot of poor people want it.
Douglas Murray, arch Thatcherite and author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, considers Embery “one of the most interesting, insightful and original voices to have emerged in British journalism for some time”. Theresa May’s adviser Nick Timothy congratulates him on “reminding us that Labour, like its lost working class voters, has a history of social and cultural conservatism”.
Both of these quotes are proudly displayed in the front of Embery’s book. But it is not just disinterested intellectual admiration that draws these heralds of the right to Embery’s work. They see in him, eventually, a kindred spirit. He has some way to go, but that is the direction of travel.
Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, by Paul Embery, is published by Polity Press