Jonathan Freedland on a roar of rage from the Left Behind
PUBLISHED: 16:58 20 July 2016 | UPDATED: 13:08 21 July 2016
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Back in my schooldays, I remember wondering what a British revolution would feel like. We learned about the French in 1789 or the Russians in 1917, but those were far away and long ago. What would an equivalent upheaval feel like here?
Well, now we have an inkling. There has been no storming of the gates of Buckingham Palace, no sudden announcements that the BBC has fallen into rebel hands. But the last two weeks have felt like a transformation all the same. The government is without a prime minister, the opposition has ceased to function. The currency has plunged, while global stocks saw their value reduced by $2 trillion in 24 hours. The very shape of this country is now in doubt, as the Scottish government threatens a second independence referendum that would surely win – thereby breaking up the United Kingdom.
And, as with all revolutionary situations, there is talk of civil war (though adamantly of the cultural, rather than military, variety). It’s as if two distinct nations have been revealed, the divide between them too wide to be bridged. On social media, a map circulated based on voting patterns on June 23, charting the contours of these two nations: Remainia and Leavia.
It’s felt like a revolution in a subtler way too. Usually, and for most people, politics is something that happens at a distance. It’s there on the TV news or in the papers, but several steps removed. This time has been different. People have described a new sensation: the politics of the country has got under their skin, even seeped into their dreams. It’s affected their mood, their sleep, their sense of wellbeing. They’ve found themselves worried by public events, the way they normally worry about the circumstances of their own lives. They’ve felt the need to explain things to their children, to reassure them. What used to be out there has got inside.
And yet, for all the drama of the last two weeks – and there is a consensus that this is the greatest political crisis Britain has faced since 1945 – what we have witnessed is not as new as it might seem.
Instead, we have seen a spectacular eruption of forces that have been roiling under the surface of our national life for years, even decades. They exploded on June 23, but they were there for a long time.
The most obvious is the revolt of those people who are fast becoming known as “the left behind”. In seats that were traditionally held by Labour, in some of the run-down, hard-up towns of northern England and Wales especially, people in their millions voted to leave the European Union. In some of those seats we used to call – and must call no longer – Labour heartlands, 75% or more voted for Brexit.
The Leave campaign insists that those voters had simply been persuaded by the case for British sovereignty over Brussels bureaucracy. But anyone who went out on the doorstep could see that something else was at work. June 23 became a referendum not on the narrow question of British membership of the EU but on the way things are: Remain was a thumbs-up, Leave was a thumbs-down.
For many millions, that was a chance to be seized. A chance to let out a loud roar of rage – at the neglect that had left their towns derelict; at the industries that had closed down, whether due to the removal of state support in the Thatcher period or the logic of globalization that made it more cost-efficient for a former employer to relocate eastward; at the cuts in services due to post-2010 austerity; at the arrival of immigrants who pushed wages down by agreeing to do the same job for less or who were the obvious people to blame for a shortage of school places, hospital beds or homes, or who had simply made a hometown unsettlingly different from the way it used to be.
These resentments fused with others. A frequent target was London, the distant metropolis flush with wealth and success that seemed to look down its nose at the rest of the country, regarding its attitudes as primitive and bigoted.
And London was seen as part of a more general elite or establishment, one that felt able to lecture to and patronise everyone else, even though its own track record screamed either dishonesty or incompetence.
This, after all, was the elite that had misled Britain into war in Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, as this week’s Chilcot report reminded us all over again.
This was the same elite whose parliamentary wing had been caught lining their pockets in the expenses scandal of 2009. And this was the elite which did not see the great crash of 2008 coming and whose richest members escaped unscathed, as those who were guilty for wreaking global financial havoc nevertheless walked away with their telephone number fortunes in tact.
None of these things was new.
The resentment they aroused had been festering for years. But our parliamentary system had diffused that anger somehow. The referendum, and the straight up-or-down choice it offered, finally gave it an outlet. Of course those who felt this fury didn’t listen to the procession of experts who told them they were about to make a big mistake: the experts were just another part of the same hated establishment.
Yet just because this wrath had been brewing for years does not mean that nothing new happened on June 23. On the contrary, a huge amount has changed.
The most visible shift is in our political personnel. It’s possible that soon every UK political party bar the Liberal Democrats will have a new leader. A new Prime Minister is a certainty.
With not much fanfare, the country’s economic direction has changed too. Barely noticed while the Tory high command were stabbing each other, George Osborne announced that he was no longer seeking to eradicate the deficit by 2020. At a stroke, what had been the organising principle of British fiscal policy since 2010 was ditched. All that deficit fetishism of the last six years: gone.
The mood on the street seems to have changed too, the taboo on casual racism suddenly lifted. There is the data of a 500% spike in hate crimes since the referendum vote, but also the anecdotal evidence of migrants – and those that look like them – being threatened and abused. Pack your bags. Go back home.
We voted to kick you lot out. All of those insults, which we hoped we’d banished long ago, have resurfaced. In parliament, MPs have had to repel an attempt – pushed by our would-be next PM, Theresa May – to regard EU citizens already in the UK as “bargaining chips” in our negotiations with the remaining 27 EU states, and to insist instead that they have every right to stay.
There have been other shifts too. Some talk of a potential realignment of British politics, with the new division being not Tory vs Labour but Leave vs Remain, closed vs open. That’s not on the cards yet, but there are at least some pro-Remain Labour voters who found themselves willing David Cameron to prevail in the referendum and who now wonder where there strongest allegiance should lie.
But perhaps the biggest shift is the one embodied by the new newspaper you’re reading now. For June 23 has unleashed something that has never existed in this country before: a movement of people ready to make the positive case for Europe and Britain’s place in it.
Until now, the most the EU could hope for in Britain was a sentiment of grudging acceptance: it’s not great, but it’d be worse if we were out. Truth be told, that was the tenor of the Remain campaign. But the shock of the Brexit vote made many realise their feelings went deeper than that. To adapt the Joni Mitchell song, they didn’t know what they had till it was gone.
Which is why tens of thousands filled the streets of London last weekend, to declare that British membership of the EU meant something precious to them – and that they would not give it up lightly.
Now, this new sentiment could go one of two ways. Either the Remainers could dig in, refuse to accept the June 23 result and square up for a long fight with the Leavers. Or they could work to win back those millions of Britons who, with justification, feel left behind. That will mean Remainers devoting all their energy to a project that should have been pursued anyway: demanding the funds to bring better services to those towns, to build houses and to create jobs. There can be no shortcut. Only if those communities can see a brighter future will they give their blessing to a renewed relationship with Europe.
This has to be the task now. Those who want to see an open Britain, one ready to embrace rather than shun its neighbours, first need to heal the rifts at home that were exposed so painfully on June 23. The 48% cannot win this alone. They – we – need to understand why our fellow citizens did not join us. Only then can we win them over.