Saturday, June 25, 2016
Life After Britain
As I drove through the blinding rain, trying to work out where the road was, I thought about the following day's referendum and confidently concluded that the Leave campaign had lost its momentum. At the final moment, people would step back from the edge and take comfort in the fact that at least they had made their feelings clear. But I was wrong.
It feels as if someone has lit a fuse. This isn't just the end of Great Britain in Europe, but of Great Britain itself. In a few years' time, the famous Union Jack will be redundant and if there is still a United Kingdom, it will probably just consist of England and Wales.
People around the world are rightly asking why a successful, prosperous country has pressed the self-destruct button. In Britain, many of the 48% who voted for Remain are in a state of shock and anger.
Looking at the post-referendum statistics, it is clear that the country is split down the middle and that, rather than simply being a conflict between left and right, the divide is between old and young, rural and urban, graduates and non-graduates and, most destructively, Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England and Wales. Never has the ancient Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times', been more apposite.
I rarely write about politics, but as so many people are offering their two penn'orth, here are mine. It will be nothing new to British readers, but might be of mild interest to people elsewhere.
I think that the referendum result was largely about immigration and the pace of change that has taken place during the last decade or so. There has been a steady Commonwealth immigration to the UK since the Empire Windrush first arrived in 1948, but it was largely limited to the cities and those towns that had an industrial base, like Bradford, Luton and Oldham.
Overall, society was changing, but at a pace that all but the most bigoted could cope with. High levels of emmigration counterbalanced the influx and even during the 1950s and 60s, when Britain was supposedly 'flooded' with immigrants, the net migration averaged at about 12,000 a year.
But during the last decade, two things have changed dramatically. First, the level of net migration has risen to between 200,000 to 300,000 per year - in context, this is the equivalent to adding the population of the city of Brighton and Hove every year. Second, the distribution of migrants has been over a much wider area, often in places that had been untouched by earlier waves of immigration. In Wisbech, for example, around a third of the population are now of Eastern European origin.
Many voiced their fears about the rising level of immigration, but were frequently dismissed as racists. The famous encounter between Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy perfectly summed up the divide between the metropolitan classes and those who felt left behind in a changing society.
Why did people feel so threatened? Was it simple bigotry, or a legitimate objection to the workings of global capital? I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but I think it might be pertinent.
A few years ago, I worked for a business that employed 200 people in a huge warehouse. When I started, the workforce consisted entirely of locals, then one week, a few Latvians joined. From the moment they started, it was clear that the Latvians were superior to their English counterparts: harder working, mostly better educated and nearly always far more motivated. The management took notice and recruited more.
My work often took me to other recycling companies and, time after time, I saw migrants working uncomplainingly in often awful conditions, doing dull, repetitive work in dim, unheated warehouses. The local people, who didn't find the minimum wage as alluring as their Eastern European colleagues, struggled to compete and began to resent the rising local rents and competition for work.
When the mainstream political parties failed to take the issue of immigration seriously, those who felt ignored and disenfranchised voted for UKIP in increasing numbers. David Cameron won the last election by undermining UKIP with the promise of a referendum. History may remember him as the man who unwittingly sacrificed Great Britain to win an election.
The referendum campaign has been a pretty lamentable affair, full of bigotry, hysteria, cheap sentiment and misinformation on both sides. Interestingly, although many dubious figures were bandied around, the economic arguments had far less impact than the ones based on principles.
I think the decision to vote to leave the EU was a desperate act by those who felt that this was their last chance to halt a tide of change that had already made the English an ethnic minority in London.
The fact that only half of the net annual migration came from within the EU was never really highlighted. EU migrants were also increasingly blamed for the rise in house prices when, in truth, they were only one factor in a complex picture.
Overall, I didn't witness any real anti-European sentiment, even towards the migrants from Eastern Europe. In the warehouse I worked next to, the attitude was more one of "You can't blame them for coming here, but where will it all end?". However, there was a real, visceral anger towards the middle classes, the institution of the EU and the metropolitan elite.
This has been a cultural revolution and a consensus has been shattered.
In a way, this conversation I had yesterday with my mother is indicative of the mindset of many:
"Well, we won. Now they won't be able to come over here and take our benefits."
"But most of them aren't on benefits. They often work a lot harder than we do."
"Well then, they won't be able to take our jobs."
For me, the referendum always felt like a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. The Leave campaign was dominated by jingoistic rhetoric and unreliable economics. The more sophisticated arguments by figures like Tony Benn, about democracy and accountability, were rarely heard.
On the other hand, the Remain campaign conflated the EU with Europe and frequently implied that anyone who voted to leave was a backward-looking racist. As someone pointed out, all racists will vote Leave, but not all Leave voters are racists.
The tragedy with this referendum, like the Scottish one, was that it offered only two extremes. I suspect that most Scots would have voted for the 'Devolution Max' option if they'd had the choice, and in Thursday's referendum, more people would have voted to remain in the European Union if a compromise had been on the table. But for the EU, the principle of free movement was non-negotiable.
So that's it for Great Britain, probably. Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler tried to vanquish Great Britain, but a peaceful referendum succeded where they had failed. There may now be a vacant seat on the UN Security Council and there'll be no Team GB in the 2020 Olympics.
It's not all doom and gloom. With around 90% of the UK population, the remaining rump of England and Wales will still be an economic and cultural power, but it won't be the same.