Saturday, June 25, 2016

Life After Britain

The night before the EU referendum, the clouds prophetically darkened and a terrible storm broke over Lewes. My wife, who had been helping at a book launch in London, sent a text asking me to pick her up from Haywards Heath.

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.

As recently as the 1980s, vast swathes of Britain were barely touched by immigration. There was an unofficial apartheid between two alternate visions of Britain: one a multiracial, multicultural, metropolitan society; the other, a more traditional, homogeneous one.

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.


Richard de Pesando MA(RCA) said...

You have articulated that far better than I could have. Alas - I'm still too angry and frustrated.

Roger Allen said...

"many of the 48% who voted for Remain are in a state of shock and anger."

According to some accounts, so are many who vored Leave as a protest rather than out of conviction.

Victoria said...

'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.'

Yes, this is exactly what I've heard from family members who voted leave. They don't want anyone kicked out, they understand the motives of people coming here to work, but they don't see a future for themselves while better qualified people will come and work for lower wages.

Meanwhile the remain campaign - and I say this as a remainer myself - rolled out industry leaders that anyone with a bit of nous could see would benefit from cheap labour, to tell us voting out would be a disaster. Hardly surprising that was taken with a pinch of salt.

It may have been true - I believe it is - but it wasn't convincing, and if anyone really tried to engage with what the real concerns were I must have blinked and missed it.

Steerforth said...

Richard - Thanks. It has been a very odd two days and I'm sure it's going to carry on getting weirder. I think Corbyn needs to go now so that Labour can provide a decent opposition.

Roger - Perhaps, if the polls hadn't given Remain the edge, fewer people would have felt safe enough to register their protest. I wonder if these polls reflect or create public opinion.

Anonymous said...

Descriptive language , Lewes , book launches in London and haywards Heath might reveal this is a remainer , and describing the country as successful and prosperous tends to show the circles that the blogger lives in .
I applaud an effort to try and understand the outers , but the divide between rich and poor is not listed as an explanation .
You are right to highlight the brown Gillian Duffy encounter , but a closer look at the details is important . We had new labour meeting a long time labour voter for a photo opportunity , pretending to listen to Gillian Duffy raising the issue of immigration , followed later by over heard private comments of Brown's showing disdain and a dislike of her opinions , and in particular calling her 'ignorant' .
immigration was and is an issue , it was new labour and their experts that confidently predicted that the opening of borders in 2004 would only result in immigration levels of 13,000 per year . It turned out to be 300,000 a year .
However , this referendum asked a question on Europe , and you seem to think that the majority of voters neither understood Europe or knew what they were voting on . Yet the people I have met , knew the issues , knew the subject , understood what they were voting for and are pleased with the result .
They rejected the experts , as they knew the experts had been wrong and self serving before , they rejected a European federal super state , talked of openly in Europe but never voiced by the remainers in the uk . They either had not enjoyed the success and the prosperity in the country , or could see that others had been left out of these changes .
The outers voted for hope and are open to all , they want all to build a country where all can prosper .

Steerforth said...

Victoria - That's the feeling I got. The Remain campign were largely preaching to the converted: Goldman Sachs and the IMF warned about the value of investments, whilst politicians and celebrities waxed lyrical about Britain's role in Europe. In fairness, I'm not sure what else they could have done, as the central issue was not negotiable.

I'm very sad to read that many Europeans in this country now feel unwelcome. I love the fact that London has more French people than many cities in France and admire those from Eastern Europe who have worked incredibly hard since they came here. At a friend's workplace, a Polish man was so upset, he had to take a half day holiday and go home early. We should have a 'Be Nice To Europeans' day, where we can tell them how much we value them.

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - I can see why you've reached that conclusion about my position, but I'm from the same background as many of those who voted to leave and am neither successful nor prosperous, so my description of the UK was simply on the basis of its status as the fifth largest economy in the world. In many ways, I feel as detached from the Remain bubble as I did from the outers.

You're quite right to point out the gap between rich and poor - there are many things I would have liked to mention, but I always try to keep my posts as concise as possible, as I'm afraid that people will tire of anything longer from an amateur blogger.

As far as understanding the issues goes, I must admit that my social circle was almost 100% Remain and my knowledge of the Leave campaign was limited to social media posts and analyses of the voters' beliefs and backgrounds. In that sense, I was biased.

zmkc said...

I read an analysis of reasons given for voting Leave & 49% claimed they were motivated by democracy and sovereignty issues, but I suppose those can encompass immigration. I wonder why John Major didn't negotiate the opt out the Danes negotiated before signing Maastricht, which means the European Court of Justice has no power over the decisions of their courts. I think that was an element that rankled greatly, as the court became more politically active. I was also interested by the proposition of someone on Twitter that Liverpool voting Remain may have been influenced by the fact that the Sun newspaper hasn't been sold there for 20 years. If there is any truth in that then print media still has some power. Living in Brussels, I began to have a sneaking sympathy for Leave, based purely on the fact that I met no one there who gave a single moment's attention to any of Leave's arguments. The view was that the British are difficult, irritating and stupid and the Leave campaign was the domain of swivel-eyed loons. Better swivel-eyed loons than the kingdom of the one-eyed, I couldn't help thinking. The footage of Juncker being applauded by press and Eurocrats yesterday made me feel that leaving, whatever the consequences, was no bad thing. Your anecdotes about the Latvians in the warehouse was fascinating - there was a documentary made by that Evan person from Newsnight some years ago where he went to Wisbech and tried to get unemployed people back into work. The locals just couldn't hack it and the Poles who had "taken their jobs" were infinitely superior workers. I have no idea how you resolve the problem of people not being inclined to work particularly hard. Even if all the migrant workers go home, British companies won't be able to compete if they are only drawing on a workforce that is less efficient and wants to be paid more. i was very interested by the argument from the Leave side about taking back control, which reminded me so much of former Oz PM John Howard's highly successful strategy in Australia: his line was "we will decide who comes to our country and the circumstances in which they come". Most of my neighbours would characterise this as racist but, if you think about it, it is fundamental to a sense of discrete nationhood. If you don't have control over your borders, you don't actually have a separate country. But perhaps this is an odd outlook that only island nations such as Australia and the U.K. share. I think what has happened is incredibly interesting and find myself eagerly reading everything I can about it. My brother, who is more informed than me, reckons it is a political event of September 11 magnitude. I think it may end up having more effect on the EU than Britain. I worry that in the short term Britain will be floundering but I hope you will have a competent government. One thing on a very very petty level is that it pleases me to see the back of George Osbourne, (I assume it is the end for him). This is quite unfair and based on nothing but a primitive visceral dislike of how he appears; I am ashamed of being so irrational on that issue, but I bet I am not alone (not that that is a justification). Will Scotland really rack off with the oil price so low? I saw a poll today that suggested most of them still don't want to leave Britain, but who knows what a new campaign will whip up in the way of anger and probably misdirected rage.

Michelle Ann said...

A very well balanced view Steerforth. I agree that most people do not blame the Europeans for coming here, but are worried about numbers. I also think there is great concern over the lack of accountability in the EU administration. I think a lot of Scots voted tactically, hoping for a remain vote so that another independence referendum would not be launched. Anyway, the next few years will be interesting!

Steerforth said...

Zoe - Yes, sovereignty was a big part of it. Immigration, and our inability to control it, was seen as the most tangible evidence that we were no longer a fully sovereign nation. Many people felt scared by the lack of control and feared that the UK was on a runaway train, hurtling towards a point when 'we' would be a minority. The tabloids were also quick to highlight examples of terror suspects using EU human rights legislation to avoid deportation.

Some people in Remain rightly pointed out that we were equally free to go and work in Europe, but that argument naturally didn't cut any ice with the monoglots who'd left school at 16 and had no skills to offer. Also, to some it sounded faintly reminiscent of Norman Tebbit's 'On yer bike' speech.

I think you're absolutely right about the EU's attitude towards the British. In press conferences, the look of exasperation and incredulity was a familiar sight and while the people of Europe seemed to like the UK, the feeling was that the Eurocrats regarded us as a pain in the neck. It all got off to a bad start with the famous De Gaulle "Non!" and even when we were finally allowed to join, there was a sense that we were tolerated rather than welcomed. Juncker felt like the final nail in the coffin.

Your comment on Liverpool is interesting. It could be the absence of a Murdoch tabloid, but it could also be the large number of people with links to Ireland.

As far as nationhood goes, I've never quite understood why the SNP voters are largely seen as progressive while the same phenomenon in England is regarded as ugly and racist. In reality it's both and we have now a choice of whether we pursue a path of enlightened communitarianism or tight-lipped xenophobia.

I think your brother is quite right.

Michelle Ann - Yes, it was largely about the numbers. For me the most visible evidence was my train from London to Lewes. For many years, when I boarded the train at Victoria, the carriage would resound to a babble of European languages. Then we'd reach Gatwick and it would empty. I always used to look forward to the Gatwick moment, when I could stretch out my legs. During recent journeys I noticed that English speakers were in the minority and when we reached Gatwick, most of the passengers stayed on the train. They lived here.

Although I'm a Europhile, I felt that we'd crossed a line when I could no longer stretch my legs out after Gatwick!

Peter Sipe said...

"Why would they go and do that?" I wondered. This is a helpful explanation. Thank you.

PS if the pound keeps going south, who knows, maybe this Ugly American might come over and buy some books!

zmkc said...

Michelle Ann If you're interested when I have time I will tell what I think is quite a funny story on my blog - about when we were sent to London from Australia & my husband took the train from Victoria (or maybe Waterloo - anyway it is immaterial) to Oxford & his fantasy collided with reality

Dale said...

It certainly was an agglomerated protest vote in the UK, but the protests seems to have been against disparate things, incuding your own government. For many it was about race, especially the older people who want to return to the White Britain they grew up with. We caught plenty of mutterings along those lines when we were there 2 years back.

But the younger ones have grown up with easy access to Europe, so it is easier for them to think of themselves as European. I know my husband's younger sisters have worked in Germany and France, and are educated polyglots who both voted Remain. So far, so typical. His aged aunt - the one with the UKIP posters in her windows - voted Brexit. She desperately wants a return to the Britain of her youth. Or maybe she just wants her youth back, and who could blame her - we all want to turn back the clock sometimes.

Did you see the remark (in the Guardian) of a German working in England, Oliver Imhof? He made a very shrewd point when he wrote:
"Britons voted against their political establishment by saying no to the only thing that is protecting them from it."
Well spotted, that man!

Taxmom said...

Thank you for your thoughts. Our thoughts are with you all. A similar distinction between center and periphery exists here....many folks in cities do not know HOW people could vote for a certain presidential candidate. (I must say I don't know either but I do know people who on the surface are kind, civil people, but who are supporting this candidate.) My son (a Calfornia boy)is in England right now visiting friends and I am interested in hearing his impressions and what our friends have to say.

Tororo said...

As a Frenchie and an anglophile and a proponent of a European federal superstate (an uneasy combination under any circumstances), I feel sad… a funny kind of sad, I feel tempted to say.
I had mixed feelings, to say the least, when Edward Heath’s Britain entered the EU; then over the years these feelings evolved into a continuous irritation about UK governments championing, no matter what party was in charge, all the changes in European institutions and policies I deemed most unwelcome, while strongly opposing the ones I wanted. Other commenters have summed this up as the British being viewed, on the Continent, as "a pain in the neck"… well, if I’m allowed to use such a colorful language, the general feeling around here is that 51,9% of your citizens not only used to feel happy with having been so far a pain in the neck to their partners but went upset for not having be allowed to become even more of a pain, etc.
So, why am I not shouting "Everything they asked, time after time, no matter how unreasonable and undeserved it was, we obliged... and they still are not content! Good riddance!"? Because I feel Europe can’t fully be Europe without them unsufferable Brits. Go figure.

Steerforth said...

Peter - make sure you come before we have to start burning the books to keep warm.

Dale - This vote has exposed a huge cultural schism. The working and lower middle classes inhabit a solidly anglophone world and feel far more affinity with Australia, NZ, Canada and the USA than they do with their neighbours in Europe, while the urban middle classes are more staunchly Europhile. I expect you're right about some older people wanting to turn the clock back, but I think there are also plenty of people who simply wanted to apply the brakes on what felt like a runaway train. Being a middle class person from a working class background, and as someone who grew up in London but now inhabits a more rural area, I can see both perspectives.

Taxmom - I suspect your son will hear a largely Remain perspective, in the same way that almost every American I know didn't vote for George Bush. Whether it's the US, the UK, Egypt or Turkey, more and more countries seem to be split down the middle, with two very different visions of how to progress. Whichever side wins, the result is that almost half the population feel disgruntled. I don't know what the answer is, apart from more devolution to regions.

Tororo - As a Europhile, I am actually opposed to the creation of a European superstate because I fear that it will impose a drab uniformity on all of its members, eroding the delightful differences between each nation. However, I quite understand why many Europeans would want one, given the events of the last 100 years. As far as Europe without Britain goes, I think we should all remember that the EU is not Europe. Not quite, at least.

I hope that the EU doesn't decide to punish us, to set an example and crush any further dissent. I also hope that what's left of the UK doesn't become inward looking and turn its back on its neighbours in favour of dubious alliances with less democratic nations. In the meantime, I shall continue watching 'Engrenages' whilst sipping a glass of Chablis!

joan.kyler said...

I love the photo at the beginning of this post. It's so atmospheric, maybe indicative of the turbulent times ahead for Great Britain. But, it's a lovely photo.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Well summarised. Let's be nice to Europeans! And let's not go back to "the 'others' begin at Calais".

Sue said...

A really honest and thoughtful post canvassing issues not being addressed elsewhere.

I live in Australia, but was born in Britain so I am still trying to assimilate all the information. (For instance, is it correct that only 36% of the under 25 s actually voted?)

Interestingly, the best commentary on Brexit is from book bloggers like you and Litlove in Tales from the reading room. I encourage readers to check out Tales from the reading room blog (sorry I can't link to it)because it is excellent.

Steerforth said...

Joan - It was an extraordinary sky that evening. As if we had angered the gods!

Lucy - I think we needed to be clearer about the fact that the concerns about immigration were largely about the numbers and their impact on housing and infrastructure in the future. Unfortunately, the media are now reporting some very isolated incidents of racism as if we've turned into Nazi Germany overnight. This will achieve little except cause a lot of distress for EU citizens living here.

Sue - Thanks for the recommendation. Her post was excellent and I agree that we need to rediscover our communitarian roots. We have a rocky ride ahead of us, but it's also an opportunity to come up with something better than a globalised, moneycentric society of winners and losers.

Unknown said...

Well put Steerforth. I fear we have sold our childrens' futures down the river and am scared about the future now. I have the option of taking up Irish citizenship, but don't want to - I do feel that this debacle has politicised me, but I am directionless! By the way, a Liverpudlian colleague said how the city had benefited a lot from EU investment as being a big reason they voted remain.

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I see the latest news is that Britain can't join the EEA unless it accepts freedom of movement, so we'll still have the scary net migration figures, but minus the benefits of EU membership. It's all gone horribly wrong.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

No Nigel , you're quite right . No one's laughing now .

Marginalia said...

We have (just) a Prime Minister who has made what must rank as one of the greatest miscalculations since the Coercive Acts of 1774. We have a potential PM who appears to be an even bigger lier than most politicians. We have Her Majesty's Official Opposition going through what can only be described as a tragical farce.

Politically it's a mess (where are the Lib Dems by the way). Which is no bad thing - the parties needed a good kicking in the balls - as did the Eurocentric concensus in Brussels which has overseen a failure of intellect, will and humility.

Whether this will actually change anything is a moot point. George Osbourne, hasn't seemed to have learnt anything - threatening further bad medicine. I do, however, think that there has been a shifting of the tectonic plates. There is a new landscape we all have to adjust to and work with.

We can get through this bit by bit, piece by piece. To misquote Mark Watney in "The Martian"..."We're gonna have to science the shit out of this."

English football, however, is irredeemable.

Steerforth said...

Smitonius - It was painful to watch, but I must admit I did chuckle when he told the MEPs that most of of them hadn't done a proper job in their lives.

Barry - Yes, I'm also trying to regard this as an opportunity to come up with something better, even though I'm under no illusion of how tough things will be for quite a while.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

On the other hand it's a great blow to the banking families who really run the world and apparently want first a European superstate and then a world government - concepts I personally am far more uncomfortable with than the turmoil and tough times (for a while) of leaving EU - a wasteful and inefficient behemoth if ever there was one.

A friend has just sent me a link to the Kalergi plan. If you take out the word 'genocide' and assorted paranoia, it makes interesting reading. Not that immigration per se is the problem for most people. It is mass immigration, unplanned, unconsulted, and without the infrastructure to support it without turning various communities upside down that has caused the anger. Along with tax exiles, the super rich dodging their taxes, MPs fiddling their expenses, housing shortages, NHS pressures, Philip Green asset stripping BHS, bedroom tax. the fall of the steel industry and all the other blows the working class in particular feel they have been subjected to without anyone noticing or caring. And even though not all of these are the EU's fault - this was their big opportunity to register a protest vote - for better or worse - and they took it.

Funnily enough my Hindu newsagent was over the moon at the Brexit vote and gleefully started telling me how many other countries are planning to exit too. He is not the only established immigrant I know who could be construed as 'racist' by the PC brigade. But ultimately labels like this are just an excuse not to listen to people's concerns (valid or otherwise), an excuse to shut down all constructive debate and this is what leads to the enormous anger building. David Cameron has been proven not only to be a poor gambler with this Referendum (a professional gambler would never risk what they weren't willing to lose) but wildly out of touch with huge swathes of the electorate and their experiences of modern Britain and anger at being ignored and hammered by their government on all fronts. This also explains Corbyn's popularity against all odds - many working class people feel they have a chance of being listened to by him, rightly or wrongly.

Britain once ruled the world. Why should it be so impossible for it to rule itself? Especially now we have the opportunity to do so without the slavery, child labour, sexism, racism and other undesirable traits of our forbears. I just hope we can recover both our independent spirit and our ability to roll up our sleeves and get on with things. As for controlling our borders, every country should have this right without being branded 'racist', That does not mean they don't let anyone in, just that they have proper procedures in place for doing so which strikes some kind of a balance between those emigrating and those immigrating in order that resources are not overstretched. Mind you, it took my Canadian friend and former colleague TEN years to be allowed into UK, despite having proved himself charming, polite, articulate, well-dressed and hard working, not to mention an Anglophile of the first order, so they had no hesitation being unreasonable with him, a citizen from a Commonwealth country, for goodness' sake!

Anonymous said...

For a less apocalyptic view of the likelihood of Scotland breaking away, see here:

Carol Lake said...

I think the same forces at work in Britain are also at work in America. There's a serious disconnect between the professionals, IT engineers, drs., etc. in the major multicultural multiracial metropolitan areas, and the ultra-conservative mostly white rural areas who see life as they know it being forever changed.

There's no question the world is changing, and they feel it has passed them by and that they are being marginalized. This I think accounts for the appeal of the demagogue Donald Trump, because he says he wants to "Make America Great Again." Just what form he expects that "greatness" to take has never been made clear.

As you say, the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," has never been more apposite.