The only thing we can say for certain in the immediate aftermath of the referendum is that David Cameron will be remembered as one of the worst prime ministers we’ve ever had: at once ignorant of his own people and reckless with their lives. And yet I don’t entirely blame the Tories for the disaster they’ve set in train, even though the avoidable misery and cultural polarisation we are now seeing only tends to happen under Tory governments. Labour’s last period in office was the biggest missed opportunity since Thatcher’s decision to spend North Sea oil revenue on tax cuts and subsidising council house sales. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour sowed the seeds of the cynicism and anger that have propelled today’s result.
New Labour thought that accepting economic growth for its own sake – create more money, doesn’t matter how – was all right as long as the proceeds were redistributed afterwards. (You could argue that the European Union works in much the same way, which is why people gave it the same treatment they did Labour in 2010.) During Labour’s long boom, once the honeymoon was over, everyone was just as miserable as they are now, they simply had more money (or more credit). I remember endless drunkenness, fights on trains, people under pressure. I remember casual aggression in daily encounters of a kind I haven’t experienced since. The end of the boom almost felt like a release.
Shortly after the result of the referendum became clear, Tony Blair told Sky News that it wasn’t his fault voters hadn’t got with the programme. ‘The way to bring these people back to a sensible view of politics is to go and provide them with answers to the problems we face. It is about the future, not in taking our country back to a time that doesn’t exist in the world anymore.’ In theory I have a degree of sympathy with this view. Voting for Brexit is no better an answer to the problems we face than sitting in a bin going ‘Lalalalala’. Yet Blair still can’t seem to accept the reasons he lost power. For one thing, it’s hard to trust anyone who uses the phrase ‘these people’.
‘The answers to the problems people face,’ Blair went on, ‘is not to turn on migrants or to divide the country, it’s through education, it’s through infrastructure, it’s through understanding how the modern world works.’ Again, on the surface there is little to argue with; but God, the condescension. As if British voters need schooling in ‘how the modern world works’.
A lot of people voted Leave to show the political class that the way the modern world works was not working for them. Proponents of Remain argued, not entirely wrongly, that membership of the EU protected workers’ rights. But if your workplace offered zero-hours contracts, timed your toilet breaks, charged you for your uniform, gave you shifts and then dropped them on at the last minute, and didn’t pay you enough to cover your bills, why would you be persuaded by that argument?
The referendum result suggests that working-class people would prefer to unite with very posh people to give middle-class people a kicking than to submit to the middle-class idea that what is good for them is good for everyone. There are people for whom the EU has worked in a direct and tangible way: business owners (at least, the ones who don’t complain about ‘excessive red tape’); academics and students, who know that the free movement of both knowledge and people matters to their universities and their professional prospects; individuals who have made use of their right to move to or out of the UK.
Which brings us to immigration, and its perceived effect on the way people have voted. Trevor Phillips said ten years ago that Britain has been ‘sleepwalking into segregation’, with people from different ethnic groups living separately. Not only do the facts not bear this out, but other kinds of segregation, which have been growing – spatial, economic, educational – have been ignored. We have been ‘sleepwalking’ into division, but on entirely different terms from those picked out, with obvious yet inaccurate relish, by David Goodhart, Phillips’s colleague at the Integration Hub. The real divisions are all about class, not ethnicity.
A week before the referendum, the BBC’s head of research wrote an internal memo:
There are many millions of people in the UK who do not enthuse about diversity and do not embrace metropolitan values yet do not consider themselves lesser human beings for all that. Until their values and opinions are acknowledged and respected, rather than ignored and despised, our present discord will persist.
But the problem has nothing to do with ‘metropolitan values’, or a lack of enthusiasm for diversity. It is about class, and the way that the social, cultural and economic privilege of an enlarged and confident middle class has been compounded over time, not necessarily at the expense of working-class people, but with the effect of making it appear so. You can’t make the Labour Party, as Tristram Hunt and others would have it, a place where social conservatism coexists with social progressivism. You have to choose the latter because that’s where we are all headed, and it is the only way we can get the ‘modern world’ to work for everyone.
If someone doesn’t like immigrants, or what they perceive to be the effects of immigration, social or economic, that’s their problem. It isn’t something politicians ought to be seeking to ‘fix’. Seeking to cement ideas about the past by taking some people’s nostalgia at face value leads us nowhere, and gives that nostalgia an unwarranted level of respect. Most people are quite able to see beyond their own experience and relate to others as individuals, not as faceless members of an alien group.
The area I grew up in, a peripheral West Midlands estate with relatively little immigration, has in the last ten years elected a BNP councillor, swiftly rejected him and replaced him, along with a Labour councillor, with two Greens. In that time I have seen precisely no commentary on the tendency of the ‘white working class’ to embrace environmentalism as an answer to their ‘well-founded fears’.
But enough looking at the facts. Just over half of us have consented to do the dirty work of a minuscule elite, cutting off our collective nose to spite our face in order to express a class grudge. That is what class does. And for all my anger at what Labour failed to do with their 13 years in power, this could only have happened under the Tories.