Shortly after the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, I suggested, in the gentlest possible manner, that academic research into the result seemed to be exhibiting what some might view as a slightly condescending attitude towards Leave voters. I haven’t seen anything since to make me change my mind.
Here, for example, is a statistical study by Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, and Oliver Heath, reader in politics at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. The research is rigorous, serious and interesting, but there is surely something here to support my claim. This is from their conclusion:
The vote for Brexit was anchored predominantly, albeit not exclusively, in areas of the country that are filled with pensioners, low skilled and less well-educated blue-collar workers and citizens who have been pushed to the margins not only by the economic transformation of the country, but by the values that have come to dominate a more socially liberal media and political class.
They’re not claiming this as a startling finding. We kind of knew that there were disproportionate voting patterns if one looked at age, employment and formal education, and it’s a good thing to have this impression confirmed by solid analysis of the available evidence. But noting these discrepancies is obviously only the first stage; the real question is what were the arguments that motivated those on either side? And that’s what I fear sometimes gets lost when too much attention is paid to the demographics, as though external conditions determine behaviour.
But, for now, let’s stick with the findings of this particular study. The Leave voters, then, are not just economically disadvantaged, they also reject the ‘socially liberal’ values of the Remainers. But surely, if social liberalism means anything, it’s an understanding that the rights of the individual shouldn’t be overridden by the power of the state, unless there’s an irresistible case that the interests of the community would otherwise be harmed.
Is this how the European Union behaves? It doesn’t always feel like it; more like bureaucratic interference at a level that has no justification. To take one tiny, but maybe symbolic, example that surfaced briefly during the referendum campaign: the European Tobacco Products Directive instructs EU member-states to outlaw the sale of menthol-flavoured cigarettes. A trivial thing, perhaps (unless you happen to smoke menthol cigarettes and have done for many years) but it’s hardly an example of social liberalism in action. Why should the flavour of a cigarette be the business of your government, let alone the EU?
(Incidentally, when this move was first agreed by health ministers in 2013, Helmut Schmidt, the former SPD chancellor of West Germany, announced that he was stockpiling hundreds of cartons of his favourite brand. He did die a couple of years later, so he might not be the ideal poster-boy for the product, but then he was 96 years old at the time.)
I tend to approve of social liberalism, but it doesn’t seem to me to be incompatible with leaving the European Union. Or indeed to have anything to do with the question one way or the other. We can have a socially liberal country outside the EU. Indeed the most positive aspect of the referendum result is the opportunity it gives for redirecting politics.
Of course, what Goodwin and Heath were implying wasn’t really anything to do with the state’s interference in the lives of its citizens. Surely what they’re alluding to is immigration. That’s where many Leave voters have felt they’ve ‘been pushed to the margins … [by] a more socially liberal media and political class’. But controlling immigration isn’t anything to do with social liberalism either. The treatment of immigrants by the host community is an important part of the equality agenda of social liberalism; immigration itself is not – or at least it shouldn’t be.
The piece continues:
the vote for Brexit was delivered by the ‘left behind’ – social groups that are united by a general sense of insecurity, pessimism and marginalisation, who do not feel as though elites, whether in Brussels or Westminster, share their values, represent their interests and genuinely empathise with their intense angst about rapid change.
That phrase ‘left behind’ is in inverted commas because it’s very rapidly become a cliche, particularly in journalistic commentary. There are problems with it, though. Because it doesn’t say who’s been doing the leaving. Sometimes – not necessarily here – it seems as though it’s being used as a shorthand for ‘left behind by history’, in the same way that people on both sides of the debate have been told that they’re ‘on the wrong side of history‘. Which gives the (absurd) impression that history has a fixed course that isn’t shaped by our collective will.
In any event, the phrase ‘left behind’ definitely implies a smallish group cut off from the mainstream of society. Yet the Leave voters are the majority, so it turns out that those categorized as ‘left behind’ are actually in tune with their neighbours. The real problem, perhaps, lies rather with an elite that has failed to convince the rest of the country.
It’s as though the front ranks of a parade have taken a right-hand turn down a side-street, and have only just realized that the rest of the procession didn’t follow on behind. Worse still, they’ve found that they’ve turned into a cul-de-sac. In such a situation, ‘left behind’ isn’t the obvious phrase for those still marching down the main thoroughfare.
I’m also not sure about the characteristics exhibited by this group. Insecurity is inescapable in modern society (back in 1999, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson dubbed this The Age of Insecurity), but pessimism? I’m not so sure. Certainly there was a sense of anger, but that’s a very different thing. As John Lydon, the greatest sloganeer of our times, once pointed out, anger is an energy. When it’s focussed and directed, it can be wielded in the cause of optimism. And on this occasion, I think it was. I heard a lot of people phoning up radio stations during the build-up to the referendum, and in its aftermath, who sounded really quite hopeful that they were – in the slogan of the campaign – about to get their country back. To my ears, optimism was more evident in the rhetoric of the Leave than the Remain campaigners.
Certainly, however, Goodwin and Heath are right that there’s concern about the elite not sharing the same values. Which again would seem to be a problem for the elite, not the ‘left behind’. And, given the issue at hand, the key value-clash here is surely patriotism.
This is particularly the case on the Left where even the word ‘patriotism’ is seldom mentioned, but ‘jingoism’ is still in common usage. There is a widely perceived, and long established, perception that the Left is unpatriotic. It was symbolized for many by the sight of Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem. Or by the occasion in 2014 when Emily Thornberry tweeted a photograph of a house bedecked with flags of St George, with the caption ‘Image from Rochester’. (It wasn’t, it was a house in Strood, but at least she got the right constituency – the one where UKIP were just winning a by-election.)
Or, to take another example, also from the Left, in 1995 there were national celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, which proved very popular. Polly Toynbee, though, was unmoved and wrote a column in the Independent denouncing the occasion as ‘deliberately backward-looking, in praise of a better past, and fearful of the future’. The very next day, she lectured her readers, had been Europe Day* and yet, so obsessed had we become with history, that this occasion had passed by without any observance at all. She might have been correct (though the defeat of the Nazis does seem worth a party every half-century), but she sure as hell wasn’t in tune with the public.
The gulf is between those who think of Great Britain and those who talk of Little England.
‘I love this country,’ said David Cameron, as he left Downing Street for the last time, ‘and I will do everything I can in future to help this great country succeed.’ He may well have meant every word he said; I’m sure he did. Yet it’s also possible to believe that he was completely deluded about what he believed to be the nation’s best interests. Where he (and most of the ruling class) argued that we gained status and authority in the world by being part of the EU, others saw that assumption as displaying a lack of faith in Britain as a nation.
Both are perfectly respectable positions. Which is all, I think, that I’m trying to say with my comments on academic attitudes. The world of academia is predominantly left-wing in its thinking, and it was overwhelmingly in favour of Remain; it needs to be conscious of its own prejudices when looking at those of others.
All of which is, of course, primarily a note to myself.
* In case you keep track of these things, the Europe Day to which Toynbee was drawing attention was the European Union’s Europe Day on 9 May, marking the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration of 1950. This is not to be confused with the Council of Europe’s Europe Day, which is on 5 May, the anniversary of the foundation of the Council in 1949.