The most striking thing about Britain’s break with the EU is this: it’s the poor wot done it. Council-estate dwellers, Sun readers, people who didn’t get good GCSE results (which is primarily an indicator of class, not stupidity): they rose up, they tramped to the polling station, and they said no to the EU.
It was like a second peasants’ revolt, though no pitchforks this time. The statistics are extraordinary. The well-to-do voted Remain, the down-at-heel demanded to Leave. The Brexiteer/Remainer divide splits almost perfectly, and beautifully, along class lines. Of local authorities that have a high number of manufacturing jobs, a whopping 86 per cent voted Leave. Of those bits of Britain with low manufacturing, only 42 per cent did so. Of local authorities with average house prices of less than £282,000, 79 per cent voted Leave; where house prices are above that figure, just 28 per cent did so. Of the 240 local authorities that have low education levels — i.e. more than a quarter of adults do not have five A to Cs at GCSE — 83 per cent voted Leave. Then there’s pay, the basic gauge of one’s place in the pecking order: 77 per cent of local authorities in which lots of people earn a low wage (of less than £23,000) voted Leave, compared with only 35 per cent of areas with decent pay packets.
It’s this stark: if you do physical labour, live in a modest home and have never darkened the door of a university, you’re far more likely to have said ‘screw you’ to the EU than the bloke in the leafier neighbouring borough who has a nicer existence. Of course there are discrepancies. The 16 local authorities in Scotland that have high manufacturing levels voted Remain rather than Leave. But for the most part, class was the deciding factor in the vote. This, for me, is the most breathtaking fact: of the 50 areas of Britain that have the highest number of people in social classes D and E — semi-skilled and unskilled workers and unemployed people — only three voted Remain. Three. That means 47 very poor areas, in unison, said no to the thing the establishment insisted they should say yes to.
Let’s make no bones about this: Britain’s poor and workless have risen up. And in doing so they didn’t just give the EU and its British backers the bloodiest of bloody noses. They also brought crashing down the Blairite myth of a post-class, Third Way Blighty, where the old ideological divide between rich and poor did not exist, since we were all supposed to be ‘stakeholders’ in society. Post-referendum, we know society is still cut in two, not only by economics but by politics too. This isn’t just about the haves and have-nots: it’s a war of views. The wealthier sections of society like it when politics involves detached cosmopolitan institutions and the poorer people don’t. The less well-off have just asserted their stake in society and the chattering classes — who peddled all the nonsense about a ‘stakeholder society’ in the first place — aren’t happy about it.
This peasants’ revolt has sent shockwaves through the elite and, like anthropologists investigating some mysterious tribe, they’re now frantically trying to work out why it happened. They’ve come up with two answers — one fuelled by rage, the other by something worse: pity. The ragers say the plebs voted Leave because they’re a bit racist and got hoodwinked by the shiny, xenophobic demagoguery of the likes of Nigel Farage.
This idea — that the poor are easy prey for demagogues — is the same claptrap the Chartists had to put up with in the 1840s. Their snooty critics frequently told them that, since the poor do not have a ‘ripened wisdom’ they are ‘more exposed than any other class… to be converted to the vicious ends of faction’. Now, the metropolitan set once again accuse the little people of exactly the same thing.
Surveys, however, dent this claim that the anti-EU throng was driven by disdain for foreigners. In a post-vote ComRes poll, only 34 per cent of Leave voters cited concern about immigration as their main reason for voting out (and concern about immigration isn’t necessarily racism). A majority, 53 per cent, said they rejected the EU because they think Britain should make its own laws. So this swath of the country, defamed as a brainless pogrom-in-waiting, was actually voting for democracy.
Then came the pitiers. Their diagnosis was a therapeutic one: that the less well-off suffered a spasm of anger. That they felt so ignored they decided to lash out crazily, but understandably. Don’t be sucked in by this seemingly caring, Oprah-esque analysis of the masses, for it is also a way of demeaning their democratic choice by treating it as a primal scream rather than a political statement. It turns a conscious rebellion against the establishment outlook into a soppy plea for more listening exercises.
But my take, from talking to numerous Leave voters, is not that they feel slighted by the political class but that they oppose it. Their concern isn’t that the elite is ignoring them but rather that it is interfering too much. They are sick of being castigated for their way of life. People have a strong sense of being ruled over by institutions that fundamentally loathe them, or at least consider them to be in dire need of moral and social correction.
In Burnt Oak, the tiny working-class suburb in north-west London where I grew up, it wasn’t hard to find Leave voters, even though the borough, Barnet, voted Remain by 100,000 to 61,000 votes. All said a similar thing: ‘They look down on us.’ Everyone I spoke to said they’d had a gutful of being branded racist simply because they feel British. To prove that foreigner-bashing isn’t their thing, many of them point out that they work and socialise with Romanians (of whom there are huge numbers in Burnt Oak).
They feel patronised, slandered and distrusted, not ignored. They feel their working-class culture and attitudes are viewed with contempt. These are the kind of people looked upon by officialdom as unhealthy and un-PC, too rowdy at the football, too keen to procreate, too fond of booze, too sweary: too attached to the idea of England.
This rebellion wasn’t caused by racism or a paroxysm of infantile anger. It was considered. The workers spied an opportunity to take the elite that despises them down a peg or two — and they seized it. They asserted their power, and in the process, blimey: they changed the world.