James Kirkup

Forget Brexit. What really matters is rubbish

Forget Brexit. What really matters is rubbish
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Pardon the heresy, but I have a suggestion to make about the general election, and politics in general: Brexit isn’t as important as you think it is.

The fact that you, dear reader, are reading this, a Spectator article, says many things about you.  Obviously, it denotes good taste, since this is a fine publication, notwithstanding the Editor’s peculiar accent, absurd hair and questionable choices in hiring old colleagues to write for him.

But more importantly, it says you’re interested in the stuff that The Spectator is interested in, and almost certainly in politics.  That, politely put, means you’re a bit weird.  Most people aren’t interested in politics; they don’t spend their valuable time reading things like this.

They may glance at some headlines now and then, but mostly their exposure to what we grandly call 'political debate' comes from BBC bulletins and – perhaps – a bit of chatter on Facebook.  (Maybe one day Westminster will accept that Facebook is infinitely more important than Twitter, but I’m not holding my breath; I suspect it’ll take Twitter’s inevitable corporate demise/capture to pop the SW1A Twitter bubble).

I know this is a statement of the obvious, but its implications still need to be thought through a bit more.

Let’s take a real-world, real-seat example. Carshalton and Wallington is the sort of constituency that will be taken as some sort of barometer of the Brexit climate, given that it’s a Lib Dem-Tory marginal.

That narrative means the options for the seat are as follows:

If Tom Brake can hold the seat for the Lib Dems, some will argue that’s a sign that suburban London voters have doubts about a Tory-led Hard Brexit, and perhaps about Brexit itself.

If Mr Brake is ousted by the Conservatives’ Matthew Maxwell Scott (full disclosure: he’s an old friend of mine), then this will be more proof that Brits, both Leavers and many Remainers, are now committed/resigned to Brexit and that Mrs May can sail her negotiating gunboat off to Brussels (yes, I know it’s inland – it’s a metaphor, not an actual boat) and give Monsieur Juncker a taste of grapeshot.

But here’s another way of looking at it. Bins matter more than Brexit.

If the Lib Dems are in trouble in Carshalton then yes, one reason is that they’re out of touch with most voters there on what us Westminster folk insist is the biggest issue of the day: Brexit.  C&W voted around 60:40 for Leave; assuming that half the Remainers are now Re-Leavers who accept Brexit, Mr Brake is pinning his hopes on around a fifth of the electorate; Mr Maxwell Scott, meanwhile, is playing for the other 80 per cent. Place your bets accordingly.

But how much does Brexit matter?  Has it affected voters’ lives in a way that they’ve i) noticed and ii) associated with Brexit? Yes, the inflation that means real wages are still negative is, at least in part, caused by a devaluation of the pound that was, at least in part, caused by the vote to Leave.  And by the same token, most of the various alleged benefits of life outside the EU remain far over the horizon. The issue that consumes more time and energy in Westminster and Whitehall is yet to have a directly palpable effect on the lives of most voters.

There’s another reason a yellow seat like Carshalton and Wallington will probably turn blue: bins.  Lib Dem-run Sutton Council has recently broken the cardinal rule of local politics and cocked up the rubbish collection. I don’t know how or why or whose fault is really is, but people in Sutton, which includes C&W, aren’t getting their bins emptied promptly.  Technically, this isn’t a Westminster election issue, but who’s going to tell the voters that? #suttonbinshame (it’s a real thing, apparently) may well matter more for the result in C&W than Mrs May’s willingness to give Parliament a meaningful vote on any trade agreement she strikes with the EU27.

Bin collection is the sort of thing, like potholes and congested junctions and planning applications, that the national 'political debate' tends to ignore because it’s mundane and provincial. And those of us who use terms like 'political debate' and read articles like this would much rather talk about sovereignty and free trade and who hates whom inside Downing Street and the Shadow Cabinet because, well, that’s what we find interesting. 

Of course, all of those things are important, vitally so. Even the personal squabbles of the political class can eventually float down the river and have real results on the lives of voters: Gordon Brown spent oodles of money on goodies and squandered oodles more thwarting public service reform largely to prove he was nicer than that horrid Blair man; personal spite between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith ended up doing real harm to the working poor who rely on a sensible welfare system. 

But on the whole, those voters can be forgiven for not regarding those distant events upstream as immediately important or interesting. 

Yes, Brexit is big and significant and fascinating.  But sometimes in politics, as Philip May might point out, what really matters is rubbish.


Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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