Once upon a time, a long time ago, this country was consumed by the matter of Brexit. Everywhere you turned, in every medium, even among friends and colleagues, you couldn't get away from the subject: everyone was talking about Brexit. We were obsessed by it. From 2016 to 2019 there was no escape.
All of this changed this year. With the pandemic, the rancorous matter of Brexit vanished, or at least stopped becoming the emotive, divisive matter of primary concern. It has been relegated to a pedestrian news story about trading rights. In the year of the coronavirus and all its horrors, paranoia and despair, Brexit has become a sideshow. Right?
Wrong. While the clamorous conflict between Leavers and Remainers has ostensibly ceased, in our collective subconscious the same cleavage in our society remains – only the subject matter has changed. As you may have concluded from newspapers and your social media feed, Remainer and Leave camps have merely metamorphosed into pro-lockdown and anti-lockdown tribes.
For instance, back in 2016 it was Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph and Frederick Forsyth in the Daily Express who were the most vociferous in their invectives against the EU. This year, these two characters – among many other columnists and voices in general – have been just as ferocious in their denunciations of lockdowns, masks and curfews. When it comes to anti-lockdown/Leave and lockdown/Remain, the two camps, respectively, are often the same lot.
The parallel is at its most obvious when it comes to rhetoric about elites and 'experts'. During the Brexit referendum, Remainers often deferred to experts in academia or the City who warned about the dire economic consequences of Brexit. Leavers cited everyday wisdom and lived experience in their argument why we should leave the EU. Back then, the debate centred on academic knowledge and deference to experts, versus empirical evidence and common sense. It's the same today.
This argument from lived experience is repeatedly employed by the anti-lockdown-minded because the loudest voices to oppose further government restrictions come from small businesses. It's the anti-EU, lower-middle class types who own small shops and run small businesses who have been hit hardest by coronavirus measures. They are consequently the least inclined to support draconian anti-pandemic measures. There is no 'working from home' option for many small businesses or your manual, working class type from the north-east or midlands.
If Brexit was a class issue, then so is Covid. Working-class people who voted against the EU did so as much in revolt against the London metropolitan elite as they did against Brussels. There was a twin resentment then and there is twin resentment now. It's the Somewhere people versus the Anywhere people conflict all over again.
As with Brexit, we have a divide between the working class who can't work at home, and largely an upper-middle class in the Home Counties who are happy to do so – because they can. On average they have larger houses and more gardens, which make domestic life for them and their family palatable. For them, lockdown measures are merely a nuisance. For those in flats or terraced houses, and for those who cannot work remotely, lockdown is a nightmare.
Ultimately, it comes down to a choice between freedom and security, between libertarianism and utilitarianism. That was the fundamental question posed in 2016. Do we vote to leave the EU, and in doing so face an exciting and prosperous, or perhaps an uncertain and perilous future? Or do we vote to stay, knowing that things will be tolerable in an undemocratic and sclerotic union that at least affords us free trade?
We are faced with a different problem today, but it's still one that divides statist and libertarians. Either we are to be subjected to endless and repeated lockdowns, returning indoors every few months, with the hope that deliverance will come in months soon with a vaccine. Or our masters might miraculously take the libertarian leap in the dark, deciding to set free our youth and healthy working age populace, returning them back to the public sphere and back to normality.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)