Brendan O’Neill

The Brexit debate has exposed the Establishment

The Brexit debate has exposed the Establishment
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Yesterday, on the Thames, in a bizarre battle of political flotillas, we got a glimpse of the elite rage that motors much of the Remain camp. On one of the pro-EU boats, Bob Geldof, a knight, superbly well-connected, who has earned millions, made wanker gestures and gave a two-fingered eff-you to the people on the anti-EU boats — who were mainly fishermen whose livelihoods have been wrecked by Brussels.

One of these fishermen, his face ashen with desperation, shouted — almost cried, in fact — about earning £50 a week and not knowing where his next mortgage payment is going to come from, largely thanks to EU regulations on the fishing trade. Wealthy, influential Geldof was laughing and jeering at people like that.

In this image, in this snapshot of the rich mocking the poor, we saw a side to Remain that is usually buried beneath all their jabber about being cosmopolitan and post-borders and whatnot. We saw a distillation of how the people of Britain are generally lining up on the issue of the EU.

People at the bottom of society — the poorest, the oldest, the least well-educated, the most screwed over — are drawn to Brexit. Meanwhile, the wealthy, banks, bosses, the art establishment, the cultural elites, the celebrity set, the broadsheet media and the top layer of the political class are agitating for Remain. The EU referendum has morphed into a fight between the Establishment and the masses, between an elite desperately keen to keep doing politics far away from the plebs, and plebs who want more political say.

This has been the great thing about the EU referendum debate: it has provided political clarity in opaque times; it has exposed political faultlines in British society that had become obscured in recent years; it has confirmed that the rulers of society think very differently to the poorest in society. These are useful things to know.

It’s good to know that where a measly 5 per cent of big businesses want to leave the EU, a staggering 60 per cent of working-class voters want to. That is, bosses want in, workers want out. It’s good to know that where 7 out of 10 people with university degrees want to stay in the EU, those who never went to university are far more likely to want to leave. That where Guardian and Times readers want to stay by large margins, readers of the Sun, Mail and Express are for the most part desperate to get out. The broadsheet classes like the EU, the tabloid classes do not. People who host dinner parties are pro-Brussels; people who eat their tea at 6.30 are not. Let’s not dodge this reality.

It’s good to know that 63 per cent of over-60s want to leave, while 73 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds want to stay. And that where people in the AB social class — professionals, managers, etc — want to stay by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, people in social classes C2 and DE — what we would once have called the lower orders — have ‘net dissatisfaction’ with the EU.

The reason it’s good to know these things is because honesty and clarity make for a better, or at least livelier, political sphere. And the most honest reading of the splits on the EU is that our fantasy that we live in a post-class society, in a new Third Way era that has done away with those pesky, bitter poor-v-rich political clashes of old, is nonsense. Old divides linger, hidden in recent years, and still talked down now, but take a hard look — they are there.

Perhaps the most useful thing about the EU referendum debate has been its exposure of the Establishment. Ours is an era in which people furiously deny being part of the Establishment, even when they’re bang in the middle of it. Nicola Sturgeon — ruler of Scotland! — poses as an establishment-rattling rebel. The BBC madly fancies itself as a thorn in The Man’s side. Even the Guardian, newspaper of record of the vast public sector that governs so much of the little people’s lives, thinks of itself as an outsider and troublemaker. Hilarious, I know. Yet in this referendum, establishment figures have been forced to come out, to make themselves known, to put aside their pretence to outsider status and their usually overblown differences of opinion, and to fight for the survival of the EU against… well, against the little people, those most angry about the EU. Stripped down, Remain is this: the party leaders, all of big business, leading media figures and the world of finance calling a truce on their petty, showy arguing to save their beloved EU from the masses.

Of course there are some splits in the Establishment. And the Remain camp will fire back: ‘But there are establishment figures in the Leave lobby too! Boris, Gove, Farage… and… err. Oh, balls. That’s it, isn’t it?’ They can mock Boris’s poshness all they like, and keep insisting that being pro-EU is the nice, progressive thing to be. But that image of Geldof mocking distraught fishermen captured in a moment what all the surveys have revealed for ages: that the well-off tend to like the EU, and the poor tend to hate it, and this is fundamentally a fight between an establishment keen to hide from the public in Brussels and a public saying to them: ‘Come out where we can see you.’

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