Brendan O’Neill

The cheer on Question Time that will terrify Corbyn’s Labour

The cheer on Question Time that will terrify Corbyn's Labour
Text settings

How brilliant was that cheer on Question Time last night? Isabel Oakeshott said Theresa May should just walk away from the EU. Fiona Bruce asked her if she meant we should pursue ‘No Deal’. ‘Yes’, said Oakeshott and there it was, instantly, contagiously, the loudest cheer I can remember hearing from a Question Time audience. This was no polite applause or murmur of approval. It was a statement — a noisy, rebellious statement of the people’s continuing and profound attachment to the idea of leaving the European Union, deal or no deal.

It was a cheer that should echo through the nation. That will chill the bones of the political establishment. Which will rattle a commentariat that ceaselessly pumps out columns on how awful No Deal would be. For this cheer — from an audience in the largely working-class, Labour-leaning city of Derby — was a stark reminder that there are people out there, a great many people, who do not share the political class’s fear of No Deal. Who haven’t been won over by the non-stop fearmongering about No Deal. Who flat-out refuse to buy the media’s horror stories about how No Deal will lead to medicine shortages, and food riots, and chaos in Dover, and plagues of locusts. So much for Leave voters being ‘low information’, easily misled idiots who can be brainwashed by adverts on buses and Facebook memes — this cheer was proof that these people are more than capable of thinking for themselves and resisting the establishment’s ideology of fear around No Deal.

The cheer will have horrified the political class. All wings of it. For the past few days, political bigwigs, loads of MPs, business leaders and supposedly radical Corbynistas — what a bizarre mix! — have been imploring Theresa May to take No Deal off the table. And yet here was a section of working-class Britain actively cheering No Deal. There could be no clearer illustration of the gaping chasm — the chasm in values, beliefs, political ideals — that now separates the political set from the public. The cheer will have especially devastated Corbyn's Labour. They have made opposing No Deal their big thing, their chief aim. No Deal will ruin Britain, they cry. And yet here were working-class people whooping for a No Deal with a vigour that is too often lacking in modern politics. Behold one of the most important divides in British politics today — that between the woke bourgeois agitators of Corbyn’s inner circle and the ordinary people who used to make up the backbone of the Labour movement. Maybe Corbynistas will brand these cheerers as ‘gammon’.

Some will say — they already are, in fact — that this cheer proves how self-destructive the Brexit outlook is. These poor, not very well-educated people don’t realise how much harm No Deal will cause, apparently, including in their own lives and communities and on their economic opportunities. Such foul paternalism! This boils down to saying that the plebs don’t know what they are doing; they’re killing themselves with their own stupidity and it is down to us, the enlightened folk, to save them from themselves. Stop this. The support for No Deal is actually entirely rational. People know what ‘taking No Deal off the table’ really means — it means taking Brexit off the table. People feel that No Deal is now code for Brexit itself, and that anything that restricts the UK’s ability to walk away from the EU will threaten Brexit in its entirety. They are dead right to feel this.

That cheer told us so much about the state of the nation. Jonathan Swift said:

‘It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of a Kingdom.’

This is our establishment today. They think their chatter, their fearmongering, their tweeting is the view of the nation, but in many cases it is the precise opposite. Last night, in that cheer, they heard the voice of the kingdom, and it will have terrified them. I hope it did anyway.