'Brexit', or the revenge of the dispossessed

As the British government struggles to come to terms with the consequences of the country's vote to leave the EU, Jeremy Seabrook reflects on the long-simmering grievances which found their expression in the 'Brexit' vote.

OF course David Cameron's referendum on whether Britain should quit or remain in the European Union offered an unappealing choice: continued adherence to a 'market' the neoliberal values of which have visited such ruin on southern Europe, or withdrawal into an insular conviction that Britain can 'go it alone', free of the constraints of an interdependent world.

With a vote of 52% in favour of leaving, we have seen a curious paradox: those who wanted Britain to remain in Europe speak of their sadness and anger at the result of the referendum. They are 'in grief', 'mourning'; even, echoing the expression of their opponents before the campaign, 'having had their country taken from them'.

Many of the defeated Remainers, financially secure, liberal, metropolitan in spirit if not in actual location, were proponents of a diverse and tolerant Britain; unhappily, their tolerance of extreme and growing inequality was also a conspicuous feature of their social liberalism. For those same people had regarded with relative composure the suffering of the unfortunates who, ever since the 1960s, have lamented the decay of industry in Britain, the breakdown of communities, the loss of function and purpose - those people who overwhelmingly voted for exit from the EU. The laying waste of their lives was subordinated to the superior interest of 'progress', 'modernisation', 'economic necessity', and all the other justifications for social injustice and the multiple cleavages which scar Britain - North versus South, rich against poor, young against old.

'Brexit' has thrown into confusion the certainties of the most prominent players in the contemporary economy - those in finance, the media, informatics, scientific research, creative industries. Britain appears to be no more in their possession than the derelict estates and empty town centres, with their discount stores, charity shops, tattoo parlours and empty properties, were, which the well-to-do regarded as a fitting habitation for the landless of present-day Britain. Now it is their turn to cry: jubilation is not too strong a word to describe the mood of the winners, the disregarded and excluded.

The ironies do not end there. For the clamour to 'take back control', 'to give us back our country', was aimed at an entity which did not have custody of the United Kingdom. The owners of vast tracts of Britain - property in London, areas of farmland and, increasingly, country estates and institutions - are less Europeans than Gulf 'sovereign' funds, investors from the not-so-far East, South American drug lords, Russian oligarchs, representatives of China's version of Communism. By 2014 54% of the shares on the London Stock Exchange were owned by 'the rest of the world', 46% of these in the US.

There is more. The insurgency of what UK Independence Party (UKIP) politician and Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage calls 'the little people' (which speaks eloquently of his opinion of his supporters), or more tactfully 'real people', against 'the Establishment' was led by a faction of that same Establishment, for none of the principals in the contest - not Johnson or Farage, or Duncan Smith or Gove or Grayling - issued from the 'have-nots', for whom these exalted personages conceived an instrumental and only transient tenderness. Whoever will be advantaged by the outcome of the referendum, it is unlikely to be those who tearfully celebrated the return of their country, a country they could now pass on to their children; as though their children will be the beneficiaries of anything that has happened.

The vote against the EU is proxy for resentment of much that has occurred in Britain, this less-than-united kingdom, over the past 40 years - not the least of them being the Labour Party's inability, or unwillingness, to protect those it came into existence to defend. Nobody ever voted for the deindustrialisation of Britain (any more than anyone ever voted for satanic mills and the tainted wealth they produced). A world in which 'people knew their place' was, of course, repellent when it was a question of social status; but knowing where you stood in a division of labour and you could see and handle what you produced, having a place and recognising it, was a source of reasonable pride.

Moreover, the country we have 'got back' is nothing like the one we imagined had been taken away; which is why we constantly relive the Blitz, the levelling effects of War, all pulling together and recognising a common cause. There will be no restoration.

The cleavages have been long simmering beneath the careful management of attenuated political debate in recent years. It is perhaps, above all, the revenge of a dispossessed former manufacturing working class against those they perceived as having robbed them of meaning and purpose in a division of labour that was abolished in the twinkling of an eye during the Margaret Thatcher years.

If it is a delayed response, this is because the dissolution of industry in Britain was presented as passage from an era of satanic mills into the sunny pastures of permanent consumerism. Only with time has it appeared that the making of necessary material goods has been replaced by something more ephemeral, insubstantial, without security and which does not enhance the lives of the workers. Talk of perpetual 'improvement', 'advancement', 'moving forward' now appears to have been a mere rhetorical device to persuade people that someone knew where we were being led, while the promise of robotics as an answer to the chores of existence has turned to alarm over the menace of 'artificial intelligence' - a description that would not be misapplied to many present-day world leaders.

It is not that alternative employment was not created. But for a majority these have been not occupations, not work, nor labour, but 'jobs' - unskilled, far from the craft and expertise that had required five years of arduous apprenticeship. And many of these jobs in the service sector, the most low-paid and uncertain, have gone to European migrants, who have shown themselves more efficient baristas, waiters, carers, even tradespeople - plumbers, fitters, builders, construction workers - than their British counterparts.

Why this should be so gives a clue to the resentment that has finally burst through all the chewy political verbiage about 'hardworking families' and 'doing the right thing'. For under the freedom of movement of labour in the European Union, highly motivated, often educated, certainly competent people have come to Britain for a season in their young lives, to gain experience, make some small savings, provide themselves with linguistic expertise which they will take back to their own country to make a better life for themselves and their families. Some have met partners, settled down and made a family in Britain. It is the perfect paradigm of capitalist aspiration. Except that for the Leavers of the EU, they are the wrong people.

It is the speed of their reactions, their adaptability and openness that have made them attractive to both employers and customers. They are not the social equivalent of those who feel they have been displaced by them in the agribusiness of East Anglia, the vegetable farms of Lincolnshire, the stores and cafes of the cities; for such people have remained at home in their small towns and cities of Eastern Romania, Bialystok in Poland, Calabria in Italy or Extremadura in Spain.

It is easy to see now what has happened, although while it was occurring, few appeared to see it for what it was. Compliance with the EU Treaty in the free movement of labour drew people, especially from Eastern Europe, to parts of Britain scarred both by industrialisation and by its loss. The Labour Party was complicit in the social laissez faire which failed to provide adequate housing, healthcare and schooling even for the former industrial workers, let alone for newcomers; and this failure has become the focus of much of the resentment of 'foreigners' which has been a conspicuous feature of the desolate industrial towns, rural centres of agribusiness (especially producing and harvesting vegetables, cabbages, beetroot, potatoes, spinach) and the exurban estates where significant numbers of people depend on benefits.

It is a supreme irony: the more or less successful assimilation of people from the Caribbean and South Asia emboldened our rulers. God knows, there was enough resentment and ill-feeling in the 1950s and 60s, as the race riots and violence of the age showed. But when Enoch Powell enunciated his 'Tiber foaming with blood' speech in the 1960s, the Conservative Party immediately isolated him and contained the poison. This time, intellectuals at the heart of the Party, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, were major players in the spread of xenophobia with more than a hint of racism. It is significant that after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, apparently by a crazed ultra-nationalist, both spoke in favour of immigration.

It is sad that it was not so much ethnicity as language which has been a major driver of feeling against European immigrant workers. Boston in Lincolnshire had the highest proportion of people voting Leave - the flashpoint for the incomprehensible tongues which convince people ('locals', as they are disparagingly known by the mainstream media) that it is they who are being talked about, the stuff of social paranoia and alienation. Strangers in our own land. Take back control. Whenever majorities express a sense of victimhood, we can be sure that some form of mischief against minorities is in preparation.

A history of loss

There are also longer-term influences at work. When we survey the history of the people, the working class, 'real people' as defined by the Brexiteers, over the past century, we see violence, impoverishment and loss, with only brief interludes of stability and prosperity. In the First World War, object of centennial commemorations, every community in Britain lost a generation of young men; and those who returned could be seen, absent leg sewn into a blind trouser pouch, offering matches for sale on street corners or singing, with outstretched palms, 'I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls'.

Then in the land fit for heroes to which they returned, there were long years of Depression and unemployment, when Poor Law officials compelled people to sell the last objects of worth - a gold ring, a piano - before they could receive the most meagre of State benefits. And in an instant, it was war again, this time against the malignant ideology which had tormented the European empires, repatriated this time to what the rulers of Europe liked to think of as the cradle of world civilisation.

The victory in the war was followed by an era of true austerity, rationing, small black market luxuries and stolen pleasures among the rubble and ashes. Only in the 1950s and 60s came an interlude of prosperity, which soon became affluence and mutated into consumerism: a dazzling outpouring of bounty from a capitalism which had spent the previous 150 years justifying the withholding of even daily necessities from those who worked in its service.

This, too, lasted only until the contested 1970s, when labour asserted itself for the last time, in the public service revolt in the so-called 'winter of discontent' and the miners' strike. Thatcher's neoliberal zeal dealt with the 'problem' of labour by abolishing the industrial base itself, and at a stroke obliterated the reason for being of all the industrial towns and cities of Britain. That the pain of this was for a worthwhile cause - international competitiveness - appeared to have been borne out for a time in the 1990s and early 2000s, but with the crash of 2007-08, it was shown to be illusion. The new landscape appearing as the dust clears is hostile to the well-being of the heirs of a working class whose hold on the material world of making things evaporated 30 years ago.

The vote to leave the EU has profound symbolical importance. Politicians have so far failed to understand the depth of alienation undreamed of by 'leaders' whose contact with the people for 50 years has had all the intimacy of a relationship with extraterrestrials. It has been in the making a long time, this unmaking of the working class. With the rout of the miners in Britain, the fall of the USSR and the elevation to 'middle-class' status of the workers of the USA, it ceased to be fashionable - or of interest - to talk about the working class, or even to acknowledge its existence. Now it has reasserted itself, and not in a way comfortable for ruing elites, least of all those on the Left who had claimed a unique concern for it.

Of course Cameron should never have called a referendum, which in his calculations would silence his Conservatives' own Right wing and neutralise the appeal of UKIP. The reverse of his shallow cunning has been the outcome. In the process, the political landscape is littered with the husks of ruined careers - not only Cameron but George Osborne, the indolent Boris Johnson and the scheming Michael Gove.

The Labour Party, too, is a casualty of the upheaval. Labour may be nearing the end of its time representing the working people of Britain; for while Labour MPs are busy contesting the legitimacy of their elected leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives have already regrouped around the redoubtable Theresa May, Britain's second female Prime Minister, in whom some have seen the Second Coming of Thatcher.

Disentangling Britain from the European Union will be a costly and complex process. It is almost inevitable that some compromise will be reached - an accommodation or special status for Britain. But something profound has been thrown into relief by this ill-advised consultation with the people - the opposite of what the 'victors' sought; namely, confirmation of the loneliness of a former imperial power reduced to a small chill island, now on the periphery of Europe, as it is of the wider world it once commanded.                                 

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt (published by Navayana).

*Third World Resurgence No. 310/311, Jun/July 2016, pp 53-55