The grief of the elites

News Published July 3, 2016

Eight years ago, in my book Real England, I wrote about a class divide I had been surprised to discover breaking out across the country:

… there is [a] term that could be used about what is happening here – and what has been happening in so many of the places I have visited across England. The term is class war. A war waged, as ever, by the landed and the wealthy against those they would educate, civilise or simply shove out of the way.

This kind of thing is not supposed to happen in England any more. We are supposed to be a middle-class nation, at ease with itself, weekending in European cities, shopping at IKEA and cooking Nigella’s recipes. Class war is so very unhelpful a concept in this age of caring capitalism. So very aggressive, so very unnecessary, so very 1970s.  

A year later, in 2009, a million people voted for the far right British National Party in the European elections. They were presumably angry about the rate of migration and how it was affecting them, and they were probably angry too about the fact that nobody would listen to their complaints. I wrote a piece at the time suggesting that this was an alarm bell and that we should listen to it; that if people prepared to vote for the awful BNP then there was trouble brewing. I was called a racist for my pains.

A year after that, during the general election, one woman collared the Prime Minister in the street and asked him what he would do about the rate of migration from eastern Europe, which was changing her community rapidly. He called her a bigot with his microphone still on, and went on to lose the election.

Last year, in 2015, five million people voted for UKIP at the general election because they presumably felt unrepresented and angry about the way the country was changing. Those five million votes garnered one MP.  But this was fine, because they were all ignorant racists.

Last week, seventeen million people voted to take Britain out of the EU, against all the advice of every mainstream political party, most media outlets, the bankers and financiers, most of the business community and many global leaders. The result was a surprise, but the uprising should not have been. This has been a long time coming. It has been said that the referendum has divided Britain, but it hasn’t. That divide was building for years. What has happened now is that the elite, who have been ignoring it, have been forced to look, whether they like it or not. And they don’t like what they see.

Yesterday, thousands of people marched through London protesting against democracy. They were angry that those seventeen million people gave the wrong answer. There are many angry ‘remain’ voters in Britain now, and some of their rhetoric is disturbing; resonant of that class war. Some of their commentary drips with condescension, class snobbery and racism. Take a look at this article for a wonderful combination of all three. Or enjoy this condescending take on the ‘lizard brained’ working classes, from a leading public school wadical who is happy to stick it to the Evil Tories in the name of The Workers until the Workers vote the wrong way: then it’s class gloves off.

The middle class left, which dominates Britain’s cultural conversation and assumes its right to guide it, is full of rage. This excellent piece dissects it, suggesting that ‘the disconnect between the majority of the voting public and the liberal left is vast, full of snobbery and is only growing.’ It seems that way from here. Who are these stupid, ageing, white, working-class idiots who have just destroyed our children’s’ glorious future, they demand? It’s a rhetorical question. They don’t seem interested in speaking to anyone who voted to leave. It is much easier to caricature them as racist bigots who need to get with the progressive future. Here’s John Pilger, angry also, but I think correct:

The most effective propagandists of the “European ideal” have not been the far right, but an insufferably patrician class for whom metropolitan London is the United Kingdom. Its leading members see themselves as liberal, enlightened, cultivated tribunes of the 21st century zeitgeist, even “cool”. What they really are is a bourgeoisie with insatiable consumerist tastes and ancient instincts of their own superiority. In their house paper, the Guardian, they have gloated, day after day, at those who would even consider the EU profoundly undemocratic, a source of social injustice and a virulent extremism known as “neoliberalism”.

There are a lot of angry people around who feel astonished that the worm has turned on them. They had the world in their hands. They knew what the future looked like. They threw everything they had at trying to keep Britain in the EU, though they could barely believe that anyone would even be stupid enough to ask what its benefits were. But despite the guns directed at them, the working classes turned out to vote in record numbers, and they said no. Why?

Maybe because the people who were telling them they should vote to stay in the EU had told them other things before which had turned out to be untrue. They told them 20 years ago that if Britain didn’t join the Euro we would face economic ruin: the same story we are hearing now, in fact, reheated. Then they told them that opening the borders to unprecedentedly large numbers of foreign workers would not cause any social, economic or cultural problems. Perhaps they have not caused problems for many remain voters. But many of those who voted no live in a different country entirely. One of them, interviewed last week, said she had heard the ‘remain’ campaign explain how leaving the EU could slash £4000 a month from peoples’ pay packets. She knew no-one who would even earn close to that, she said. That was the point at which she realised the different worlds the two camps were living in.

The European Union was always an elite project. Since it took shape in 1992, it has been crafted by politicians who have been deeply reluctant to put their project to the people. Referenda were few and far between, and if people voted the wrong way, as they did here in Ireland, they were asked to reconsider until they gave the right answer. The purpose of the EU has always been explicit: to end national sovereignty among European nations; to pool that sovereignty for what was supposed to be the greater good. People were not asked directly if they ever wanted this to happen, for a simple reason: it was clear they would say no. People remain stubbornly attached to their national identities, as we have seen in Britain, and as we see across the continent. This has been the EU’s tragedy: it has never carried the people with it.

Now comes the blowback, and with it the grief of the elites, who have been shaken from their slumber by voices they have never troubled to hear. These are the ‘progressive’ governing classes, speaking for the unheard but not wanting to actually hear them; willing to express radical opinions right up to the point where their class interests are threatened. Now, suddenly, they know how it feels to be on the other side. They know how it feels to be worried about their economic future. They know how it feels not to be listened to. They know how it feels to live in a country going in a direction they don’t approve of. And they don’t like it. I don’t blame them: it’s horrible. I wonder if they will make the connection.

There have been many suggestions as to how to define this new split we are seeing in Britain between two types of people with two different visions. Progressives versus conservatives; nationalists versus globalists; open people versus closed people; patriots versus anti-patriots. I would guess it is more complicated than this. We love to put people into boxes. Still, there is no doubt that two different visions of the future are under discussion here. The problem is that both visions are currently fuelled by anger, and by an assumption that the other ‘side’ is made up of malicious idiots who don’t know what they’re doing.

Sooner or later it will all have to calm down, and some listening will have to begin. Listening not just to people we disagree with, and who disagree with us, but to people whose lives we simply don’t experience, and in many cases could not even imagine. This referendum has exposed the raw class divide that has been festering under the smooth surface of establishment Britain for decades. It’s long overdue that it was exposed to the light. But can it be healed? Not until its beneficiaries start listening to the voices they are so convinced are wrong.


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