Friday, June 24, 2016

Another fine mess

It started hopefully with Farage conceding defeat, then the results began to come in and everything changed. I stayed awake most of the night, unbelieving. In the early hours I realised that, sitting in my Greek home, I was about to have my right to live here stripped away from me and that somehow this was to be described as 'taking Britain back'. I didn't see it as a liberation.

It's early days. We will have to wait and see what transpires. The pound is falling, markets are adjusting, but the economy may stabilise depending on the settlement. The constitutional crisis we are living through has only just begun. I think there are two things that we need get to grips with.

The first is that the result was close. 48.1% of the votes were for remain, far more than have been cast for any single winning party in most general elections since the 1950s. And if we look at the votes we can see a country sharply divided three ways.

The most obvious is by region. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted remain, England and Wales voted leave. This calls into question the integrity of the United Kingdom, with the impact on the questions of Scottish independence and the border between the north and south of Ireland. But there is another dimension, between large, diverse conurbations voting remain and smaller towns and cities voting leave. London is the big example.

The second is by class. 'Traditional' working class areas voted to leave, especially in the north. The question is looming as to whether Labour has lost the north in the same way as it has lost Scotland. This is being portrayed in the media as being about immigration. Certainly, this plays a part, but it isn't the whole story. These are people at the wrong end of a low paid, insecure, casualised model of capitalism, with all the resentments and food banks that brings. Labour began losing large numbers of votes amongst them shortly after 1997. They ignored it. This is the consequence.

Third is by age. This is the most egregious aspect of all. I am nearly 64. I remember joining the then EEC and voted in the first referendum in 1975. For young people this is prehistory. They have lived with the EU all their lives and don't see it as anything oppressive. They don't fret about 'rule by Brussels'. Instead they see the EU as opening up freedom and opportunity. They can live, study and work in 27 countries without any impediment. Or they could. Their world has been closed down, and not by their choosing. The figures doing the rounds at the moment are that 75% of the under 25s voted for remain as did 56% of the under 50s. Only the majority of people over 50 and over 64 voted leave. We will have to see how accurate they prove to be, but this is a curse visited on the young by the old. Don't ask young people about enhanced democracy.

But again, let's not fall into easy stereotypes. The big losers from economic change are older people. They have lost their secure skilled jobs, they don't have adequate pensions, they are working on checkouts and in menial jobs because they have to. When they look back and see a golden age they aren't being nostalgic. They do see one, because it was. They are significantly poorer and more discontented than before.

The result does not reflect any consensus, but the divisions of a society fractured by age, regionalism and class. Which brings me to the second feature of the result, political realignment.

A friend has been banging on about this for twenty years or so. At first I listened with scepticism, but now I think that he is broadly right. He feels that there is a polarisation between a new populism and a liberal pluralism.

Liberal pluralism is metropolitan, socially and economically liberal, and mainly youthful. In contrast, the new populism is socially conservative, nationalist, but more likely to favour state intervention. Both cross political divides and squeeze out a more liberal left.

There are people in the Labour leave campaign who see a potential triumph for the left in this result. They are left nationalists who fetishise the nation state as a bastion of unconstrained democracy and social justice. I don't see it that way. With a personal investment in life in the EU I wouldn't. I don't want to be stuck with British weather. The 2015 general election marked a turning point. Most elections since the war had produced a centre/left majority of the vote. It was only the electoral system that passed power to a single party, most usually the Conservative Party. In 2015, the majority voted for the right. The combined UKIP and Conservative vote was in the majority. I cannot see this referendum as anything but a narrow victory for the right.

This new populism shares all the common features of a populist movement. Firstly, it is nationalist. Secondly, it presents itself as the champion of the people against an unaccountable and remote elite. The fact that such a movement can be headed by the seriously moneyed doesn't seem to bother many people. Finally, it offers simple solutions to complex problems; restrict immigration, take our country back, etc. It's socially conservative, has a very clear concept of social justice that welfare has to be deserved, a restrictive view of citizenship, yet it also harbours some left assumptions about public ownership, services and the like. The leave movement was alway going on about funnelling more money to the NHS, a pledge that came undone on the first morning.

The Labour Party is torn. It has become a metropolitan liberal pluralist party when its natural supporters have embraced nationalism or populism. It has deep structural problems with its social base. It ran an inept campaign, with Corbyn displaying all his limitations, but its problems lie somewhere else.

I am not a nationalist. The history of political nationalism in Europe is a dangerous one. And it is on the rise again. The referendum result has been celebrated by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. These are not comfortable bedfellows. But every defeat offers opportunity. For some it will be building a strong independent nation state, but not for me. We are too constrained by globalisation and our own economic weaknesses. Instead, this may give a chance to shock the EU to address its own failings, particularly in political economy. And if it does, there is always that younger generation waiting to step in. Hurry up please.


Anton Deque said...

"The Labour Party is torn. It has become a metropolitan liberal pluralist party when its natural supporters have embraced nationalism or populism. It has deep structural problems with its social base. It ran an inept campaign, with Corbyn displaying all his limitations, but its problems lie somewhere else."

What 'base'? Even without the Referendum, Labour has been reduced to being an activist clique. I wish otherwise, but there it is. It would take a reformation equal to anything in its history to restore Labour to a governing party.

The Referendum made me aware of two factors in particular, neither the subject or object of the vote.

Labour has ceased to represent people who ought to vote for it but reject it. Labour now chiefly represents the outlook people who ought to vote Tory from self interest; the fashionable intelligence as exhibited by The Guardian. This paradox is glaring.

The other outcome of the vote was more reflective. I watched a programme about China the weekend after the vote. It makes most of the consumer technology goods Europeans wish to buy. China has no trade agreement with the E.U.

The left has drifted. The election of Corbyn was an attempt to row back to the 70s; oddly, today the young who support Corbyn blame the 'baby boomers' whose radical contribution made the 60s and 70s so 'interesting' for the defeat of Remain and blighting their lives. Funny old world.

AHRonald said...

Good and sensible comments, Peter. In the past week I have heard from two contemporaries (I an 67) who, like me, voted Remain, saying they had never before been ashamed to be British. One has an Irish father, the other an Irish grandfather and their children are seriously looking at Irish citizenship. My own son has dual UK and Australian nationality and a contract in New Zealand starting in October. He is not keen to return. What a complete bourach it all is with double-dyed treachery and lack of planning. Mark Carney seems to be the only one who knows what he is doing.