Brexit: We’ve swallowed the myth of a working-class rebellion – Joyce McMillan

Wealthy and privileged Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg have appointed themselves tributes of the people (Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty)
Wealthy and privileged Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg have appointed themselves tributes of the people (Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty)
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Elite Remainers’ fear of the pro-Brexit ‘people’ is the kind of split that only happens in unequal societies, writes Joyce McMillan.

Over the last two years, it’s become something of a running joke, among those who oppose Brexit: the fact that whenever the BBC and other national UK media want to interview some typical “Leave” voters, they seem to alight on various mouthy proletarian types – stall-holders, pub stalwarts, retired industrial workers somewhere in the Midlands or the North – who look as if they might smack you in the chops if you deny them even five minutes of the Brexit they want.

In vain have experts pointed out that nearly 60 per cent of Leave voters belonged to the ABC1 class and income groups; in vain have they calculated that 52 per cent of them actually lived in southern England, south of the Wash. Experts are out of fashion; and the myth persists that Brexit was some kind of working-class rebellion against years of economic and social exclusion, provoked not only by the decline in real living standards experienced by many in the last decade, but by the fact that the elites imposing this economic misery were also claiming the moral high ground by characterising all opponents of rapid social change as racist, sexist and homophobic thugs.

In fact, there is substantial evidence that these two factors operated very differently within the Leave vote. The rebellion against austerity and declining real incomes was actually stronger among the “squeezed middle” of UK voters than at the very bottom of the income scale; and only a third of Leave voters – not the vast majority, as many right-wing politicians seem to claim – said that immigration and border control was their principle reason for supporting Brexit.

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Yet somehow, the presence of these two strands within the vote seems to have conjured up in the minds of the media, and of the public, the image of the typical “Leave” voter as a shouty working-class white man who is both furious at the injustice of a broken economy in which hard work no longer pays, and angrily insistent on his imagined human right to be as racist, sexist and illiberal as he likes. The same is true in the United States, where the myth of Donald Trump as some kind of hero for a disenfranchised working class prevails over the truth that most of his supporters are wealthy, middle-class, and above all, in statistical terms, white.

Now of course, there are a few legitimate reasons why working-class or lower-income voters supporting Brexit or Trump have attracted additional attention; they are probably the swing voters, the ones who might once have followed the Labour Party’s official view on Brexit, or automatically voted for the Democrats in the United States, but who have tended to lose faith in those parties during the long years of neoliberal consensus.

Yet it’s difficult not to feel that there are other forces at play, in the way in which Britain, in particular, is misrepresenting the Brexit decision to itself, and allowing those misrepresentations to dictate policy. There is, undoubtedly, still far too much deference to the shrill far-right rhetoric of an influential section of the British media. There are the personal predilections of many in the Tory Party, reflected in the attitude of a Prime Minister who has made a deal-busting fetish of her determination to “abolish freedom of movement”.

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There is, though, also something else in play – something sad, and profoundly destructive; and it is, I think, the kind of elite fear of “the people” that develops when societies simply become too unequal, and too full of profound social estrangements, to function effectively as a single polity any longer. Ever since the morning after the referendum, the British elites who did not support Brexit have been running scared of “the people” who narrowly voted for it; and while the wealthy and privileged leaders of the Leave campaign have absurdly appointed themselves tribunes of the people and guardians of their “will”, those who oppose Brexit – usually for very good reasons – have often seemed paralysed.

A couple of weeks ago, the Tottenham MP David Lammy made a powerful speech in Parliament, denoucing Brexit as “a fraud, a deception, a scam”, and exhorting his colleagues to tell their constituents the truth, however they voted in 2016. The level of dishonesty and dysfunction he identifies among some of his colleagues is what happens, though, when the representatives of the people, and those who mediate our political life to the people, come to feel that “the people” whom they serve are somehow not people like them. Very few elected representatives now feel strong enough in their bonds with the communities they serve to go back to their Leave-voting constituencies and tell the truth about the shocking damage Brexit is likely to inflict on our economy and society; just as most of Britain’s broadcast media, from day one of the Brexit referendum campaign, have made an absolute mess of imparting the facts about the likely impact of leaving the EU, for fear of annoying Leave supporters. The people, in this world view, are either treated like fools to be lied to and manipulated; or, when they rebel, like some unpredictable beast that must be placated, in order – so we are told – to avoid violent unrest.

What the nation is never treated as, though, in this world-view, is a community of equal adults, debating their way to a series of sensible and workable conclusions. The stereotypes of Leave voters and Trump voters that dominate our screens tell us as much about the fears and attitudes of middle-class media producers and politicians as they do about real voters and their reasons. And they also reveal a society where decision-makers and ordinary citizens have been drifting apart for too long, in terms of wealth, lifestyle, and world-view; and where any real healing will involve the kind of radical economic change that has nothing to do with Brexit, and everything to do with a reinvention of social democracy that Britain’s elites – both pro-Leave and pro-Remain – will doubtless resist to the last; no matter how grim the consequences of extreme economic inequality, and of the breakdown in cohesion, trust, and real democratic and civic debate that it inevitably brings in its wake.