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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

A win for 'proper people'? Brexit as a rejection of the networked world

The referendum result, David Runciman suggests, was won by those who feel excluded from modern, highly networked forms of economy and society. The tragedy, he argues, is that the elites on the losing side will be able – and likely – to respond not by re-engaging with national politics but by distancing themselves even further from it.

As many other people did, I thought the final outcome of the referendum on EU membership would be something like 52:48 – but I thought it would be the other way around, with Remain scraping home. So I anticipated that I would be writing about the intractable problem with referendums, especially when the result is close: they create a large group of disillusioned voters with no outlet for their sense of betrayal. In regular electoral politics the losers can wait for next time to try to overturn the result. That’s how representative democracy is designed to work: it’s turn and turn about. But with a referendum, especially one that’s meant to ‘settle’ an issue, there is no next time. The losers either have to start agitating for another vote, which defeats the object of the exercise, or they nurse an open-ended grievance with the potential to destabilise regular electoral politics. That’s what happened in Scotland. I still think that’s likely to hold now. It’s just that I didn’t expect the losers would mean people like me.

In many ways, this is salutary. The howls of despair that have greeted this result from the elites on the losing side is a sign of how rare it is that they find their interests genuinely challenged by the democratic process. Up till now, representative democracy has protected them from having to face the reality of the world they have helped to create. I live in a high-tech university town – Cambridge – that voted overwhelmingly for Remain (74:26). It also voted Labour at the last general election. People here doubtless think they are familiar with the feeling of political defeat, having recently witnessed the election of a Conservative government. There were plenty of tears last May, especially from students, who felt that too much of the rest of the country had ignored their concerns. But compared to what has happened in this referendum, that grief was cosmetic. There is less crying this time: it’s too serious for that.

The hard truth is that the outcome of the general election was never going to do much to threaten the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by towns like this one, as it hoovers up the rewards of the knowledge economy. But now the people whose sense of security and wellbeing has been shredded by that same economy have taken their chance to answer back. Many of them live just down the road, in places like Peterborough (61:39 for Leave). The gap between the winners and losers from the political economy of the 21st century has been laid bare. Electoral politics has long served to cover up this divide, allowing well-meaning people in Cambridge to believe they were standing up for the interests of people in Peterborough. It’s difficult for anyone to believe that any more.

So the economic winners find themselves on the losing side, for what is effectively the first time in the modern political history of this country. This is clearly a very different situation from what might have happened if Remain had scraped a narrow win. Then, the doubly defeated would have had a double grievance: first excluded from the benefits of globalisation and the free movement of peoples, then denied redress by the democratic system. I suspect what would have followed in that case would have been a doubling down on populist politics, offering Ukip a chance to make massive gains at the next general election. Nigel Farage would have become the spokesman for the alienated 48%, who would feel they had little left to lose.

But the 48% who actually ended up on the losing side this time are alienated only from the political process; in economic terms they still have plenty to lose, and populism isn’t going to hold much appeal. That means they have to find an alternative way out. One option for some of them is simply to bypass politics altogether. After all, the anti-political mood doesn’t just hold for the angry and aggrieved at the bottom of the pile: it also holds for the super-privileged and super-mobile at the top. In its own particular way, Silicon Valley is as anti-political a place as the Rhondda Valley – it’s just that the beneficiaries of the Silicon Valley worldview have the means to act on it.

This gets to the heart of the divisions that this referendum has opened up. What is it that most fundamentally separates the Remainers from the Brexiteers? Class is one way to cash it out: the relatively affluent voted to remain, the relatively disadvantaged voted to leave. So is age: young people were for In, older voters went for Out. There is a metropolitan/traditionalist divide, and an urban/rural one. It’s London versus the regions; Scotland versus England and Wales. The list goes on. (However, strikingly and unusually, there was no gender divide at all: both men and women were 52:48 for leave.) Nonetheless, my sense is that underlying all of this is the basic gap that now exists between people who can imagine a viable future for themselves in a networked world, and those who cannot.

Cambridge is a networked town par excellence: socially, digitally, economically. University towns voted overwhelmingly to remain, often as outliers in regions that wanted to leave: Newcastle in the North East, Warwick in the West Midlands, Exeter in the South West, Norwich in East Anglia. By contrast, many parts of the UK appear to feel that the vital connections that drive the flow of money and power in the 21st century are increasingly passing them by. The EU is symptomatic of this sense of exclusion, but it is not the cause. Education plays a big part: those with the fewest qualifications were by far the likeliest to vote Leave; those still in higher education were by far the likeliest to vote to Remain.

But education too is symptomatic of what’s truly at stake. The digital revolution has opened up the prospect of a future in which knowledge is the primary currency, connectivity the primary asset, and physical geography is at best a secondary concern. People who are rooted in particular places, who work in industries that produce physical goods, and whose essential social interactions do not happen online are the ones who wanted Out. They have glimpsed a future in which people like them are increasingly at the mercy of forces beyond their power to control. And they are right.

This includes the elderly. Some younger voters have complained that the older generation, who are going to be dead soon, shouldn’t be allowed to set the terms for a world they won’t inhabit. This is grotesque and unfair. Older people care about the future, including for their children and grandchildren, just as much (perhaps even more) than the younger generations do. It’s simply that they don’t like what they see.

The Financial Times, in a report the day after the referendum vote, quoted a Brexit voter in Wales saying: ‘There’s a proper people and a proper economy going on in this country that David Cameron doesn’t know about.’ For anyone in this position, the referendum appeared to offer the last line of defence, as a way of resurrecting the primacy of national politics and communal identity. But it looks like a losing battle. The problem is that virtual people and a virtual economy, built around network effects and tradable knowledge, can escape the bounds that national politics tries to set for them. Many on the losing side in this referendum possess the resources for navigating a networked world that those on the winning side tend to lack. And that’s how the Remainers can, and will, bypass the result.

Before that happens, there will no doubt be attempts to overturn it. Too much is at stake for the losers in the short term for them not to try. I have no idea if these efforts will succeed, although I find it quite hard to stomach the spectacle of perennial winners struggling to endure their first proper taste of defeat. This referendum did show that real people – by which I don’t mean ‘ordinary’ people, I mean actual flesh-and-blood human beings – still have the power to surprise faceless networks. The large sums lost in the financial markets by traders who thought their systems knew best is evidence of that. But this is unlikely to be the start of a sustained fightback by the people against the machines. Automation and digitisation are putting inexorable pressure on job creation, and at the same time enhancing the advantages enjoyed by educated elites. If people whose working lives are increasingly precarious and unrewarding attempt to use democratic politics to reassert their desire for something different, educated elites will seek to enhance the distance between their networks and democratic politics. The technology of the 21st century makes this possible. It also makes it likely.

That’s the tragedy of this result. It represents a rejection of the power of technocratic elites, yet it has undermined one of the few institutions that operates on a scale that might regulate and limit the power of those elites. After all, who is standing up against Google apart from the EU? Democratic politics finds itself in a bind. No one has found a way to channel popular resentment against the privileges of the digital economy winners in a way that doesn’t end up enhancing those privileges by widening the gap between technology and politics. Cambridge is suffering today because the EU referendum result will have a short-term negative impact on its material interests. But in the long run, Cambridge will be fine, because the interests that Cambridge now represents are not confined by physical space or local identity. It’s Peterborough that will suffer.

David Runciman is professor of politics and a fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

This article appears in edition 23.1 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.