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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Understanding Brexit: Why does it feel like this and where do we go from here?

The success of the Leave campaign reflects the fundamental disconnect, Tom Kibasi argues, between expectations and the realities of life for many. Confronting the response required, he says, means closing this gap, and ‘understanding that we are more than what we owe and what we own’. This is the new ‘battle for Britain’.

I

Britain – and much of the rest of the world – woke on Friday in shock at the decision to leave the European Union. Even the Leave campaigners did not expect to win, with both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage appearing to concede defeat before the votes had been counted. Many people are certainly aghast as the warnings of the colossal economic cost have materialised. Those who dismissed the ‘experts’ now realise that this was not some sort of elite conspiracy to scare them: with the major devaluation in sterling, the whole country is, indeed, poorer at this moment than it was prior to the vote. All economic forecasters agree that the economic pain will be significant: falling investment and confidence, and the strong likelihood of a recession.

Yet the feelings run deeper than this: for passionate Remain supporters, Brexit has provoked feelings of personal crisis and despair. A feeling of depression and malaise, anger and rage, pervades the most passionately pro-Remain parts of the country, particularly London. The European Union rarely inspired great enthusiasm, even among its supporters. Passionate EU enthusiasts were a rare breed, with most more likely to make the case through a sober assessment of costs and benefits rather than a high-minded commitment to the nobility of European integration. So, why does it feel like this now?

The answer is found in the disconnect between the lives we expected – or hoped – to lead, and the reality of life as it is now experienced. When unhappiness at the disconnect is turned inwards, it takes us towards despair. When it is turned outwards, it quickly expresses itself as frustration, rising to anger and even to rage. The root cause of the vote to Leave was the gap between the lives people expected to lead, and the lives they are now leading. The vote to Leave was more about daily life in modern Britain than about the European Union.

The sneering from Remain supporters that Leave voters had voted against their economic-interest out of ‘ignorance’ or ‘stupidity’ has been depressing. They utterly failed to appreciate that even in areas where manufacturing still exists, these are the minority of jobs. Indeed, it simply serves to highlight precisely the opportunities that are now closed to many, a constant reminder of what has been lost. The idea that EU regional development funding had closed the gap between life expectations and lived experiences in these areas is simply laughable.

This economic determinism takes no account of culture nor identity. It contains no respect for what matters in people’s lives. Following the result, some Remain supporters have shown moral and aesthetic contempt for their fellow working-class citizens. People from large cities and university towns have far greater call on cultural capital, social networks, and material worth than those in post-industrial towns. Just as the referendum has surfaced racism and xenophobia among some Leave supporters, it has exposed a strong sense of entitlement and social hierarchy among some Remain supporters. The irony has been that many of those who have claimed the progressive mantle have expressed a strong sense of their own superiority. In the aftermath, those with more cultural power have used it in an attempt to define their opponents as backward and ignorant, and chastised them for their choice. The sense of entitlement bestowed by privilege has been challenged for the first time in generations and the privileged have launched a ferocious political fightback to define their opponents.

A sudden and dramatic role reversal has taken place. Those who did not think they felt the benefits of European Union membership, but believed they bore the costs, have demolished the expected lives of those who felt the opposite. The opportunities that many Remain supporters believed EU membership offered them – the chance to freely live, work and travel across the continent – are precisely those that many Leave supporters felt they would never personally enjoy. It can be of little surprise that those leading lives in the gulf between expectations and reality voted for a disruption to the present state of affairs. Perhaps some were even tempted by the destructive allure of Brexit: the warnings of a calamitous, disruptive change may well have been seductive. Perhaps, even, some Leave supporters relished the opportunity to impose their reality on the rest of the country? One Leave supporter expressed this sentiment simply: ‘I’m already in recession, and it’ll hurt them more than it hurts me’.

Leave supporters have wrestled the national narrative from Remain supporters. They have, in fact, ‘take[n] back control’ of our national story. It is in that sense that the early hours of 24 June were a truly transformative moment in the history of the country. It is the perceived shift in our national story and in our values – more than the economic harm now being wrought – that explains the feelings of despair and anger. Some are in disbelief, others are in denial. Just see the millions who have signed the online petition in an attempt to undo the referendum result through a second poll.

Leave campaigners sold a story that, for all its incoherence and inconsistency, had a simple narrative arc: ‘the life you are leading is not the one you expected and that is unjust; outsiders – immigrants in Britain and bureaucrats in Brussels – are to blame for this; you and the country as a whole are victims; if we take back control from people who have taken it away from us, we can make it better again. And no matter what, you will matter more. You will have your self-respect and your dignity back.’ The messages from the risible Remain campaign – a toxic combination of patronising threats – only served to rile Leave voters further. The act of voting to Leave gave political expression to these sentiments, in a way that the political system had failed to. The referendum gave Leave supporters a weapon, and they used it.

The referendum exposed the weaknesses of our electoral system that had crushed the voices of millions and extinguished hope of change from their lives. It meant that many parts of the country were simply taken for granted by Labour or completely ignored by the Tories. Labour in government offered fiscal handouts, but too few routes to the life people expected to lead. Investment in education and skills alongside economic redistribution were not enough. The Tories in government offered less of both, pursuing austerity that hit the poorest hardest. The resounding Leave vote should not have come as a surprise when 4 million voted for Ukip in 2015, and were given just a single, feeble voice in parliament in return.

Many in Westminster simply didn’t understand the reality of working lives in much of the country. They could not comprehend that the range of choices stretched from working in shops to working in warehouses to working in call centres or care homes, all for persistently low pay with few prospects. They had no understanding or respect for a world where a job in Dixons was aspirational, because it meant working with computer equipment, rather than packing boxes in a Sports Direct warehouse, or an Amazon despatch centre. Opportunities for better jobs have long since ebbed away. Crucially, the Leave campaign understood the tenor of the times. They then told lies – from the imminence of Turkish membership to the probability of a stronger economy with better trade deals – that chimed with people’s own truths, and reinforced their personal narratives.

The problem is that many of the leaders of the Leave campaign never believed the narrative that they tapped into and fuelled. Now that we have voted to exit, the Leave camp is a cacophony of competing voices. The memorable formulation from Iain Duncan Smith that ‘our promises were just possibilities’ was all too accurate. Even on the one point where they were unanimous – that immigration would fall – their commitments have fallen to pieces. If the leaders of the Leave campaign were not motivated by their own narrative, what – aside from rank personal ambition and the abstruse commitments to childish and abstract concepts of sovereignty – caused them to commit such an act of irrational, unpatriotic self-harm on their country? It is vital to disentangle the motivations of Leave supporters from the leaders of the Leave campaign.

We have witnessed a patriotic paradox: people who claimed to love our country were hell bent on harming it, consciously or not. Indeed, history will record a peculiar feature of this referendum: that a portion of the elite claimed to be apart and separate from the very establishment that had fashioned them and had elevated them to parliament and other institutions. How did it come to pass that a group of powerful, wealthy, middle-aged white men could lead a campaign of anarchic destruction in Britain as it was in 2016? As Nigel Farage celebrated on the 24th, he was surrounded by no fewer than 17 white men in suits. Not a woman or a visible minority was in sight. The leaders of the Leave campaign and their champions in the press were plainly privileged members of Britain’s elite, whether by birth, education, or professional accomplishment. This phenomenon needs to be better understood: this was not an act of noble treachery by members of the elite on the elite. It was the cynical exploitation of the politics of populism. How and why did this elite fashion a narrative of oppression and victimhood in the lives of ordinary Britons?

II

Early in the afternoon, Dennis Hazlitt would return from work and plant himself on the sofa, with the television squarely in front of him. As a butcher, he would start his days long before the sun rose and make his way home shortly after most people settled down to their lunches. He was my childhood friend’s father, and he would always be there when I would come round to play after school. He was a quiet and kind man, but we knew not to interrupt his viewing, or risk being kicked out to play on the street.

Dennis lived on a traditional diet of meat and drink, but what nourished him was Britain’s finest hours. Day-in day-out, he would watch documentaries about the second world war. This was a time before the History channel would provide a 24/7 feast of days past, and so he would mail-order documentaries on VHS tapes. From time to time, a gap would emerge between his finishing one series and the next set arriving in the post. At those moments, he would simply turn to books for his history fix. He had a particular fascination with contemporary accounts of the war – not its retelling, but the reporting of the war as it occurred.

It was on one of those days when Dennis was reading his books rather than watching documentaries that I asked him a simple question. Why was he so obsessed by the second world war? His answer has always stayed with me. ‘Because I missed it,’ he said, without missing a beat. Dennis had been born in 1946 and felt this was a cruel injustice of history. ‘I should have been there,’ he continued, ‘I should have been allowed to be a part of it.’ I had been taught that war was a terrible thing, and that society should always strive for peace. Through the narrow prism of violence, I could not comprehend why someone would want to have experienced war themselves.

As I got older, I realised that Dennis – like many white, British men – had led a life of ‘quiet desperation’. There had been a time when he had set up his own business and life had gone well: he had succeeded, his family had prospered. The recession of the early 1990s destroyed all that. He went back to where he had begun, a skilled manual worker, cutting pieces of meat. He was a businessman no more. It was in the war documentaries that Dennis could escape his reality and allow himself to dream of a heroic life, a life of pride in duty fulfilled and solidarity even to death. It was a time when men died having lived a life of meaning. The war had transformed society too, with the spirit of solidarity turning the Beveridge report into a bestseller.

Our culture teaches white men that they should lead the heroic life: that they must search for a great test of their mettle and their manhood. Most men’s masculinity is expressed in work and family. Yet culture demands more than an ordinary life lived well. Most of the time, the main protagonists in popular culture are white men. They battle bravely and selflessly for victory in war; they fight and defeat terrorists in peace; they solve crimes and mysteries throughout human history; they always get the beautiful girl, no matter how flawed they may be. High culture – whether theatre or opera or art – often follows these same narratives. And the teaching of British history tells us all that the essence of our country is found in the heroism of the second world war. Our identity is formed around the ordinary hero, the everyday man who will be tested and will rise to the moment.

And so, in 2016, these powerful men sought to create a moment to be tested, a chance to fashion themselves as heroes of our time. In the European Union, they forged an opponent: a foreign, remote and very un-British power seeking to subjugate the British people. It did not matter that British ministers consented to every major decision. It did not matter that we were there by choice. It rapidly became irrelevant that for 40 years, the EU had enabled this small island nation to secure its place in the top tier of nations. ‘Bureaucrats in Brussels’ was an easy way to condemn 33,000 civil servants – about the same as Derbyshire county council – to ignominy. Within hours of the result, some leave supporters themselves began to realise this narrative was a myth. Writing in the Sun on the Monday following the referendum, Kelvin MacKenzie, a rabid Leave supporter, declared that in voting for Brexit ‘I had power’ but that he now had ‘buyer’s remorse’.

Most of the Leave campaigners only came to the push against immigration late in the campaign. They shrewdly observed that politics is not about two competing answers to the same question. It is about which question is being asked. And with their allies in the media, the Leave campaign made the question of the referendum one about immigration, not the EU or the economic consequences for the country. They were prepared to simply lie about Turkish membership and imply that millions of its citizens were heading for our shores. They stoked up forces in society that have since run out of their control. The social crisis in our country has come to the surface, alongside the economic crisis caused by huge uncertainty about the future. This was possible precisely because where the left had tried to close conversations about immigration and identity and integration down, the right was prepared to open them up. Joined with economic malaise, these forces became unstoppable.

Where do we go from here? It is plain that in this moment the scale of the challenges facing the country is not matched by the quality of the leadership on offer. There is no plan anywhere in government. Sterling has weakened significantly, making the entire country poorer. Our credit rating has been downgraded. Share prices have fallen. Indeed, it appears that many Leave campaigners neither expected nor sincerely wanted to win, perhaps because at some deep level they understood the economic damage that would follow. The political class and technocratic elites cannot comprehend, let alone tame, the forces now unleashed.

If we accept the analysis that the root cause of the vote to Leave is the mismatch between the lives people expected to lead and the economic, cultural and social lives they are actually leading, then there are two choices. Either lower expectations or improve lives, both economically and by fostering a stronger sense of belonging and place in the world. In an age when technology is making the lives of others ever more visible, lowering expectations is an impossibility. Television delivers a steady stream of shows offering delicious meals that most people don’t have the skill or time to prepare; beautiful homes that are financially out of reach to all but a few; and unattainable body types and beauty. At the same time, reality television holds up a mirror to who we are – and chastises us for it, for being too fat or too lazy or too poorly educated. Social media has given a whole new generation access to directly comparable lives, causing huge anxiety. And for progressives, denying opportunity and possibility is the antithesis of what we stand for.

So, the way forward is to close the gap between the lives people expected to lead and the lives that they are leading, by improving life in Britain. We must understand the reality of daily life. We must show that we value people’s work, family life, and their affection for local communities and for our country. Brexit is the symptom of our current malaise, not its cause. We must demolish the idea that everyday heroism is to be found in false confrontation. Rather, we need a philosophical reconstruction where we restore notions of reciprocity, of social obligation – obligation that flows from compassion and from love. Before Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations, he authored his Theory of Moral Sentiments. British capitalism has been stripped of its morality; it must be fashioned anew. This must be followed with the hard work of understanding the deep reforms necessary to our economy and society to improve prospects for all families, understanding that we are more than what we owe and what we own.

William Cobbett summed up the sentiment now required from progressives: ‘I, as far as I am concerned, am quite willing to trust to the talent, the justice, and the loyalty of the great mass of the people – I am quite willing to make common cause with them, to be one of them.’ And so, we now enter the battle for the vision of Britain – will we be a progressive country where everyone belongs and prosperity is broadly shared, or will we turn in on one another in a destructive race to the bottom?

Tom Kibasi is director of IPPR.

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