This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 14 2016
Grievance Vote against the Elites
When Mrs Thatcher came to office in 1979, manufacturing accounted for almost 30% of Britain’s national income and employed 6.8 million people; by 2010, it accounted for 11% and employed 2.5 million. In no other major economy was industrial collapse so drastic, speedy and long-lasting. There used to be a working class; there used to be a working class culture. Ian Jack writes about the life of the manufacturing towns: “much of the country’s former character was also owed to them – non-conformist chapels, brass bands, giant vegetable championships, self-improvement, association football. Surely nothing as significant to the nation’s economy, culture or politics would ever emerge from them again? And then it did: grievance.”
British politicians in the past had a hinterland: Macmillan and Attlee served with honour and were wounded in the First World War. They saw the poverty in the land and tried to do something about. Today’s politicians go straight from university to think tanks or to work for politicians. They have little contact with the real world. Johnson and Gove were journalists who wrote op eds not well-researched investigations. Politicians like Cameron, Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith see it as a noble mission to dismantle the welfare state that Attlee and Macmillan built and privatise public good for the profit of their cronies. In his 1991 book The Rise and Decline of the English Working Class 1918-1990, Eric Hopkins shows how the affluence of the Macmillan years became the bleakness of the Thatcher years. Manufacturing industry was replaced by the service and financial industries and the working class lost its sense of community with unemployment and the emasculation of the trade unions. There is an unpleasant view on YouTube of Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party haranguing fellow MEPs, telling them they do not know about real life and have never done a proper job in their lives. The man sitting behind him was a cardiac surgeon who was born in a Gulag. Farage was a commodities broker.
Sunderland was the first to declare a result in the referendum and it was overwhelmingly for leaving as were many other areas devastated by Thatcherism and its aftermath – areas kept alive by massive EU subsidies. Wales as a whole voted to leave. Michael Sheen, the Welsh-born actor (who played the role of Tony Blair) from Port Talbot, tweeted: “Wales votes to trust a new and more rightwing Tory leadership to invest as much money into its poorer areas as EU has been doing.” Many people voted Leave as a way out of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Cornwall, which voted solidly for Leave, has already demanded British government “protection”.
Standard & Poor’s stripped Britain of its triple-A credit rating. The Conservative Party set great store by London’s position as the world’s leading financial centre. Banks are preparing to shift jobs out of London amid the uncertainty about whether the UK can keep its “passporting” rights allowing them to operate across the EU. Ironically, although the UK was proud of keeping out of the euro, leaving the EU could mean the City will have rules imposed upon it by eurozone countries.
There is no doubt that some financial services jobs will be relocated to Dublin, Frankfurt, and Paris. US bank JP Morgan has warned 4,000 jobs will go from the UK and HSBC has said 1,000 City jobs will move to France. An Irish friend long resident in France tells me that Paris estate agents are being swamped with enquiries from large financial institutions in London looking for apartments for their personnel. “Whatever Osborne might say, that is the reality”. Rumours are sweeping the City that alternative trading sites are being set up in a number of other financial centres, including Luxembourg.
A survey by the Institute of Directors (IoD), found that nearly two-thirds of those polled said the outcome of the referendum was negative for their business. A quarter of those polled were putting hiring plans on hold, while 5% said they were about to make workers redundant. One in five respondents, out of a poll of more than 1,000 business leaders, were considering moving some of their operations outside of the UK.
There will be an immediate, and downward, impact upon GDP as uncertainty about the UK’s terms of trade with the rest of the world will deter even British firms from investing. If businesses stop investing there will be less employment in the UK economy. This will have a bad effect on consumer spending.
Many in Ebbw Vale, the constituency of those left-wing icons Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, voted UKIP in the last general election – a town with almost no immigrants that voted to get the immigrants out. A recent survey showed that 77% of UK citizens are concerned about immigration above any other political/economic topic – and concern is strongest and most widespread in constituencies with virtually no recent immigration.
One can, without wanting to join a fascist party, empathise with those white working class people who feel in their gut that decisions that they were powerless to influence were made by people who were cushioned from the consequences of those decisions. One can understand their sense of insecurity as they see familiar areas changing because of immigration. I was shocked to find that the part of my hometown, Gloucester, which had been the birthplace of the poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, was full of Muslims and mosques. However, in the early 50s it had been full of West Indians.
The austere and donnish classicist, Enoch Powell, had dockers marching through the streets in his support. In the sixties, he became the unlikely spokesman for the beleaguered white working class, even winning the endorsement of Eric Clapton. Because he was a contrarian and mischief-maker, it is likely that Powell took delight in raising issues that both parties shrouded in complicit silence. His “rivers of blood” speech raised matters of real concern. In particular, he was right to suggest that areas like Wolverhampton were experiencing acute problems in adjusting to the concentration of recent immigrants.
Whether or not people voting Leave had legitimate concerns about immigration, there is no doubt that the referendum result seems to be giving licence to racists. Many MPs received reports from their constituencies and communities of migrants being intimidated or “told they need to go home”. Many people, whose parents or grandparents were born in the UK, now say they feel less secure.
Boris Johnson tells us in his Daily Telegraph column (for which he gets paid 5,000 pounds a week) that he wants a “balanced and humane points-based” immigration system, but that’s for the extremely indeterminate future – and everyone can meanwhile look forward to ‘intense and intensifying’ co-operation with Europe, and opportunities to live, travel, work and study on the continent just as they please. The only pledge the Leavites could honour is a points-based immigration system, which the UK has had since 2008.
A likely scenario is that many elderly people living abroad will have to return to the UK, thereby placing a burden on the NHS (which will not be getting the extra funding promised by the Leavites), while young people currently working and paying taxes will leave the UK.
I respect anybody’s right to vote the way they choose. I am angry at the hypocrisy of those who are dismantling the welfare state and the NHS for the profit of their cronies but pretending to be saving the nation from Brussels bureaucracy.
Many who voted to leave the EU blamed immigrants for their reduced circumstances. There are real problems in the areas that voted to leave. Those problems were not caused by the EU or by immigration. They were caused by the deliberate policies of successive UK governments.
It is distressing to watch the rancour generated by this referendum. George Szirtes is a distinguished poet who found a welcome in England when his family was displaced by the Hungarian uprising in 1956. George sees a very different country today and finds it hard to forgive the Leavites: “You have changed not only my life but a great many people’s lives, both here and elsewhere, for the worse. I am not going to shake your hand for that.”