As I have posted before I personally voted to remain in the EU despite my misgivings about the whole project, the direction it had taken and the way it was often misused. However the pattern of voting in the Brexit referendum was highly illuminating. By and large, with a few exceptions, the map of areas voting to leave was a map of the economically depressed and insecure regions of the UK, especially of England and Wales.
It was proof that for years, seething beneath the surface, large swathes of the population were disaffected with a political system they see as disconnected from their concerns and problems. In the normal course of British democracy these seething masses would be given no mechanism to communicate their feelings politically. Ironically it was the threats of some leading right-wing, Thatcherite Tories to undermine their own party and government that gave a rare opportunity for those left behind in their capitalist dreamland to vent their rage.
In many ways the vote for Brexit was a protest vote. One caller on a radio phone-in show put it nicely, he called it the ‘Second Peasants’ Revolt’, a reference to the fourteenth century rebellion led by Wat Tyler. Years of being told by the right-wing British mass media that the cause of all this country’s problems was Brussels, the public vented their rage in that direction, missing the more valid target of exactly those types of politicians who demanded the vote in the first place.
The fact is that the mood in Britain today has changed compared to what it was some years ago. There is a new, nasty culture which has been absorbed into the fabric of the nation like mildew in a damp jacket. We had been moving steadily in this direction since Thatcher came to power in 1979, there was a brief respite during the financial bubble economy of the Blair-Brown years, but then the impact of the 2008 bursting of that bubble plunged us headlong into the swamp again.
The fact is that following the 2008 financial crisis, while those at the top of the tree actually seemed to benefit from it, with the most wealthy soaring off into the stratosphere financially, the poorest third of the population, plus much of the regional middle-classes bore the brunt of the adjustments and ‘austerity’.
From 2008 to 2014 those in the lower half went through dark days which have left lasting scars and divided the nation, perhaps for a long time to come. High unemployment, especially extreme youth unemployment, poor pay and conditions, debt, high costs of the basics of life such as accommodation, energy and transport, and the resulting shortage of disposable income were the lot of the lower half of society.
Uncontrolled, large scale immigration from impoverished former communist countries of the EU also meant these communities were expected to adapt to and accommodate increased competition for scarce jobs, housing and public services. Any attempt to get these issues of legitimate concern recognised or addressed honestly by the political classes was shouted down with cries of ‘xenophobia’ and ‘racism’ from those who sacrificed least to accommodate the influx. It was hardly surprising that UKIP swelled so greatly in popularity.
New Labour, scared of the issue swept it under the carpet. The leftwards swinging party under Jeremy Corbyn has so far failed to address the nation with the words of hope, that they have policies and solutions for those at the bottom of the heap, thus failing to staunch the inevitable tide of the disaffected into antisocial right-wing politics.
In a culture where the inward looking obsession with private wealth and consumption, and an abandoning of the idea of the public realm has become the norm, and where through selfish negligence social mobility has been choked off, people had no vehicle or target for their undirected feelings of frustration and hopelessness. That was until a bunch of right-wing Tories gave them one, and just like taking the valve off the top of a pressure cooker full of stew, the brown stuff sprayed all over the ceiling. We are now faced with the task of cleaning up the mess.