KEN BELL reads a useful analysis of what led to the 2016 vote
Brexitland, Maria Sobelewska and Robert Ford, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 408 pages, £11.99
Porfirio Díaz, the man who dominated Mexican politics for a generation until his downfall in 1910, once remarked that nothing ever happened in his country until it happened. What he meant was that there has always been an enormous time lag between cause and effect in Mexican politics, and in Brexitland, Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford show that the same is true of Britain.
In doing so, they have also managed to demolish the myth that is now an article of faith in Guardian-reading circles that nobody was bothered about the EU until a couple of years before the 2016 referendum. What the authors demonstrate rather well is that many issues that were of importance to the population were suppressed by the main political parties from just after the Second World War. Viewed in that light, Brexit is about more than just leaving the European Union; it is shorthand for a lot of long-standing factors that have led to a new political division in Britain.
Immigration, of course, is the most important factor and for that reason several chapters of Brexitland are devoted to it. Starting in 1948 when the great and the good created a nationality act which allowed Commonwealth citizens to settle freely in the UK, the aim was to tie the fully independent white Commonwealth states to their mother country and to create an Anglosphere long before that word was even coined. What nobody realised was that New Commonwealth people would take advantage of this liberalism, even though since most of their countries were not independent at that time they did not need this legislation. As Sobolewska and Ford point out, both parties supported immigration even when it became obvious that many of their traditional supporters did not.
The opposition to that policy, begun in places like Smethwick in 1964, continuing on via Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 and culminating, possibly, with Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 comment about people being afraid of being ‘swamped’ by new Commonwealth immigrants certainly helped the Tories acquire a reputation in the public mind as the party that was sounder on immigration than Labour. However, as Edward Heath proved when he decided to allow around 30,000 Ugandan Asians to enter the country, that soundness was often more in word than deed. As the country moved into the 21st century, with Labour allowing a major influx of eastern Europeans – many of them settling in areas that had no previous experience of immigration –people woke up to the fact that neither party was prepared to speak for them on that issue, so they began to support Nigel Farage and UKIP.
Other factors were in play, such as the growth of the university sector, which led to many inner city areas becoming home to students and graduates, who often made common cause with ethnic minorities to create a new voting core for Labour. That new core strategy was based on the gamble that the party’s traditional, collectivist, industrial working class voters would stay onside as they had nowhere else to go, but UKIP proved the flaw in that argument. As the authors also make clear, the new core was not as tribally loyal as the old one had been and was quite willing to dump Labour if they disagreed with particular party policies.
Out of all this churning, new identities were created, and a new political division was created. The referendum campaign, with its binary choice, forced people to choose one side or the other – and having made their choice they often found that they had more in common with people on their side of the referendum debate than they had with the parties with which they had once identified. Leading on from that, as the authors do, we can see that the referendum campaign made people aware of this new division, as well as helping to shape it. At the end of it, Britain had “two new tribes aware of who they were, what they stood for and what they opposed”.
A good example of this in action is not included in Brexitland, probably because it happened too late for inclusion. During the European election campaign in 2019, Featherstone Working Men’s Club (near Wakefield) played host to a Brexit Party rally. One of the main speakers was Anne Widdecombe, arguably one of Thatcher’s more ghoulish ministers, who was nicknamed “Doris Karloff” back in the day. The club’s members, men who had stood on the picket lines during the miners’ strike of 1984/85, cheered her to the echo, to the utter disgust of the Guardian.
The 2016 referendum was very much the victory of one identity, which was the geographically rooted, socially conservative, but often economically radical section of the population against the Metropolitan, white-collar graduate element. Although the authors do not quote Theresa May, she may have had a point when she spoke about people from somewhere clashing with people from nowhere. Brexitland is a heavyweight, academic text that should be essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand this new political alignment in Britain and how it came about.