On Friday Britain leaves the European Union. This will not be marked in any very big or public way, any more than the country’s entry into the European Economic Community was in 1973. That reflects the country’s ambiguity towards the institution, but I for one will will be sad.
I was not old enough to vote in the 1976 referendum on staying in, held on the day of my Physics A Level practical, but I was a passionate supporter of the idea then. Most of my generation was (with less passion in most cases…), though many changed their mind since. Back in the 1970s we younger Britons were tired our country: its strikes, its badly-run public services, which included utilities such as gas and telephones. Unemployment and inflation were high, and the country had suffered a steady decline in its prestige since the glory days of the War, not just relative to the USA, but to France, Germany and even Italy. Modernisation meant tasteless sliced bread, soul-destroying motorway flyovers, and tower blocks that were already falling down. The country needed a good shaking, and most of our European neighbours seemed to be doing a better job. We rejected the prejudices of our parents’ generation and its complaints about greasy food and garlic.
Our hopes were mainly fulfilled. In many ways the country mended itself from the 1980s onwards. National prestige was largely restored; first inflation then unemployment came down; public services became better managed. Strikes vanished. Modernisation was the internet and the mobile phone: things that were of demonstrable value. How much of this was down to being a member of the EEC/EU can’t be said, of course. And the picture wasn’t all good. Many industries, such as steel and coal, continued their precipitous decline. Middle level jobs, in offices and factories, were hollowed out. These were replaced by both better jobs (managerial and computing) and worse (call-centre operators).
So why did so many of my generation turn against “Europe”? At this point it is very easy to repeat standard tropes. We have a picture of white working-class people in “left-behind” towns in the north and on the coast being the drivers of Brexit. But the pro-Brexit feeling went much further and wider than this. It went right across the class spectrum, and swept in swathes of respectable middle-class suburbia, and lots of working class people who were far from being “left-behind”. It was a complex business, but mainly seems to be a reaction against the metropolitanism that had come to dominate the political class. Metropolitans shrugged at the agents of change, such as the influx of immigrants and an increasing body of restrictive regulations with which the country had to conform, or, indeed, the lack of them, for example border controls. Many people felt that something important had been lost, and that the politicians didn’t care.
I did not share these misgivings: I am a metropolitan. I am only tangentially part of the political class and certainly no part of a ruling elite, but I am much closer to them than most. I understand what the political class is trying to do and have largely supported it. I like change. Leaving the EU I do not feel any sense of regaining anything meaningful, but I do feel that I have had rights taken away from me.
Still, stepping back it is hard not to think that the political class deserved the kicking that was administered to it by the Brexit episode. Politics became dominated by professional politicians who never experienced much life outside politics and its hangers on in PR, lobbying, think tanks, journalism, the charity sector and so on.They had little empathy with many voters, and simply assumed they would come round to the various changes imposed on them in time, as they were good for them. The MPs expenses scandal, which overwhelmed the later years of the Labour government of 1997 to 2010 was revealing. MPs were drawn from young, upwardly mobile professionals (or yuppies as they used to be called) and were envious of their contemporaries who were making fortunes in finance, consultancy and other better-paid fields. So they indulged in a little bit of creative catching up. They paid almost no thought as to how this might look to the people they represented.
So what happens now? Politicians start the long, slow business of reconnecting with the voters. The Conservatives are further ahead with this than the other parties. Their parliamentary party look and sound very different from the old-style sharp political professionals. It may take Labour a bit longer. They were in process of replacing one sort of disconnected political professional (the smooth Blairites) with another (hard-left activists) when the election struck. The scale of their defeat has left them all over the place, but the only way back for them is get back out onto the doorsteps and reconnect; they will learn that eventually. Similar comments can be made about the Lib Dems, who tend to think of themselves as establishment rebels, but have been all to eager to seek establishment respectability. Its former leader, Jo Swinson, exemplified the metropolitan political class as well as anybody.
Just how this will work itself out is anybody’s guess. For all their faults, the metropolitans were mainly right (I would say that wouldn’t I…); they just made almost no attempt to engage with and communicate with people who were unsympathetic. The country will not necessarily stay on an inward-looking anti-progressive path.
And what of Brexit? Clearly it’s going to get messy, as the country still has not settled on a clear vision of what it wants to be. It would be nice to think that the country will come to a resolution of these issues in time – but the blame game is likely to keep going. Brexiteers will heap opprobrium on the EU and our European neighbours as things turn sour; Remainers will indulge in “told-you-so”, blaming everything on Brexit, fairly or otherwise.
But boredom will win out in the end. I would like it, of course, if the country could find some way to rejoin the EU in due course, but not until public support reaches the two-thirds level; we have had enough of one small majority imposing its will on the rest.Meanwhile the EU itself will change and the journey back may become harder. I am unlikely to regain my lost freedoms and lost pride in my country in my lifetime. And that makes me sad.