The morning after the EU referendum, I was with some colleagues at an academic conference in Canterbury, Kent. Most of them were totally dumbfounded by the result. They were genuinely taken aback that a majority of British voters opted to leave the EU. One puzzled social scientist expressed his astonishment: ‘I have never met or talked to anyone who supported Brexit.’ And he is by no means the only person who has never encountered those ‘other’ people, those people who felt moved to vote against the EU. It seems that far too many highly educated supporters of the Remain campaign have been talking only to people like themselves. The world they inhabit has little room, or patience, for those others who do not share their outlook.
Judging by the attitudes and statements of anti-Brexit observers, there is actually little point in talking to or listening to people who do not share their view on Europe. Just a few days after dismissing a voter as a ‘horrible racist’, the Labour MP Pat Glass told party supporters in the run-up to the referendum: ‘Go and speak to your mother, your grandmother. Don’t speak to your grandfather — we know the problem are older white men.’
Apparently the elderly, especially old men, are not worthy of being taken seriously in public discussion. In the eyes of too many Remain strategists, the uneducated working classes have few redeeming qualities. They were frequently portrayed as parochial xenophobes who hate immigrants, who hold on to outdated values, and who fear uncertainty and change.
In the aftermath of the referendum, the hatred directed at ‘those people’ — who are apparently too stupid to understand the issues at stake — has intensified. Baiting the old has become a popular sport among angry supporters of the EU. Their unrestrained language of contempt, their attack on the allegedly racist, empty-headed multitude, is reminiscent of the vocabulary of elitist disdain that has long been used by oligarchs, from Ancient Greece onwards.
In an era when any expression of bias or prejudice invites a lecture about the importance of diversity and being sensitive to other people’s cultural practices, the casual manner in which dehumanising epithets have been hurled at working-class people is astounding. Even educated individuals who are normally sensitive to the dangers of treating those different to us as ‘others’ have had no problem with ‘othering’ working-class voters – especially if they are white men.
In recent years, social and political commentators have constantly criticised the trend for ‘othering’, for using racial and cultural labels to draw a moral contrast between oneself and those we fear or despise. Now, almost unconsciously, the very same people have adopted this practice of othering to condemn their fellow citizens who dared to go against the elite’s political consensus.
Of course, the more traditional sections of the elite have long regarded the lower orders with contempt. The Tory MP Ann Soubry expressed this old-fashioned sentiment when she said Leavers were white-working class voters who had probably never seen a migrant. But today, sneering disdain for working people is not confined to any one party. The Labour Party’s attitude to its core working-class constituents was no less patronising than that of the Tories. Leading Labourites also regard old Labour voters as incorrigible racists and homophobes who cannot be expected to respond positively to reason or logic. And then, having treated its working-class supporters with contempt, Labour was still stunned to discover that much of this taken-for-granted stage army rebelled against party advice and did the unthinkable: voted Leave.
The language used to condemn Brexit voters echoes the invective that was thrown at the urban masses in the Victorian era. Throughout the 19th century, the British establishment regarded the urban masses as almost a different race. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, described working-class men as savages who were ‘clearly wanting in the nicer part of those feelings which, taken together, we call the sense of morality’. Back then, as is increasingly the case again today, it was thought that these uneducated savages were too irrational to think or behave responsibly and therefore mass democracy was a dangerous phenomenon.
The intensity of that old othering of working-class people was captured by Benjamin Disraeli in his novel Sybil, or The Two Nations. The meaning behind this division of Britain into ‘two nations’ — the rich and poor — was explained by one of the novel’s characters:
‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’
In the 21st century, there remain serious social and economic divisions in Britain. But the principal line of division now is one of culture. It is a conflict of values, between those who have opted to affirm national sovereignty and those who embrace a cosmopolitan outlook that is self-consciously detached from Britain’s historic or traditional legacies. The referendum brought this into sharp relief.
Released today, the 33rd British Social Attitudes Survey shows that a huge number of people believe society is deeply divided along lines of class. 77 per cent of people take the view that class divisions are ‘fairly or very wide’. Significantly, people who define themselves as working class are more likely to believe that the divide between classes is wide: 82 per cent of those who see themselves as working class think divisions are wide, compared with 70 per cent of middle-class people.
Until now, the division of British society into two nations has had limited political significance. Why? Because, except in rare circumstances, the views and attitudes of the common people could be easily ignored. In most disputes and elections, ‘the others’ could be relied upon either to stay passive or simply to follow the guidance of the Labour Party, the movement that historically represented them. With the disintegration of Labour, paralleled by the rise of UKIP, it was only a matter of time before the others would cease to play the passive role assigned to them. It was only a matter of time before they rebelled and insisted that their views be taken seriously. The referendum provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the others to revolt.
Over the past 40 years, the political establishment and cultural elites have successfully dispossessed the others. They assumed a monopoly over what could and could not be said and stigmatised the norms and values associated with working-class culture as masculinist, xenophobic, racist, homophobic, backward, irredeemably outdated, and so on. The one area where the conflict of values remained unresolved was that of national sovereignty. And the rejection of the EU indicates that at least on the question of national sovereignty and democratic representation, the influence of elite cosmopolitan culture is insecure; indeed, it now stands exposed.
The Revolt of the Others provides an opportunity to shift public discussion away from current narrow concerns, away from an obsession with process and administrations, and on to a new domain of real and substantial politics.