Friday 16 September 2016

Taking stock

The novelist and political commentator John Lanchester has written an incisive analysis of the referendum result, the reasons behind it and its possible aftermath in his essay ‘Brexit Blues’ in the London Review of Books. I don't agree with all that he says, but it is well worth a read. Part of what he discusses is the way that the leave vote was an expression (albeit highly manipulated) of the discontent of those in the white working class outside London who had lost out from or been left behind by globalization and recent UK politics. A very similar discussion was presciently provided just a couple of days after the vote in counter-consultant Martin Vogel’s elegant essay.

That has become a familiar analysis – albeit that Lanchester and Vogel express it with considerable subtlety and alongside many other, less familiar, points. It is somewhat borne out by the fascinating polling data from Lord Ashcroft, which show the social class demographic of the vote (36% of social classes C2DE for remain; 57% of social classes AB). But that also shows that there were plenty of people in each class group who voted differently to their group’s trend. The data also show that age and whether in employment or not were strongly correlated with voting patterns (by contrast, gender was not a factor). More revealing is the way that voting leave associates with negative attitudes to multi-culturalism, feminism, environmentalism and social liberalism (and the converse for remain voters). This suggests that cosmopolitanism versus localism, rather than simply social class, is the key axis here.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (who was a lukewarm campaigner for remain, and is widely believed to be pro-Brexit, albeit on different grounds to most leavers) this week said that the leave vote was “a decisive rejection of the economic status quo”, meaning neo-liberal capitalism, and that “it can no longer credibly be argued, for the majority of people, that free trade and free markets alone will deliver increased prosperity”. It’s not entirely clear from the Ashcroft data that this is so, because although voting leave associated with the view that globalization was a force for ill, leave voters (and remain voters) were split about 50-50 on whether capitalism was a force for ill or for good.

The more important point is that, whatever those voting leave may think, those who lead them and, in particular, the Brexiters now in government positions and responsible for negotiating Brexit do not think Brexit means anything even remotely like what Corbyn thinks it means. Instead, they are advocates of more globalization, more free trade, and more free markets. So even if Labour under Corbyn were to win the next election – which current polls suggest is highly unlikely – by then the shape of post-Brexit Britain is likely to have been settled in ways quite different to those favoured by Corbyn.

Leaving aside whether it could even be negotiated with the EU, it is in any case unlikely that Corbyn’s preference – which seems to be membership of the free market but without the restrictions he believes (debatably) this imposes on nationalization and competition policy – would resonate with those leavers for whom immigration/ free movement of people is the main issue. In fact, Corbyn would do well to reflect on the differences between his own and Lanchester’s and Vogel's much more nuanced analyses of what the Brexit vote meant. Or, to put it another way, if the key axis is cosmopolitans versus locals, then Corbyn’s socialist internationalism is a version of cosmopolitanism whereas Labour leavers were animated by localism.

It still remains completely unclear what the eventual settlement will be (nothing decisive has happened in that respect since my previous post unless you count the bathetic call from Boris Johnson to refurbish the Royal Yacht to serve as a floating embassy for global free trade deals). Lanchester (writing at the end of July) thinks it likely that it will be a Norway type free market membership arrangement which will bypass the concerns of many leavers, but will reflect the view of the remainers plus enough of the leavers to be democratically defensible.

I would probably have said the same thing at the end of July. Now, I am not so sure. There is, however, one statistic in the Ashcroft polling which is especially interesting in terms of how things may now play out. During the campaign, it was generally held that leavers were far more passionate about leaving than were remainers about remaining. But the Ashcroft polling shows that more than three quarters (77%) of those who voted to remain thought “the decision we make in the referendum could have disastrous consequences for us as a country if we get it wrong”. More than two thirds (69%) of leavers, by contrast, thought the decision “might make us a bit better or worse off as a country, but there probably isn’t much in it either way”.

This may suggest that remainers will be much more implacable in opposing Brexit (or at least trying to mitigate its worst effects) than leavers will be in insisting on it (or at least in any particular form). It certainly seems to be the case that remainers are not willing just to sit down under the narrow result, as the continuing popularity of The New European paper, as well as well as the numerous grass roots and parliamentary ‘post-remain’ groups, shows. And there are surely powerful allies in the civil service, business and the City. Nigel Farage, in his farewell speech to the UKIP conference today said that they had won the battle but must now win the peace – by which he meant hard Brexit. The job of remainers is to prevent that, and not just for themselves but precisely for the jobs and well-being of those who vote leave on a flawed prospectus. For even if Lanchester and Vogel are right about the motives of at least some of the leavers, the fact is that leaving the EU - especially in the hard Brexit variant - will not address their problems, it will massively exacerbate them.

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