The run-up to Christmas and the end of the year bring the office party season, and this year was no exception for me. I am currently working a FTSE 250 company, which has its HQ in a wealthy part of south-east England, where it employs a legion of well-paid professional people.
At our party this year, I had similar conversations with a number of people which were along the lines of how the year was and the current situation, during which they came to a certain juncture when they exclaimed “… and then those stupid b******s voted to leave the EU!”
It would be at this point when I informed them that, not only had I voted to leave, but in fact I had actively campaigned for a Leave vote. They would then have to try to backtrack on their colourful language and find a middle-ground perspective where we could agree in order to keep the conversation on a civilised level. Pointing out the irony of their planning to escape to Australia, when that country has just the kind of immigration controls and freedom to negotiate trade deals that many Brexiteers look forward to the UK having outside the EU, was too much for one or two as they walked off in disgust.
Among work colleagues one tends to avoid contentious subjects and opinions, unless you’re very sure that you won’t cause offence. For example, one wouldn’t make a jibe at church-goers with someone you don’t know that well, in case they replied, “well, actually I’m very involved in my local church”. So why be so damning about Leave voters when don’t even know how the other person voted. Well, perhaps you just don’t care how they feel. You think they’re ignorant and nasty and you’ve got the BBC on your side.
More likely I sense it’s that it’s so unusual that these people ever come across anyone who openly voted Leave, that they simply assume all intelligent reasonable people voted to Remain.
One of the most striking revelations about the Brexit vote is how the country is so dramatically divided along class and geographical lines. Brexit seems to have united the metropolitan middle class – left, right and apolitical – in disgust at those who voted to leave: uneducated xenophobic working class losers who they never meet and who live in dingy depressing towns somewhere in the north of England which they never visit. Support for the EU, along with support for political correctness, seems to have become a minimum entry requirement to polite society.
It’s possible to move through a middle class world in Britain in 2016 and never come across an open Brexiteer, even though 52% of those who voted did so to leave. Indeed, between my work colleagues, our social circle in Cardiff and my wife’s family and friends in Scotland, I never meet any open Brexiteers, except among my immediate family – and at UKIP meetings.
It’s also possible to go about your middle class life in the UK and get the impression that immigration isn’t a particularly big problem.
One hears on the news official statistics such as annual immigration being 650,000, with the net figure 335,000 – a population larger than Cardiff each year – and the real figures will be much larger … or that a third of births in England and Wales are to parents born overseas, the proportion being over 80% in several London boroughs. Unless you’re in certain parts of certain towns & cities, these numbers don’t seem real. In well-to-do towns and villages up and down the shires, the only immigrants might be the local shopkeeper and takeaway. In my experience, even in the big cities and even among left-of-centre types, the social circles of most middle class people are almost exclusively white.
Many middle class people see little of the social impact of mass immigration in their day-to-day lives and hence fail to understand the real reasons why that issue drove much of the working class en masse to vote to leave the EU.
Perhaps they experience the unaffordability of accommodation in London, but less so the strain on public services. They’re unlikely to have to fall back on benefits or social housing so aren’t forced to question the system’s fairness or priorities around immigrants versus the British-born population. If they’re young, they’re not so likely to need to use the NHS that much.
They may not yet have children, or may have decided they don’t want them, so they’re not faced with the prospect of their child going to a school in which the white British are themselves an ethnic minority. If they do have kids, they probably live in a nice area where there’s a nice school. The ethnic minority children there will be the nice children of nice professional people, like those they meet at work, who seem to be quite like them and appear to share their values. Surely these aren’t among the 52% of Muslims in Britain who think homosexuality should be illegal, or the 39% who think a woman should always obey her husband.
Perhaps they live in a big cosmopolitan city and feel good as they walk down their vibrant local shopping street with cuisines tradespeople from all around world. This won’t be one of Britain’s depressed and divided towns with ghettoes and no-go areas. They might have a brief pleasant chat with the shopkeeper and feel like they’ve made a connection, but in reality they know very little about his world.
In the 21st century, as in the 19th, we’re living separate lives based on class and locality and rarely the twain shall meet. We shouldn’t be so fast in thinking UKIP is exempt from this either. We’re talking about going after the vote in the traditionally Labour heartlands of the north, the Midlands and Wales, though our membership is mostly middle class and based in south-east England. Some UKIPpers actually scratch their heads and wonder what the party’s focus should be following Brexit. Some even think that the working classes are going to vote for a hardline libertarian economic programme which slashes taxes for the rich and sweeps away the welfare state.
Perhaps we’ll start to see a change in public debate as some middle class leftists, craving working class authenticity, start to venture out and try to understand why so many traditional Labour voters feel alienated. They’ll probably arrive at the same old conclusion, though, that that naïve working folk are being manipulated by evil hateful liars like UKIP who want to divide communities. Many will be content to go on feeling superior, enthusiastically espousing the new class snobbery.
I often wonder what it will take for the middle class to wake up and turn against the ideology and policies of national self-destruction. I suspect they will only do so when it’s too late. The working class is already awake and UKIP needs to be their voice.