Who won the referendum? It has plenty of losers apart from the EU – David Cameron and Barack Obama, the experts and the financial elites, and that orthodoxy defined by Orwell as “a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question”. Our present orthodoxy, which had included support for the EU, looks fragile.
But it is harder to say who or what has been vindicated. As Ben Ryan wrote earlier in the week, the campaign has divided the country in many directions:
Whatever the result it is a mistake to think this will be a true victory of the majority – because there simply isn’t one. A referendum that was supposed to provide clarity and unity has instead exacerbated and confirmed a far more divided Britain. Young versus old, urban versus rural, populist versus technocratic, England and Wales versus Scotland and Northern Ireland, and many other stark dividing lines have emerged. In the wake of this vote even the winning side will be hopelessly divided, and the losing side will no doubt feel disappointed, even betrayed.
The biggest division, as many observers have suggested, is between those who have gained from globalisation and the free movement of people, and those who have lost out. In John Harris’s film on British voters, there is a moment that sums it up. Harris, coming from Merthyr Tydfil and Birmingham’s Handsworth district – where the mood is deeply pessimistic – drops into a careers fair at Manchester University. The students are intensely relaxed, indeed clearly excited, about the future. Harris asks one: what about those voting leave from anger about immigration and jobs? The reply: “You know what, we live in in the 21st century. Get with it.”
Harris confesses to “having a moment here… I feel that those people we met in Merthyr are at the bottom of a great big escalator down there that’s not working; and these people are getting on an escalator which is going up at speed.”
Two things above all seem to have driven Eurosceptic anger at the bottom of the escalator. First – and closely related, of course, to concerns about immigration – is the decline in living standards. Its features include a job market where conditions at Sports Direct are not as abnormal as might be hoped; an increasingly merciless benefits system; a housing crisis which leaves people lucky to rent an overpriced property with poor conditions.
Second, a sense of powerlessness: that “something has got to change” and that taking a pair of scissors to our EU membership card would at least achieve that.
It may seem quaint to invoke Pope Leo XIII, but what he wrote in 1891, which has formed the basis of Catholic social teaching ever since, is as pertinent as ever. “Working men have been left, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition”.
Leo thought the way to deal with inequality (which includes the mistrust between haves and have-nots) was not only state regulation, but the forming of small associations, especially trade unions. This idea has caught on recently – that the state’s role is not just top-down reform, but to actively support local groups of people working together for change. Apart from being less unwieldy than big government, that kind of politics empowers people – gives them the chance to reform their block of flats or their workplace.
But there is no doubt what Leo would have thought our deepest social problem. When God is sidelined, the human being, whose dignity comes from being a child of God, is inevitably degraded. We continue to kill 700 small people in the womb every working day. The benefits system has filled jobcentres with scenes of appalling cruelty. An influential movement to “assist” the lonely and unwell to commit suicide is itself seeking assimilation into the right-thinking orthodoxy. The number of homeless people in England has surged. The ill-treatment of workers by employers, and tenants by landlords, is yet another symptom of our loss of a supernatural horizon. Talk of “Independence Day”, the return of freedom, etc., rings a bit hollow in this context.
And yet the shock of this referendum, which has swept away the Tory leadership and left the Labour leadership looking irrelevant to traditional Labour voters, could be an opportunity for a new politics. In Blue Labour and in some movements on the right – notably Phillip Blond’s ResPublica think tank – you see the desire for a reformed politics which secures the rights of the poorest, while nurturing local, spontaneous efforts to get together and change things. These movements are still working out what that means at the level of policy. But at a moment when nobody knows what is coming next, this is an opportunity for them to make their case.
That could be over-optimistic. As Leo XIII also said, there is a danger in times of economic stress: “Crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men’s judgments and to stir up the people to revolt.” Crafty populist agitators are still with us. Project Fear may have failed to convince the nation, but that doesn’t mean there is now nothing to be frightened of.
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