Living in ‘Lincolnshire’

This is a ‘Time Out’ wafer biscuit. In June 2016 a pack of eight of these was selling for £1.60p in Tesco. Some time later that year a pack was still selling at £1.60, but it contained 7 biscuits not 8, representing a price increase of 15%.

That was the first effect of a decision made that June. As the ramifications unwind subsequent effects may include the break up of the United Kingdom, even the dissolution of the European Community, as what Boris Johnson called the centripetal tendencies which had held these entities together for years, were replaced by new and powerful centrifugal forces aimed at driving them apart.

What exactly happened?

The answer might seem blindingly obvious, but there is something a bit puzzling about the June event that has to do with sovereignty.

Britain is a parliamentary democracy. The Queen has the title of Sovereign, but it’s slightly ironic. For all practical purposes this country is a republic, with parliament wielding absolute power. It’s been like this, more or less, since the seventeenth century. But for 15 hours on June 23rd 2016 Parliament leant its sovereignty to anyone who was 18 or over and registered to vote. At the time, of course, it didn’t realise it was doing that. It thought it had retained its absolute power while merely asking the opinion of the British people on membership of the European Union. Unfortunately the Government leaflet, delivered to every household in the land, said that the referendum offered all voters the chance to decide the future of Britain, which didn’t sound like its status was advisory. The exercise by the electorate of absolute power, temporarily loaned to it by Parliament, even if accidentally, gave the decision a status that cannot be challenged. Parliament has found it very difficult to live with the consequences of it’s own carelessness.

Given these precise circumstances, it’s odd that sovereignty was such an issue in the campaign. If Britain wasn’t a sovereign nation it could not have voted to leave the EU. Equally, it could not have voted to remain. This is paradoxical because, the very fact that it was possible to have a referendum proved the nation’s sovereignty, yet a perceived lack of sovereignty was a reason many voted to leave. If the decision had gone the other way, that also would have shown that Britain was a sovereign state.

This situation reminds me of a joke I heard while at College in the sixties. It’s in slightly poor taste.

Two guys, Barry and Pete, are sitting in a pub in Walthamstow. Barry, apropos of nothing in particular, says

‘I can fart whenever I want’

Pete’s response is

‘Well fart then.’

To which Barry replies

‘I don’t want.’

I see Barry as a sovereign individual. His power is expressed in accordance with his self-interest. He doesn’t see the need to do anything unless it suits him. It’s this that proves his autonomy.

If this joke was rewritten for our times the exchange would go something like

‘I can leave the European Union whenever I want.’

‘Well, leave the European Union!’

‘I don’t want’.

Maybe an argument based on a fart joke would have secured little traction in the referendum debate. We’ll never know. If the question had been ‘Is it in Britain’s interest to leave the EU?’ Barry’s wiser approach may have seemed more relevant. But what was alarming about the event wasn’t so much the result as the social position and attitudes that underpinned leave voters, which emerged later. Had the demographics been equal perhaps it would have been easier to accept that remain voters lost on the issue of economics. Certainly there were economic reasons for leaving the EU put forward by people like Liam Halligan or Larry Elliott of the Guardian, based on an analysis of future trading possibilities. But the vote seemed to swing on almost anything but economics.

Analysis of voter profile carried out soon after the referendum established that the less well educated outvoted those with an education above A level standard, the over 65s outvoted those in the 20-60 age group, those not in work outvoted working people, and those who had paid off their mortgages outvoted those who were still paying theirs.

The June decision was without doubt historic. It will define the destiny of the country for at least a generation. But, as time passes, those who defined it, the 52%, are likely to play a significantly less active role in the nation’s economic affairs than the 48% who wanted another future. The vague post Brexit sunlit uplands vision of the majority, whatever that actually means, will have to be realised by the minority who voted remain. Among these are a large proportion of young, well-educated, workers, still paying off their mortgages. It’s this group that will be expected to make a success of a decision that they disagreed with. Why should they?

Here we come to what might be called ‘The Lincolnshire Problem’. Lincolnshire doesn’t have enough doctors. The County Council recently commissioned a report to find out what they could do about it. One suggestion was that to attract more GPs they might pay a bonus of £8000 for new recruits. How the existing GPs would react to this wasn’t mentioned. The Pilgrim Hospital in Boston has had to limit the opening times of its paediatric department because of a lack of staff. It’s fair to assume that potential recruits who might solve this problem will be migrants simply because the NHS workforce has a fair proportion of migrants at all levels. But Lincolnshire voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, and the issue of migration was a prominent thread in the referendum debate. Recently the University of Lincoln opened a medical school, the first in the County, so maybe it can educate its talented youngsters, to eventually fill in the gaps in health care provision. But talented youngsters did not vote enthusiastically for Brexit. 73% of the 18-24 group wanted to stay in the EU, and are largely relaxed about immigration. Once qualified, with a debt of  £30-40,000, why would they want to make their home and their future in somewhere like Boston, which voted 76% leave?

The report to the council on the GP shortage outlined a problem that occurred trying to recruit Spanish doctors. There is a surplus of doctors in Spain, but though a number visited the county and were offered jobs, none stayed. ‘Cultural’ problems were cited for this failure.

Have you heard the one about two out-of-work Spanish doctors in a tapas bar in Valencia.

Dr Lopez says, apropos of nothing in particular,

‘I can get a job in Lincolnshire whenever I want’.

Dr Garcia retorts,

‘Well, get a job in Lincolnshire’

to which Dr Lopez replies,

‘I don’t want.’

But the most striking feature of the referendum has emerged from academic studies of the wider motivations and attitude of the leave group. These have concentrated on the cultural rather than economic dimension. 66% of those who voted leave describe themselves as ‘social conservatives’, suspicious of what others see as ‘progress’, while only 18% regard themselves as ‘Liberal’ or ‘social progressives’. Leavers are more in favour of the death penalty and corporal punishment and take a negative view of the social developments that have occurred under both Labour and Tory administrations over the last few years: Decriminalising homosexuality, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, racial equality legislation and the like. They are certainly not comfortable with diversity or multiculturalism, seeing the changes that it has brought about as unwelcome.

Though everyone was aware that such negative views existed, the typical Remainer, who would have supported all the liberalising policy initiatives of the last forty years, may have assumed that, over time, the population as a whole had accepted the changes. It is a shock to discover that a majority might not share the progressive consensus. Instead it’s clear that irreconcilable attitudinal differences run through our society at a fundamental level. Right now we may be at the start of a culture war and we each have to decide which side we are on, even when we think our side is losing.

The referendum has produced an embarrassing, detailed snapshot of our society that we cannot un-see. Whatever the outcome of the tortuous Brexit process, this image will stay with us and I think will affect our individual participation in public life. In economic terms it means that the group on which our future prosperity depends, those already burdened by an accident of birth to find themselves in the generation largely excluded from free higher education, the housing market, job security and final salary pensions, will have to dedicate their energies to making a Britain fit for people like friends of Liam Fox, a land fit for zeros, the long row of noughts in the average company boss’s wage packet.

It’s hard to calculate how this will affect the behaviour of the workforce tasked by the economically inactive with realising a nostalgic vision of a lost, whiter Britain they don’t believe in. It may breed a new cynicism or contribute to inter-generational hostilities. It’s hard to think that the fate of the young and their future was uppermost in the thoughts of pensioner leave voters preoccupied as they were with constructing a re-imagined 50’s mono-cultural paradise patrolled by Dixon of Dock Green.

Along with this cynicism, Remain voters may also experience feelings of disenchantment, seeing their own Enlightenment project aimed at social progress, and what might be called modernity, come to grief. It could be that these reforms, despite the undercurrent opposing them, are irreversible. What progress has been made might be internalised even in the minds of social conservatives who deny they are ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobic’, suggesting at least that they think racism and xenophobia are undesirable traits to display in public, which is something I suppose.

The country is currently divided into two. Post-Brexit politics will have to deal with this; the big half want very different things to the small half.

The big half know what they don’t want but are open to suggestions that chime with their sense of grievance, both real and imagined. This situation provides exactly the right conditions for populism to emerge and prosper; for narratives to arise that feed paranoia and can never be invalidated by mere facts. They have been given legitimacy by the referendum result, the ultimate legitimacy in a democracy; they are the majority tribe.

Tribalism, or the ‘politics of identity’ is a much-discussed theme at the moment often mentioned in relationship to Donald Trump and his supporters. I don’t know how new it is. We are a tribe of sorts. We identify as Labour; we don’t just vote Labour. So Labour is part of our identity. Traditionally being Labour was part of working class identity, but not so much now. Being offered the right to buy their council built house at a discount led many to see themselves a members of the property owning classes, and later to identify with UKIP. In the 2017 election the middle class voted for Labour in larger numbers than the working class.

The identity of the Brexit tribe may not be as fixed as the tableau of the referendum suggested. But there has been little evidence of leavers changing their minds about their decision.  Can Labour attract any of this group, given what we now know about their wider attitudes?

The obvious answer is no, but then there is the small matter of the message on the side of the bus. The bus itself was Labour red. The white lettering announced ‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’ this was followed in fainter script, ‘Vote Leave’. Much was made of the fact that Britain’s net contribution was around £199 million, so the total was misleading. But what if it had said £200 million instead of £350 million? It could only have influenced people if they believed in increasing the money the NHS receives. Had the figure been more accurate it would have presented a strong argument for leaving the EU that would have appealed to Labour supporters, especially when painted on a red bus. Its inaccuracy probably muted this appeal. The strange thing is that the public, when asked, professed not to really take the figure seriously, but even so, it shows they do approve of more spending on the NHS, a policy always strongly and positively associated with Labour.

Labour must now concentrate on the 48%, which in ten years time, partly due to natural wastage, will be the big half.  One of Jeremy Corbyn’s achievements has been his success in attracting younger members to the party. Policies designed to support them and find solutions to problems associated with their situation should be paramount. Job security should be increased, more affordable houses and council houses should be built. The right to buy stopped. Renters should have better protection and longer short term tenancies. There should be increased voter registration so those who only stay in an area for six months can still vote. EU citizens living in Britain should be able to vote in Parliamentary elections. The minimum wage should be increased so people can live on it without resorting to universal credit. Family allowance should be restored to reduce child poverty. Austerity should be ended.

This might not win us the next election, but it will the three after that.

But there’s a problem. What if we, I suppose I mean the metropolitan elite, are wrong about Brexit? Suppose it is a great success. We may have conceded defeat on the referendum numbers but we still think we were right and those who voted leave were wrong. What if we were wrong? It might be hard to tell, and what would success look like especially if the stark binary choice of ‘in or out’ becomes complicated in a Brexit in name only solution that involves staying in the custom’s union and internal market? In fact, if that happened remainers may very well be happier than Leavers at the prospect.

The big snag is that this Norway-style outcome, though perhaps sensible, does not meet the demands of those who voted for Brexit. It was a mistake to hand sovereignty to the electorate on that fateful summer’s day in 2016, but the error cannot be rectified without betraying our democratic principles. That betrayal will create the perfect conditions for a far-right backlash. A hundred Tommy Robinsons will be empowered by an un-containable sense of grievance felt by a large proportion of the public, absolutely convinced that Brexit was the answer to all their problems. Living through the reality of leaving Europe without a deal maybe the only way of avoiding this situation.

For the time being, the metropolitan elite, who value intelligence, education, rationality, tolerance, equality, multiculturalism and inclusive social progress may have to recognise that when it mattered their influence and their values, which they see as the foundation of a modern, civilised society, did not prevail. They may regard the referendum as a victory of quantity over quality, but this is little consolation. Remainers have constantly been told ‘You lost. Get over it’! Yet within the remain group are a large number of young, highly qualified people. They are Britain’s future. Their continuing cooperation, their ongoing contribution to economics and culture, is absolutely vital. We are left with this final question; what’s next for them? Have they got to meekly comply with the dictatorial whim of 52% of the electorate, expressed on one June day in 2016?  Have they got to try to get used to living in ‘Lincolnshire’, even if they don’t want?

© David Sweet

November 2018

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