Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Five years after the EU Referendum, Sam Bright considers how perceptions of Brexit-voting areas have been warped by radical right-wing forces

Former US President Barack Obama has long been a proponent of the ‘arc of history’ – that the slow evolution of humankind always bends towards a more just, progressive and liberal world. 

In present-day Britain, it is difficult to hold faith in this philosophy. A crisis of national identity has sprung a resurgence of flag-draped nationalism, in turn empowering authoritarian-shaped leaders interested in consolidating power at the expense of the UK’s flimsy democratic conventions – while the press acts as the vanguard and narrator of this reactionary moment. 

The prorogation and steady marginalisation of Parliament; the demonisation of asylum seekers; the low-level ego battle with the European Union; endless ‘culture war’ antics over statues and national symbols; the erosion of the freedom to protest. All of this signals an arc that seems to be veering sharply away from progress. 

The foot-soldiers of this movement, it is claimed, are the ‘left behind’: the people in small towns who have been caught in the updraft of rapid globalisation and its associated liberal, cosmopolitan values. These are the people who voted for Brexit in 2016 and knocked holes in Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ three years later. 

There is a radical disjuncture, however, between colourful representations of left-behind areas and mundane reality. These are places that have been systematically appropriated by a radical conservative clique and their 1950s tribute act. An entire pundit class has spawned over the past five years – a translation service devoted to articulating the views of the Brexit heartlands. Views that bear only a shadowy resemblance to reality. 

These professional pundits don the clothes of the left behind and use them as a cloak for their own barely-veiled prejudices. On the launch night of GB News, for example, Nigel Farage complained that Brexit voters have been smeared as “knuckle-dragging racists” – but it is Farage himself who has created this caricature; bestowing his brand of nativism with a badge of authenticity to make it seem as though his ideological boat contains millions of fellow travellers.

Yet Farage has never summoned mass appeal and never been elected to Parliament, despite seven attempts. As David Goodhart points out in his book, The Road to Somewhere, most Brexit-inclined voters are in fact moderate – “decent populists”, as he calls them, who “have reservations about the drift of modern liberalism but are not, in the main, illiberal”.

Theirs is a centre-ground agenda, whereby corruption and racism is deplored, public services are properly funded, and family-orientated community life is respected. This is a fundamentally different form of politics to that of Boris Johnson, GB News and Farage. Indeed, Johnson has institutionalised the worst excesses of populism through the fattening of cronies, the damning of public experts, and the open bribery of Conservative-voting regions. 

This contradiction – between the decent populism of left-behind voters and the more dangerous Johnson-Farage variant – is witnessed in the Prime Minister’s approval rating, which currently stands at minus four, according to YouGov, and has barely tipped above break-even since last May. 

Boris Johnson is not the embodiment of left-behind Britain and it is incredulous that this needs to be underscored. He is the Eton and Oxford educated son of a politician who worked in Europe as a journalist, was fired for lying, before shifting into the hollow shell of a statesman. He is no more a man of the people than I am a jumbo jet. 

Johnson’s parliamentary popularity is a temporary veneer that sits on shaky political foundations. The Prime Minister’s pandering to a warped, extreme stereotype of the Brexit Red Wall voter is anathema to his moderate, liberal base – as the Conservatives’ loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election starkly exposed. 

Perhaps most uncomfortably for Johnson, this liberal base has barely germinated. Even in the areas of the country that delivered his overwhelming 2019 majority, individuals belonging to the next generation are far more liberal, outward-looking and progressive than their parents.

As I was growing up in the outskirts of a former mill town in West Yorkshire – Johnson’s new stomping ground – my peers had the same tolerant values that are now castigated as belonging to the London-based metropolitan elite.

As observed by Michael McQuarrie in his LSE paper on the 2016 US Presidential election, Hillary Clinton swung three groups of people decisively behind the Democrats: well-off communities; university towns; and areas dominated by the ‘political class’. Due to the US electoral system, only one of these shifts made an impact on the result. In contrast, Donald Trump’s harvesting of votes in the Midwest – the ‘Rust Belt’ of America – flipped key states and secured the White House. 

This result didn’t mean that America was becoming less liberal and less diverse – demographic changes mean that even Texas, a Republican fortress, came close to flipping blue four years later in 2020. Rather, election results can obscure the real cultural shifts in a nation, by handing a microphone to small groups of people who changed the result while depriving attention from the majority of people who voted everywhere else. 

This seems equally to be the case in the UK, where nuance has been entirely absent from the debate. The idea of the liberal north or the instinctive tolerance of our national character has been subsumed to Vote Leave myths. Boris Johnson and his allies have been allowed to manufacture a warped, reactionary version of left-behind Britain – the vessel on which they have since transported their toxic political waste. 

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