Mark Collins – Brexit and Abandoned English White Workers (The Donald?)

Excerpts from an article by a novelist who writes much and well on money at the London Review of Books–echoes in the Land of Trump?

Brexit Blues

John Lanchester is the author, most recently, of the novel Capital [more here] and the non-fiction How to Speak Money [more here].

…there is a kind of denseness to England and to Englishness; England is both very similar to itself and significantly different when you move ten miles down the road. When my family lived in Norfolk, I could have instantly picked the difference between a Suffolk and a Norfolk accent – I’d have been doing so unconsciously, without thinking about it: that person isn’t from round here. The Suffolk border was about fifteen miles away…

…What strikes you if you travel to different parts of the country…is that the primary reality of modern Britain is not so much class as geography. Geography is destiny. And for much of the country, not a happy destiny.

To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy. The people who grow up in these places come from a cultural background which equipped them for reasonably well-paid manual labour, un- and semi- and skilled. Children left school as soon as they could and went to work in the same industries that had employed their parents. The academically able kids used to go to grammar school and be educated into the middle class. All that has now gone, the jobs and the grammar schools, and the vista instead is a landscape where there is often work – there are pockets of unemployment, but in general there’s no shortage of jobs and the labour force participation rate is the highest it has ever been, a full 15 points higher than in the US – but it’s unsatisfying, insecure and low-paid. This new work doesn’t do what the old work did: it doesn’t offer a sense of identity or community or self-worth. The word ‘precarious’ has as its underlying sense ‘depending on the favour of another person’. Somebody can take away the things you have whenever they feel like it. The precariat, as the new class is called, might not know the etymology, but it doesn’t need to: the reality is all too familiar.

What, over the last few decades, has been the political ‘offer’ to these people? In truth, nothing much…UK manufacturing is now a high-skill, high-value industry; we don’t make cars and fridges and washing machines and phones and things that everybody notices, but we do make high-technology components and industrial devices of a sort that nobody ever thinks about. The UK, for instance, has the second biggest aerospace industry in the world. The most complicated bit of a plane is the wing; the world’s biggest passenger aircraft wing belongs to the Airbus 380, which is made in Wales. (They’re so big that they travel from the Dee estuary in North Wales to Pauillac on the Gironde estuary on a specially built roll-on roll-off ship.) This industrial work is high-skill, high-value, and doesn’t provide mass employment; it’s a lot like the kind of service work which thrives in London and the South-East.

These jobs are dependent on the UK being a liberal, open, internationalised economy with high skill levels in particular areas. That has been the direction of travel in UK politics and economics since 1979, and both parties have pursued policies with that goal in mind…parts of the country have simply been left behind. The white working class is correct to feel abandoned: it has been. No political party has anything to offer it except varying levels of benefits. The people in the rich parts of the country pay the taxes which support the poor parts. If I had to pick a single fact which has played no role in political discourse but which sums up the current position of the UK, it would be that most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it [emphasis added]. The numbers are eerily similar to the referendum outcome: 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients. It’s a system bitterly resented both by the beneficiaries and by the suppliers of the largesse…

Immigration, the issue on which Leave campaigned most effectively and most cynically, is the subject on which this bewilderment is most apparent. There are obviously strong elements of racism and xenophobia in anti-immigrant sentiment. All racists who voted, voted Leave. But there are plenty of people who aren’t so much hostile to immigrants as baffled by them. They feel left behind, abandoned, poor, ignored and struggling; so how come immigrants want to come here, and do so well when they get here? If Britain is broken, which is what many Leave voters think, why is it so attractive? How can so many people succeed where they are failing?..

…whole swathes of the UK have spent the last decades feeling that things are being taken away from them: their jobs, their sense that they are heard, their understanding of how the world works and their place in it. The gaps in our society have just grown too big…

The mendacity of the Leave campaign may represent a recalibration of our system along American lines, where voters only listen to people whom they already believe, and there are in effect no penalties for falsehood, especially not on the political right. The second toxic legacy of the campaign concerns the shamelessly xenophobic nature of the Leave message. There were good reasons why British public life had strong taboos around the subject of immigration. It is true that this caused resentment about the fact that it became impossible to voice concerns about immigration without being accused of racism. Forbidden topics generate powerful feelings. The taboo also stopped people making arguments in favour of immigration, and cut off the debate before it could properly begin. The economic arguments in favour of immigration, in rich Western countries with low birthrates, are pretty straightforward: since the next generation of taxpayers aren’t being born, we’re going to have to import them, if we want to keep our healthcare systems, pensions and welfare states. The Office for Budget Responsibility puts the necessary level of long-term immigration at 140,000 a year. But while the benefits of immigration are generally shared, the local impacts can sometimes seem overwhelming, especially when an area with no previous experience of immigration suddenly finds itself with thousands or tens of thousands of new arrivals…

…There is a real darkness in this country, a xenophobic, racist sickness of heart that is closer to the surface today than it has been for decades. That is a direct result of the referendum campaign. The campaign’s dual legacy is the end of the idea that politics is based on rational argument, and a new permission to hate immigrants. In politics, these new realities are going to be much more important in the years ahead than the details of exactly which half-bright Tory is in charge…

More here on Brexit.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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