On June 23 the UK voted to leave the European Union after thirty years of a halting, sometimes noble, often messy experiment in international cooperation. In my circles—professional, well-educated, Cambridge and London—the principal reaction was incredulity. How could this happen? Who could want this? A natural reaction. In my electoral district, 75 percent voted to Remain. In the hip parts of London where my daughter lives, a similar result. But a look at the electoral map showed (inevitably, given that a substantial majority of England—though only a narrow majority of the UK—voted to Leave) that huge swathes of England outside of London voted by similar proportions to Leave—the poorer areas on the East and South coasts, depressed former industrial districts in the North, though also more prosperous parts of the West Country and the Midlands.
In shorthand, Britain’s EU problem is a London problem. London, a young, thriving, creative, cosmopolitan city, seems the model multicultural community, a great European capital. But it is also the home of all of Britain’s elites—the economic elites of “the City” (London’s Wall Street, international rather than European), a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations. It’s as if Hollywood, Wall Street, the Beltway, and the hipper neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco had all been mashed together. This has proved to be a toxic combination.
For the rest of the country has felt more and more excluded, not only from participation in the creativity and prosperity of London, but more crucially from power. That gap had begun to yawn dangerously in Thatcher’s 1980s, when deindustrialization in the North and the finance and property boom in the southeast meant that growing inequality acquired a grave geographical component. London was not the sole beneficiary. There are pockets of London-like entitlement scattered all over the country—in university towns like Brighton, Cambridge, and Bristol, in select neighborhoods of Manchester and Leeds. But the big money—and all those elites—remained firmly in London. In recent decades it has felt as if the whole country had been turned upside down and shaken, until most of the wealth and talent had pooled in the capital. One of the most striking features of this period has been the turnaround in London’s educational performance—in the 1990s, it had among the worst educational outcomes in Britain; today it has the best. Some of this is owing to immigration—striving immigrant groups are helping London’s schools to thrive. But some of it is owing to a different kind of migration—talented and ambitious young people from all over the country thronging to London to teach. London’s gain is the rest of the country’s loss.
And the rest of the country has felt it, particularly since the economic crash of 2008. Bankers and politicians were blamed for that crash, but the rest of the country paid the price. Bank bailouts lumbered the government with huge new liabilities, and the Liberal-Conservative coalition vowed to cut the central budget by 25 percent. “Quantitative easing” pumped cash into the economy but most of it ended up in bankers’ hands. Not only bankers but politicians were apparently “too big to fail.” Public opinion began to grow sensitive to this in ways that metropolitan pundits found bizarre and irrational. In 2009 an expenses scandal swept through Parliament. Most inflammatory were MPs’ claims for expensive second homes in London. Many MPs maintained a nominal “main home” in their distant constituencies, where they spent little time, and then claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds to support a metropolitan lifestyle. They were puzzled; where else would anyone want to live?
Where was the Labour Party in all this? To many people Tony Blair’s New Labour party looked indistinguishable from the rest of the metropolitan elite. A lot of its leaders were professional politicians parachuted into Northern working-class heartland seats. Tony Blair himself represented a former coal-mining community, Sedgefield. His henchman Peter Mandelson represented nearby Hartlepool, a former shipbuilding center. His successor Ed Miliband represented Doncaster North, at the heart of the Northern coal and steel belt. All went to Oxford, all have spent their entire adult lives in politics, all live in London—wherever their “main home” was nominally located. Recently Labour tried to break with this legacy. Last year it elected a rank outsider, Jeremy Corbyn, as its leader, on a wave of anti-elitist revulsion. Corbyn stood for “Old Labour,” a politics of class and welfare and redistribution. Or did he? Corbyn too is a Londoner, representing a deeply bohemian inner London suburb, Islington North; he was my MP for ten years. He too has spent his lifetime in politics—not in think tanks or PR outfits, but in a range of London-centered “movement” groups, for nuclear disarmament, Irish republicanism, Palestinian liberation. He came to power on a wave of youth and student enthusiasm. Undoubtedly he does represent young, creative, multicultural London. But from Sedgefield, Hartlepool, and Doncaster that London doesn’t look all that different from the London of fat-cat bankers and thieving politicians.
It was not foreordained that this wave of populism would find its channel in a revulsion against Europe. Scotland has charted a different path. There a left-of-center Scottish National Party has inherited most of the alienated Labour vote by combining social democracy, a pro-Europe stance, and anti-metropolitan feeling, offering an alternative local democracy in the form of Scottish nationalism. Most of the highest votes for Remain came either from London or from Scotland. One could just about imagine a barnstorming economic populism in the Bernie Sanders mode galvanizing the former Labour vote in deprived English districts as well. But despite his nominal leftism, that was not Corbyn’s style, which is low-key, stiff, puritanical, even self-righteous. What is left of an old, locally rooted Labour party has been doing its best—inner-city Liverpool came out solidly for Remain—but it too feels remote from a party apparatus and MPs centered in London. It’s notable that since Corbyn’s election a number of prominent northern Labour MPs have signaled a return to local government—Andy Burnham is contemplating a run for Mayor of Manchester, Luciana Berger and Steve Rotheram for Mayor of Liverpool.
The Remain campaign undoubtedly contributed to widening this divide. Rather like the New York Times’ attitude to Trump, Remain thought it could laugh off Leave, or dazzle it with “facts.” A very large part of the Remain campaign was focused on troupes of “experts”—investment experts, science and university experts, fiscal policy experts—signing collective petitions and open letters declaring their loyalties to Europe. This played directly into anti-elitist sentiment. A very telling point late in the EU referendum campaign came when Michael Gove, one of the right-wing Conservative leaders of the Leave side, was quoted as saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Much fun was made of this remark. But it touched a nerve. The next day a leaflet came through my letterbox from Remain. “Find out what trusted experts say”: a range of views from left to right backing Europe, including a trade unionist, a military chief, a scientist, a banker, and a billionaire entrepreneur. All live in London and the southeast except for one Scot and the billionaire, who lives in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. That billionaire, Sir Richard Branson, took out full-page ads in all the major papers in the last days of the campaign, extolling Europe. This might have done further damage to the Remain cause.
On the surface, immigration was undoubtedly the leading anti-Europe issue. But immigration also cuts two ways. London is by far the most multicultural city in Britain and one of the most diverse cities in the world—at the last census, 37 percent of its population came from outside the UK, 25 percent from outside Europe, and only 45 percent were UK-born whites. The presence of migrants can stimulate pro-European feeling (and, as we’ve seen, better educational and cultural outcomes). In conditions of austerity, deprivation and unemployment, however, the presence of migrants can stimulate the opposite—nativism, scapegoating, depression. Some of the biggest Leave votes (as in 2015 the best results for the UK Independence Party) were piled up in eastern agricultural communities, elderly, with poor educational provision, and shifting to a low-wage economy; here EU migrants from Poland and elsewhere are doing a lot of the agricultural jobs vacated by young English people who have moved elsewhere, and soaking up a lot of anti-immigrant feeling from older natives who have stayed behind. But equally some of the biggest Leave votes were registered in depressed former industrial centers in the north with few immigrants. Sunderland, a hotspot of Leave voting, has fewer than 4 percent foreign-born residents, well below the national average of 12 percent. Here complaining about immigration seems a clear proxy for complaining about social exclusion.
How much of this is about inequality? The widening of the north-south divide is surely rooted in inequality. But the events of the last ten years, which have brought us to this sorry pass, have not been only about inequality in brute economic terms, they have also been about a sense of culture and community. Although the gap between the top 1 percent and the rest has continued to widen, the gap between the top 5 or 10 percent and the rest has not. Many people’s living standards have been haltingly recovering and inequality is not necessarily becoming more visible for most people in everyday life; if anything, the super-rich are becoming less visible in carefully tended London enclaves. It was not only depressed areas in the North and East but also other, more prosperous parts of Wales, the Midlands, and the West who felt resentment at remote and self-aggrandizing elites (in remoter Brussels as well as London), at the evisceration of local democracy, at what they saw as corruption at the very top—and voted Leave. A different, more durable and threatening kind of inequality is also at stake here. A majority of people around the United Kingdom are feeling like non-people, un-citizens, their lives jerked about like marionettes by wire-pullers far away. In those circumstances, very bad things indeed can be expected.
In the immediate fallout from the referendum, almost everyone behaved badly. Remain voters, in a state of shock, tried to pretend it hadn’t happened, on the grounds that it shouldn’t have happened. An exceptionally ill-judged petition—that had actually originated before the referendum—circulated and drew over 4 million signatures. It called for a second referendum, on the grounds that the Leave vote had not reached 60 percent on a turnout of at least 75 percent. It would be hard to devise a wording more calculated to persuade Leave voters that the Remain minority was seeking to disenfranchise the majority.
Then the Conservative party leadership, both Leavers and Remainers, decided to play politics in an even more preposterously schoolboyish way than the ways that had already made them so unpopular with the electorate. The prime minister, David Cameron, a principled Remainer, abandoned ship—he didn’t want to have anything to do with the realities of Brexit. His chief rival, the Leave leader Boris Johnson, was then knifed in the back by his chief rival, the Leave adjutant Michael Gove, both essentially ruling themselves out of the leadership and thus the premiership. A power vacuum seemed to be opening up.
Cue the Labour party in another spectacular feat of self-destructiveness. Jeremy Corbyn, so obviously ungalvanized by his halfhearted participation in the Remain campaign, seemed incapable of moving into this power vacuum. His fellow Labour MPs withdrew their confidence in him by a vote of 172–40. A classic Labour party division between activists who represent the party and MPs who at least in theory seek to represent the wider electorate has recurred. The ranks of the former are swelling—beyond half a million—which gives them confidence and appetite for more struggle. But the ranks of the latter are shrinking as voters defect to the right. The result is likely to be a literally rejuvenated party, with a younger, better-educated, more cosmopolitan, and more left-wing membership, but with an increasingly tenuous connection to its traditional working-class heartlands and a more socially and geographically restricted electoral base. One poll taken just after the referendum showed that while those who had voted Labour in 2015—a historically low number—wanted Corbyn to resign, those who now intend to vote Labour—a still lower number—wanted him to stay. The party is consolidating on its ideological but not its social base.
Still hardly represented are the voices of the Leave voters. To the extent that they had leaders, they all self-destructed in one way or another within weeks of the referendum. Johnson and Gove had blown each other up in a fit of pique. Amongst Conservative Leavers they had no real successor. The leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, also resigned, just to have an easier life. He has no real successor either.
By midsummer, with the political scene appearing like the stage of a Shakespearean tragedy, littered with bodies, only the mainstream of the Conservative party was able to summon a trace of maturity, as—to the despair of the left—it so often does. It elected to its leadership and the premiership, ultimately without a contest, a reliable right-winger, Theresa May, who backed Remain but only with some reluctance. In her first speech in front of 10 Downing Street, she stole the clothes, masterfully, of both right and left simultaneously. Promising a government for the many, not the few—overtly filching one of Labour’s few good lines of recent times—she announced an end to austerity, a return to expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, and also a firm commitment to leaving the EU. That blast of populism seems to have done the trick, at least for now. As of press time, the Conservatives are riding high in the polls.
Can it last? May’s brand of compassionate conservatism is unlikely to be any more substantial than David Cameron’s, also announced at the beginning of his premiership and soon discarded. Austerity will almost certainly return. Government will continue to back out of people’s lives—that article of faith is now too deeply embedded in all sections of the Conservative party ever to be reversed on their watch. The parts of Britain that feel excluded will continue to feel that way. Brexit won’t in fact help them at all. And they will have to find new ways to get attention. One can imagine positive new ways—local democracy, citizens’ movements, proportional representation, a regionalism of the kind that Scotland has pioneered, a re-rooted Labour party, even a genuine change of heart in mainstream Conservatism. But one can all too easily imagine darker alternatives.
Peter Mandler teaches British history at Cambridge University. He lives in Cambridge and London and voted Remain, so he is probably part of the problem.