Brexit: a two-fingered salute from the working class

The Brexit vote was the working class sticking two fingers up to the metropolitan middle class, the political elite and liberal commentariat, argues Lisa McKenzie

August 22, 2016 · 4 min read

This article was first published in the August/September edition of Red Pepper – try our pay-as-you-feel subscription to get the print magazine

Working class. We hardly ever get to hear those two words said together these days, particularly from the institutional and political left, the parliamentary Labour party and their commentariat. The Pollys and the Owens would choke on their Graze dried fruit if they were forced to say class between their rhetoric of ‘working people’.

The traditional old Tories are more comfortable with the notion of the working class. After all, they clean their offices – and a bloody good job they make of it too. Therein lies the difference and differentiation and division within Britain today. The progressive metropolitan, left-leaning middle class refuse to acknowledge the class struggle, while the true-blue old boys enjoy it. At the same time all of them, left and right alike, benefit from class inequality. Low pay, no pay and zero-hours contracts is what gets their homes cleaned, their coffee made and their dogs walked.

For 30 years in the UK, academics, political and community activists, trades unionists and even religious groups have warned, argued, evidenced, threatened and sometimes begged politicians and wider society that ever increasing inequality and austerity policies cannot end well. I had hoped that day would be a political revolution brought about by an international solidarity movement led by working-class people from all over the world. That would march on their respective elite institutions with flaming torches and pitchforks. Instead we have been subject to a Tory party internal ideological battle. The rest of parliamentary politics fell into line because it benefited the parliamentarians in their own internal struggles for power.

Opportunity to be heard

The consequence has been that marginalised people all over the UK have used the Tory-orchestrated EU referendum as an opportunity to be heard. I have never known such enthusiasm and debate among people who had no interest at all in the general election last year. More than 33 million people turned out to vote. Of them, 17 million voted to leave the EU. They did so for many reasons: sovereignty, xenophobia, and racism were among them and we have to be honest about that. But there were millions that voted leave for other reasons too.

The sustained attack on working-class people, their identities, their work and their culture by Westminster politics and the media bubble around it has had unforeseen consequences. Working-class people have stopped listening to politicians and Westminster and instead they are doing what every politician fears: they are using their own experiences in judging what is working for and against them.

Since the Brexit vote there has been a lot of hand wringing, asking ‘what happened? how did we get here?’ I believe they honestly don’t know. The UK has become deeply divided along lines of geographical location, race, ethnicity, gender, disability and age, with social class running right into every distinction. To ignore class inequality, the economic, cultural and social reality of people’s lived experiences, has been a massive mistake by the middle class of all political persuasions.

Old class prejudices

Instead this metropolitan middle class and their commentariat have come to a general consensus that working-class people have been duped – that they are turkeys voting for Christmas. They are largely abandoning their accusations that the working-class leave vote was purely racist, not because they have changed their minds or their deeply-held prejudices but because they realise that constantly shouting ‘racist’ at the working class makes them look ridiculous and slightly guilty. Instead they have become more ‘diplomatic’, choosing their words carefully from the preferred list of eugenicists’ arguments. Asking instead whether ‘education’ has played a part in the leave vote, or short sightedness, or perhaps being ‘too angry’ to think rationally.

They are resurrecting those old class prejudices that the working class are inferior, animalistic and backward looking but packaging it in the language from a Boden catalogue. Although some who voted leave may have been duped, the whole referendum was based on lies, misinformation and the peddling of fear.

I suspect from the research I have been undertaking in Nottingham and east London that most working-class leavers were channelling the spirit of Billy Casper, the character from Barry Hines’ book A Kestrel for a Knave, best known from Ken Loach’s film Kes. They are giving a two-fingered salute to the middle class and the establishment while looking back to a past they feel was better and out into a future that they know is bleak.

Lisa McKenzie is an LSE sociology fellow and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.

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