It’s no wonder large numbers of us voted to leave Europe.
As someone wrote about the North East, the atmosphere in which young unemployed men have grown up is “poisoned”; it is that of “a work-day world that has no work, of a money-ridden world that has lost its money”.
The writer went on: “One out of every two shops appeared to be permanently closed”.
Except this wasn’t written in the post-Brexit analysis, or just before the referendum, or a year ago or a decade ago: it was written in 1934 by JB Priestly in English Journey, when he visited the North East, and wrote of the hopelessness of people leaving in blighted environments where multiple generations have no work.
Gateshead — of which Priestly said “no true civilisation could have produced such a town” — still has, according to its local council, the second highest youth unemployment rate in the North East. Not much has changed.
Priestley’s book, credited with winning Labour the General Election in 1945, could almost have been written about the current situation, saying that “the old rules aren’t working (and) we haven’t made any new ones yet”.
He described one town as looking like “an ordinary town as a dustbin looks like a drawing room”, talking of “idle men — and not unemployable casual labourers but skilled men — hung about the streets, waiting.” Looking at the despoiled environment and the effects industry had had, he conceded: “You cannot become rich by selling the world your coal and iron and cotton goods and chemicals without some dirt and disorder” but said the North East suffered from “far too many eggshells and too few omelettes”.
Too many eggshells and too few omelettes is probably the best description of life for many people today.
How much has changed for towns in the North East or in Wales or even in Stoke-on-Trent, through the governments of all shades? The joke about Peter Mandelson confusing mushy peas and guacamole was untrue and meant to show how out of touch he was, but it doesn’t seem funny now: we’re out of the EU because he and people like him ignored working people for decades. Even the referendum was merely a private battle between two millionaire ex-Etonians.
This whole attitude was arguably behind the referendum. David Cameron called it to try and fix a rift in his own party, showing, in the words of The Economist, “catastrophic misjudgement”. A dispute talked about in House of Commons bars and coffee shops would be, it was supposed, resolved by asking normal men and women across the country. (This London-centric attitude is also why the bookies got it wrong — the London-based analysts asked their London contacts how they thought the vote would go).
If this was Game Of Thrones it would make a good story line. To pay for the rich bankers’ failure to behave like responsible humans, Cameron disproportionately hammers the poor and the young with not only benefit cuts but reductions in the services that the poor use; plus a test for disability that would sign off a one-legged man with a terminal illness as fit for work as lumberjack, and the much-hated (though arguably well intentioned) “bedroom tax”.
Then he turns to those same people and asks them to give his section of the party a vote of confidence. Yeah, right.
Worse, Cameron then offers a straight referendum with a 50% cut-off — get 51% and you win.
Hacked off voters in deprived areas have for years voted Labour but, given our electoral system, if 100% of voters support a candidate, they still only get one MP. With the referendum, every vote counted.
Refreshingly, there was no need for tactical voting, and no need to vote for X to keep out Y, just a straight vote, yes or no. Fed up with everyone in London telling you what to do? Vote out.
Hindsight, of course, is wonderful — as soon as the result was announced, it was fairly obvious what had happened: millions of people, worried about immigration and fed-up with being ignored, had given the finger to the posh boys in London.
Except that it’s not all hindsight: as this column said last week, the lying that has gone on is simply unacceptable, and many people voted based on fake information.
We said it was lies before the election and we were proved correct after, as the Brexit camp admitted that most of its main claims were not true: we will not save £350m a week so it will not go to the NHS, immigration will not be curtailed (we need them), we need the EU for trade more than it needs us (our exports to the EU are around 12% of GDP, the EU’s exports to us are 3% of its); we will not see any reduction in red tape and we will not “get control back of our borders”.
That’s not to say anyone should dispute the referendum. It was true democracy in action, the people of the country telling those in power what they really think.
However difficult the outcome, you can’t fault it.
It’s true that a lot of people registered a protest vote and didn’t really want to leave and none of the out camp really expected (or wanted, on the whole) to leave. As a US commentator said this week, the best analogy is that of the dog that caught the fire truck.
The EU has also shot itself in the foot. Brussels has lost touch with ordinary people, and not just in Britain. Too many people feather their own nests, too much of a democratic deficit – how many of you can name your MEPs? The shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg is ridiculous — the EU’s own figures say that relocating the Strasbourg seat to Brussels would save €113.8 million a year.
And the UK is — at least unless Scotland and Ireland leave — the world’s fifth-largest economy. As Nick Clegg has written, we sit at the top table of world affairs, from the G8 to Nato and the UN Security Council, and we are among the world leaders in everything from green technologies to gaming. On that basis, we should come out of this intact.
So now we have to move on. We should stop moaning about the referendum. It’s done. Get on with planning for an EU-free future.
We also need to move on in the sense that we must not retreat into Little England. If you want to be a world power, you need to look to the world and not inwards, and you certainly don’t want to start being racist. Non-EU immigration was not an issue in the referendum.
You also need to stop looking — as many Brexiteers did — to the past. The British empire is gone and it’s not coming back, thank goodness.
Even in Priestley’s day, people harked back to “sturdy Victorian individualism”, in response to which he said he’d like to call back a few of these sturdy individualists “to rub their noses in the nasty mess they had made”.
“Who gave them leave to turn this island into their ashpit?” he asked.
Those in power in London need to look out north of Watford and address some of the problems faced by working class northern towns that were briefly made prosperous (for some) by the industrial revolution. No real improvement since 1934 — it’s just not good enough.
Not that it’s going to be easy. If you think we’re going to be better off out of the EU, you’ve been looking the wrong way, or reading the Daily Express.
Leaving aside that we can’t do anything right now — we have no government, no opposition and no coherent strategy — even the Brexit side’s own experts said we would not necessarily be better off. We will have a couple of difficult years, then — by 2030 — recover to a similar position as we are now, plus or minus 1% of GDP, they said. It was only ever about sovereignty.
Hopefully they were being pessimistic, but the next five or 10 years look like being interesting, to say the least.