We’ve been fooling ourselves for thirty years. We believed that the awful toxins that defined society in our youths were, while not yet dead or even nearly dead, clearly dying.
We thought that the horrible treatment of people with brown skins, women, gay people, Irish people, Roma, people with the wrong religion or from far away and generally anyone who did not conform to some grey english stereotype was fading away. We thought this because we saw the acceptance of difference everywhere: we went to gigs where the audience was not all of one tribe, we walked through the park and saw couples where one person had come from Poland and the other’s parents from Pakistan. It seemed as if there was hope and, gradually, we stopped worrying.
We were wrong. England is not suddenly becoming a nation of bigots after the brexit vote: it has always been a nation of bigots. All that has changed is that now the bigots are saying what they have always thought.
The conventional thing to say about people who voted for brexit is that they were, on the whole, well-intentioned but a bit dim: they were fooled by a group of malignant politicians with their various agendas into voting for something very clearly against their own interests. In other words, stupid people voted for brexit, bamboozled by clever (or, at least, highly educated) people like Boris Johnson & demagogues like Farage.
While Johnson, & especially Farage, have a lot to answer for, I don’t think this is true. Apart from anything else it is insulting the intelligence of people who voted for brexit: I just don’t believe that a huge number people were stupid in that way. I don’t think that people ever really believed the lies that the leave campaign told: rather, they used these lies as a shield to conceal what they were really after. They were probably concealing it even from themselves in the way we all do; but they knew what they wanted.
What did they want? I think they wanted to live in the past: a version of the England that sputtered and failed at the end of the 1970s: the England that many of them grew up in — that I grew up in.
Well, that seems fairly uncontroversial: this is more-or-less what people said they wanted, isn’t it? To go back to a world before the EU, where people had jobs for life in the pits and steelworks, where England was a great country. Of course that world never really existed outside of television, but we can fix that: we can mix the best of the old with the best of the new, right?
But of course, there was rather more to that vanished dream of England than that: quite a lot more in fact. It was a world where black people were treated as second-class citizens at best, and where if they objected then the police would beat them up. Quite often the police would beat them up just for fun. Women were the playthings and servants of men, and no-one really cared if they had a few bruises. Gay people were treated, if anything, even worse than black people. Somehow, sex with children was tolerated, at least if the people doing it were white: it was officially not OK, of course, but everyone knew it went on and nobody did anything about it.
And of course everyone (well, everyone English, which is the same thing) knew that England was the greatest country in the world: Scotland and Wales were just parts of England, European countries were convenient holiday destinations inhabited by people who were greasy and often suspiciously dusky or humourless German-types who were busy eating each other and burning Jews (English people wouldn’t do anything so vulgar, of course, although they certainly didn’t want any Jewish people in their golf club). They didn’t have to be taken very seriously. And as for the rest of the world, well, the empire was a recent memory, and they definitely knew their place, which was serving proper English people.
The people who voted brexit want a return to the past, and they want all of it: perhaps they are not saying it quite yet, but I think it is terribly clear that this is what they want. You don’t have to read very hard to interpret what Farage is saying, or what people who talk about ‘the white working class’ mean.
Why? Why have people suddenly changed? It seems impossible that such a vast change in attitudes happen so quickly. Indeed, it is impossible: such a change in attitudes hasn’t happened, because the attitudes that people now evince are the attitudes that they have always had. For thirty years the people we all now despise as ‘the liberal elite’1 fooled themselves that education and cultural change were gradually making bigotry and xenophobia a thing of the past, but in fact all they did was was to make it, for a while, impossible to say what you think.
There is no future.
‘Liberal elite’ will soon start to mean the same as ‘underground resistance’: members of the ‘liberal elite’ will meet in fear in back rooms while uniformed faragists patrol the streets, hanging suspected and real liberal elitists on meat hooks. ↩