Writing in HuffPost UK, in a striking article, Lisa Nandy MP talked about the England beneath the surface. This England is her England, manifested in towns like her constituency of Wigan. Towns that lie ‘beneath’ the big-city, global sightlines of elite policy makers.
The sub-text of her argument was that the Labour Party and Remain supporters like herself had to accept Brexit. She canvassed hard to prevent the breach from Europe. Now she does not say Parliament must obey the instruction of the people. There is nothing pompous or procedural in the way she put it. On the contrary, and this is clear in talks and speeches, her tone is serious and sad. But it poses a really serious problem we have to think through.
The way I’d put it is this. Brexit is unacceptable. But its rejection of what went before was justified. Brexit needs to be stopped. But we can’t go back to the status quo and should not want to. Therefore, we need an alternative to Brexit that offers voters more control and more of their own democracy, without turning our backs on Europe – which will deliver neither.
This is a hard argument to make. But necessary given the growing crisis of British politics. To show why it is needed I want to take a closer look at Nandy’s analysis.
What she found was that, “it wasn’t in areas of complete social breakdown that people shook with anger during the referendum, but precisely in those communities where people still have much left to lose. This vote, the last line of defence, for the things that matter”.
Shaking with anger. The last line of defence. The things that matter. These are not phrases that describe a mere preference. They register a different kind of force: “there has been a growing sense that not only has mainstream politics failed to comprehend, speak for or respond to the changes in recent decades, but it is deeply disrespectful towards their lives and choices… We see it in the contempt for patriotism, attachment to place and desire for continuity… Do we understand the damage that does?”
Nandy is describing the power behind the Brexit vote. A shift in opinion polls is not going to alter matters when she witnessed her constituents voting Leave because it was “the last line of defence, for the things that matter”. They are going to stand and fight in a town where a McDonalds has been built on the site of what was once the Working Man’s Club. The leadership they need, she insists, “must be both political and emotional” and nothing less than “a critique of power and where it lies.”
Brexit presented itself as precisely this: a critique of power – the EU’s and the UK’s subordination to it – and an emotional and political alternative. The problem, however, is that Brexit is wrong. It will be a disaster for exactly the people Nandy represents. It won’t lead to an attachment to place and continuity. The country can’t become ‘Global Britain’ as a force in the world, as the Brexiteers boast. Certainly not in the next ten to twenty years. Were it true that Brexit is the solution, then all power to the Daily Mail! Except that while its populism may slow the fall in its circulation, it leads to a politics not of renewal but of closure, division and decline.
If not Brexit, then what? Nandy must be right in her fear that just stopping Article 50 is no response to the powerful forces she bears witness to. There has to be something more: a different, better answer to taking back control.
She is right too that this must address the intangible issues of power and emotion. In addition to policies such as housing, integration, social care, school funding and pollution, people also really care about their country and their democracy.
The clue to the answer in in the first noun of the title of her article: England.
To glimpse why, compare Wigan with Paisley in Scotland. Both were once thriving centres of imperial industry. Each is now grappling with impoverishment, Paisley so much so its McDonalds is about to close. Wigan is bigger with 95,000 as against Paisley’s 76,000 inhabitants. The region of Wigan has an electorate of 235,000, while Paisley is in Renfrewshire with 127,000. But they are social and economic equivalents. In the referendum, both saw an identical turnout of 69.3% – very high for depressed working class areas. Both also registered a 64% majority.
But in the Scottish town it was two-thirds for Remain while in Nandy’s English town it was two-thirds for Leave.
Mirror opposites, they tell us that the national factor was at work. It was ‘England without London’ where there was an 11% majority for Leave that drove Brexit.
So, if Brexit is to be effectively challenged it needs a response that speaks to England. It needs what, Sam Tarry, who was Corbyn’s campaign manager for the Labour leadership, recently called the “inclusive… emancipatory, historic, driving force” of the English, combined with economic renewal. Labour, he argues, stands for such a two-fold offer that will give people “control over their lives” by dealing with a “structurally screwed” economy while providing politically a “social contract” for English identity.
Such a positive programme needs a political enemy as well, to make sense of the problem it is solving. This is not the EU but the “structurally screwed” system of Westminster politics. Only an approach that proposes its democratic replacement can upturn the demagogic populism of Brexit. This needs to be the purpose and aim of English democracy.
Help reframe the Brexit debate with Caroline Lucas MP, Clive Lewis MP, Suzanne Moore, John Harris and Anthony Barnett at 7.30pm on Halloween, Tuesday 31 October at the Emmanuel Centre, tickets from Eventbrite.