The Brexit vote, and its continuing fallout, would suggest that Britain is a country deeply riven with division, perhaps beyond repair. MP for Wirral South Alison McGovern has observed the to-and-from of the ensuing debate up close, and argues that class prejudices may be a barrier to understanding the social conservatism that is at the root of these divisions.
Common political thinking has it that we are in the midst of a culture war.
The idea is that the dual shocks of Trump and Brexit represent a resistance from those who modern society has left behind. Forget economics for a second. This is not the problem of poverty in the post-crash decade. It is the idea that, for some, multiculturalism is a bad idea, feminism is no cause for celebration, and gay rights no source of pride.
Crazy as it may seem, the evidence is that what Brexit voters shared most commonly was not an economic analysis of where our country had gone wrong, but rather straightforward social conservatism. 81 percent of them agree with the statement that multiculturalism has been a force for ill, and 74 percent that feminism has been bad for Britain. It’s not the best.
Now, many commentators ally this social conservatism with class. You hear talk of ‘left-behind working class’ voters, ignored by the metropolitan liberal political classes. At one level, this is just a hilarious joke. The idea that wealthy, home counties-based former banker Nigel Farage has a monopoly on understanding northern working class people is a joke. The idea that Eton and Oxford-educated Boris Johnson can better represent people without such privilege is a joke.
And anyway, despite the focus on traditional Labour voters who supported Brexit, the vast majority of people who voted to leave the EU are those from the political right wing.
But underlying the focus on the social conservativism of some traditional Labour voters is a really vicious assumption. And that is the assumption that to be working class necessarily involves holding conservative social views compared to the intellectual glamour of city dwellers. An assumption is made that where poverty exists, so does prejudice.
I have been in working men’s clubs, and railway mess rooms, and football terraces, and I am fully aware of the banter that can go on there. But I just think it is a deep insult to those who grow up with less money in this country to imagine that they necessarily must be racist, less in support of women’s rights, and unable to cope with same-sex relationships.
Now, I am not naïve and I know that small town mentality exists. But it does not define anyone who grows up in a small town. Look at Merseyside. We are all aware that there is a cultural difference between Liverpool city centre, and the smaller towns of Birkenhead, St Helens, Ellesmere Port, Kirkby, Bootle and Southport. We know that younger people probably gravitate towards cities like Liverpool, giving urban areas the edge in age and diversity. But that doesn’t imply that outside the city prejudice must dominate.
Women who come from working class communities are entitled to the exact same voice and choice that women with money have. And the fact is, that despite the age-old trope of homosexuality being more common amongst so-called ‘intellectuals’, this is just nonsense. Like it or not, gay people are everywhere.
Divisive figures like Farage choose to blow their dog whistles on these issues because they want to create an intolerable atmosphere in politics. They want to scare their opponents into submission, and shout down progressive voices. Like the shock-jocks of the United States, they represent the worst of ‘debate’ by playing to people’s fears and stirring up anxiety.
Progressives lost the EU referendum vote precisely because we allowed such people to poison the well of British politics. We have a task ahead of us to never allow those on the right-wing of politics to equate actual economic poverty with a poverty of acceptance when it comes to fighting for equal status of all.