View from Brussels: Was Brexit a self-destructive battle in Britain’s ongoing class war?

A Dutch journalist has a go at the British working classes who wanted to use Brexit to break the EU, “the middle classes’ toy”. Is there some merit in this other outsider’s view?

I just back from a visit to the UK. Compared to richer parts of Europe, it's shabby but charming. What can I say?

It’s like coming to Ireland from Britain before Ireland had its Celtic Tiger period. Perhaps you will remember what it was like crossing into the Republic: a sense of decrepitude. A general lack of maintenance in the detail, inferior plumbing, very polite people. Britain has too many pubs for its own good. I think the GDP figures get it about right. Britain is not as poor as Portugal, not as rich as Norway, but somewhere in between. A country that is statistically average. The exceptionalism lies in Britain’s soft power and its massive self-overestimation, to be a bit rude.

I wonder if engineers have the same fantasy. Tear down the country, put a sign up saying “Under Reconstruction” and temporarily resettle the population to somewhere like Ireland, relatively empty, and then rebuild the country’s entire infrastructure from the plumbing up. I just can’t stand these endless rows of brick housing. “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!”

I was sitting on a local train, inching along the south coast. The seats were well worn. I took a photo of a particularly worn seat and emailed it to a friend in Sweden. I saw an empty fish and chip shop in the rain by the railway station and had a George Orwell moment. That woman who was working inside the chippy; what was going through her mind? Was her life fulfilled? Did the Brexit fantasy fill a hole in her life?

Identity sometimes takes precedence over material satisfaction and even if, as some argued, that Britain would lose economically from leaving the EU, then there is a counterargument that it is more than compensated for by the gain in moral strength and self-confidence that striking out alone will give. Left-wing American commentators always used to write that the American working class voted for George W. Bush, whose economic policy was contrary to their interests, only because the Republicans were smart enough to press emotional and identitarian hot-button issues like reining back abortion and gun control. That was a cheap identity compromise that allowed the Republican leadership to run an economic policy that definitely did not favour the working class.

Anyway, since this is an engineering and technology magazine, I was going to write a column about another paradox. One genuine success story from Britain ignored by the PPE graduates who run our country is the exceptional number of Nobel prizes Britain has won in the last 15 years. More than twice as many as Germany and more than three times as many as France. That is a better score than the previous 30 years. Immediately, I got into grouchy mode and wondered how this finding could coexist with a recently authored report from a professor at the University of Lincoln which found that the Britain is almost bottom-ranked in Europe for academic freedom.

I can’t figure it out either. Maybe the professor was just trying to make a splash and things are not that bad. Maybe there’s a lag between what happens at the undergraduate level and what happens at the postgraduate and professor level, so any effects of limited restricted academic freedom won’t be felt for another 20 years. Maybe Britain’s genius at this level comes from academics trained abroad away from the noxious political correctness that apparently flourishes in our universities. Maybe there is no connection between academic freedom and Nobel prizes. especially in the hard sciences. Maybe the survey uses the wrong methodology and is not very good: it doesn’t have many citations. Maybe it’s not political correctness that oozes from the student unions, but this generation’s interpretation of freedom (the duty to respect the dignity of Islam, rather than the right to criticise Islam) and that it won’t matter very much in the long run. Anyway, I was looking into all that when an article by a Dutch journalist leaving Britain caught my eye.

I was reading the Sunday papers and got little stimulation. The trouble with the British debate at the moment seems to be the utter parochialism. Reports of the party conferences written by junior journalists running around between drinks parties and hearing bits of gossip, saying Boris thinks this or Theresa believes that. There is a total lack of interest what our friends in Europe are thinking and doing - and total ignorance, too. You can make the argument that Britain lost a lot when it pulled back from Empire in terms of knowledge and affection of the developing world (yes, I am aware of the all the bad stuff, too).

Maybe the pull out of Europe will lead to a similar increase in insularity. Of course, British journalists don’t speak any foreign languages. So the Joris Luyendijk article is, I think, essential reading. As a Dutchman he is close to Scandinavian thinking and therefore close to my own. The Dutch, like the Scandinavians, are more prosperous, more egalitarian and in some respects more free than the British. They are not in a position to be patronised or ignored as Johnny Foreigners. They are friends. The Dutch are very sympathetic to Britain: back in the Sixties, they did everything they could to resist De Gaulle’s vetos on British membership and reverse the way the French were stacking the rules before British entry.

Luyendijk, 45, had been brought up on the Young Ones, Spitting Image, Lord of the Rings and the whole panoply of British rock music, as Scandinavians had. An enormous positive thing for Britain. However, his belief that Britain was full of nothing but quirky comedians and eccentric highly intelligent people who made fun of everything, including the Royal family and their own pomposity, was soon put to rest. After moving to London, he was astonished by how the vulgar “Jeremy Clarkson” types far outnumbered the refined “Stephen Fry” types. He quickly tired of the class divide and noted how the aggressiveness of the working class was constantly stoked by a handful of oligarchs who owned all the tabloids. He almost says the unsayable: the British working class hate foreigners, a hatred nurtured out of legitimate domestic grievances.

Reading this brings back memories. A lot of it rolled off like water off a duck’s back and I strain to recall specific instances, but I have vague memories of a handful of unpleasant situations in my life, targeted first for having a posh accent and second for having that posh accent while having a foreign name. There was - is - a class antagonism that simply doesn’t exist in egalitarian Holland or Scandinavia. Come to think of it, over the years I have talked about it not just with the north Europeans but with Americans and Australians.

In my more intellectual moments, I argue that the Brexit vote was a protest against the growing inequalities in the way that the London and the upper-middle classes prospered from globalisation and the European Union, while parts of Britain stagnated and were poorer than Eastern Europe. That’s the material interest analysis. But I wonder whether there was not also just the sheer joy in the working class of destroying the middle classes’ little toy, the EU. Britain could be explained by reading Dennis the Menace. The working class are Dennis and his mates and anyone who likes the EU is a pansy, like Walter and his gang of Softies who like teddy bears, dolls and flowers.

Leaving on that note, my guess is that proportionately more engineers, more than people in many other professions, come from the working class. Being hard and therefore meritocratic, engineering is perhaps a better vehicle for the class journey. The upper-middle classes shunned anything that reeked of oily rags or hard intellectual work (piling generalisation upon generalisation here…) . I can share with engineers in the irritation of the failures of our political class, their blithe ignorance of things that make a world function like science and technology and yes, maybe parts of the European Union.

However, doesn’t one’s sympathy with the working class cease when they want to break the EU simply because it exists? Because it represents a European refinement that shows up their tattooed vulgarity? At least they are not killing Europeans on the football terraces anymore. Rather, the aggression this time seems to have turned against the self. Enjoy your 50-mile customs queues.

Further reading

How I learned to loathe England

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