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Flattering the People

On the Saturday before Britain voted in the Brexit referendum I was sitting eating my breakfast in a north London kitchen and listening to BBC 4’s Any Answers, on which, under the chairmanship of David Dimbleby, Peter Oborne, Polly Toynbee, Max Hastings and Claire Fox were discussing the murder of Jo Cox, the mood among the British electorate, the behaviour of the media and the public standing of politicians. At a small social gathering later in the evening in the same house I carried out an informal poll of voting intentions: six voters, six votes for Remain ‑ among two Irish people, one Australian, one English person, one English of Irish family and one English of Cypriot family. Of the six, four were (I’m fairly sure) Labour voters and two Tories. My sample of course suggested that Remain would walk it.

The liveliest person on the Any Answers panel – and the one who, by far, most annoyed me – was Claire Fox, a former leading member of the curious Trotskyist sect the Revolutionary Communist Party, now turned libertarian and an avowed foe of “the liberal left”, whom she has said she likes to wind up. There may well be reasons to question some of the nostrums of the liberal left –which is indeed a fairly solidly established (and often predictable) ideological formation, both in Britain and in Ireland, but Claire Fox manages to do the winding up in a pretty obnoxious and mendacious way.

Discussing the apparent socio-economic indicators predicting voting behaviour (rich people for Remain, poor people for Leave, to simplify), Polly Toynbee, perhaps herself representing the liberal left, blamed the general “kick the establishment” mood on widespread poverty and hopelessness as globalisation and the migration of jobs to southern Britain had left whole communities in provincial England behind.

Claire Fox might have partly agreed with this, but she wanted to make a different point and one that in effect flattered the Leave side and undermined those who politically opposed them. I'm pretty sure I heard her saying also that she was voting Leave herself. No surprise there: for Trotskyists, worse is always better.

There is a huge gap between all politicians and the mass of people in society, Fox said. The demos – “particularly those people who are voting to leave, are treated with contempt ... people say 'we don’t know what’s wrong with these people – are they ignorant or stupid?' – and the experts tell them what to think ...

“I think that one of the difficulties,” she continued, “is that both politicians and the media are united in this one thing, which is they underestimate the intelligence of the public ... and try and simplify everything ... and what’s even worse they imagine that if you’re young you’re particularly idiotic, or if you’re working class you have to go ‘ARE YOU FOLLOWING MY WORDS?’”

And for anyone who thought that the stirring up of hatred against immigrants was a particular worry right now in England, Fox had an important corrective view: “I have been incredulous at the bile aimed at Nigel Farage and UKIP [not that she agreed with them, mind you; oh God no] ... I don’t know why everyone thinks that UKIP’s elected public servants should be treated like scum by polite nice-sounding broadsheet newspapers ... “

This is of course not merely contrarian but breathtakingly cheeky. Fox, however, is a quite impressive talker (Irish Catholic immigrant background ‑ words at will, I suppose). Her method of argument, if not her philosophy (that may well still be Trotskyist even though she now campaigns for ideas more associated with the right) is a familiar kind of “come-off-it” populism which she likes to portray as rationalist, but in fact her reasoning is largely emotive and rather slippery. It is a discourse in which the heroes are always “ordinary people”, who, it cannot be said loudly enough or often enough, are fed up being sneered at or patronised by the wealthy or the educated. Its Irish equivalent, some years ago, was the oft-repeated mantra “the people aren’t stupid, you know”. But if people (or some people) aren’t stupid, why do we need the word? Surely it wasn’t coined just for Afghan hounds?

There is of course something to the idea that many people in England feel they have been taken for granted, if not abandoned, by what everyone, it seems, is now calling “the political elites”, including those of the Labour Party (many of whom, local councillors for example, are really quite far from elite). And it is surely a kind of inadequate head-in-the-sand “left liberalism” which does not see that it is highly likely that elderly people living in poor economic circumstances and seeing the areas where they have been brought up and have always lived transformed by the arrival of significant numbers of new, non-English-speaking populations will be hostile to these changes and perhaps open to endorsing “radical measures”, measures which are in fact very unlikely to bring any improvement in their circumstances – and which therefore should of course be combated vigorously on the ground.

Those whose politics is based on the aspiration to more equality and greater life chances for both white working class and immigrant Britons have the right, indeed the duty, to challenge the positions of the likes of Farage (and of course his many ideological fellow travellers in the Tory Party), creepy lectures about supposed condescension or contempt from Claire Fox notwithstanding. The point is very well made by novelist Catherine O’Flynn, among a group of writers contributing to a forum on Brexit in The Irish Times:

I find a lot of the [post-Brexit vote] analysis pretty infuriating. I keep being told that we need to listen to working-class fears about immigration and take them seriously. I have listened and what I hear doesn’t make any sense to me.
I keep being told that it’s patronising to say that swathes of voters had their justified anger shamelessly manipulated and fell for lies and insinuations. I think it’s patronising not to say that. I’m sick of a certain kind of middle-class guilt that holds this superficial reverence for “working-class” views. Yes we need to listen but we also need to challenge. I’m the child of immigrants. I grew up in the middle of a council estate in inner-city Birmingham. Racism is neither inevitably nor exclusively a “working-class” delusion. But anger, despair and poverty make the perfect compost for fascists like Farage to sow the seeds.

28/6/2016