All around the developed world, political loyalties are breaking down. Electorates in Britain and the USA have gambled on reckless options in Brexit and Trump. The hard right is a formidable political force in traditionally prosperous countries such as Sweden and Austria (where they may enter coalition government after the imminent election), and anti-immigrant voters have found their voice in France and Germany. Secessionists ride high in Scotland and Catalonia. Centrists find themselves outflanked on the left too, with centre left parties recording historic lows in many countries. Everywhere you can find people who are mad as hell and who aren’t going to take it any longer.
Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by observing that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So what of the unhappy British family?
The first thing to note is that actually the British family is not unhappy. 93% of respondents told Eurobarometer that they were fairly or very satisfied with their life in 2016, a percentage that has been fairly constant for three years and which has risen from 85% in 1973. Whatever else this is, this is not an argument borne out of despair and strife. However, a recent YouGov poll showed that Labour had taken the lead with ABC1s while the Conservatives had taken the lead with C2DEs. The party of the middle class and the party of the working class are swapping roles.
Various explanations have been given for this political ferment. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Anywheres v Somewheres
David Goodhart’s book “The Road To Somewhere” posits the idea that we are seeing a culture war between Somewheres (people rooted in a particular locality) and Anywheres (people who are educated and outward-looking). The book has been widely praised. So I am sure that he will not particularly mind that I regard his theory as both simplistic and uninformative.
There is nothing new about these different groupings. Aesop’s Fable of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse shows just how longstanding these groupings are. More than 20 years ago, Jarvis Cocker told a Greek woman with a thirst for knowledge that she would never understand how it felt to live your life without meaning or control. Then we got Cool Britannia, showing that this faultline wasn’t going to get in the way of positivity or be particularly politically relevant for many years.
The divide between Somewheres and Anywheres is generational as much as anything else. Many Anywheres have Somewhere parents and grandparents – it made for quite a few awkward Christmas dinners last year. People settle down with age.
Why is local identity suddenly so much more important in guiding votes than it was previously? The answer is not to be found in the attributes of Somewheres and Anywheres, and nor is the solution to solving the culture war that Mr Goodhart identifies. What he is describing is a symptom, not the cause. We must look elsewhere.
For many people, if you want to know the name of the game, immigration’s what you need. Curiously, many different reasons are given why immigration is important.
Some argue that voters are motivated by the impact that immigration has on jobs. This seems unlikely. First, the jobs market continues to set records, with employment at record highs, unemployment at 40 year lows and job vacancies at record highs. Secondly, those agitating about immigration are disproportionately likely to be retired, so they have no economic stake in the jobs market. Thirdly, according to a recent YouGov poll, 61 per cent of Leave supporters believe significant damage to the UK economy is a price worth paying to get your way on Brexit and 39 per cent would sacrifice their job or a family member’s job for Brexit (a percentage that was still higher among the oldest, retired, age groups). A solely economic interpretation of immigration is inadequate to explain what is going on. For the same reason, I am sceptical that any perceived impact that immigration has on wage growth has much to do with this.
Nevertheless, with so many voters naming immigration as one of the most pressing subjects in polls, it seems likely to be playing a part in any Morlock intifada. It is impossible to ignore the unpalatable possibility that it is a simple dislike of foreigners that makes immigration so unpopular with some. But just as there have always been Somewheres and Anywheres, there have always been people who didn’t like foreigners. Has anything changed to make this more important?
There is a loose inverse correlation between levels of immigration in an area and hostility to it (a phenomenon also seen in election results in the USA and Germany). This partly reflects that fact that immigrants are unsurprisingly more in favour of immigration than native. It is sometimes suggested that anti-immigration sentiment is driven in low immigration areas by observation of what has happened in high immigration areas. This would be more convincing if the areas most hostile to immigration didn’t include some of the most deprived areas of the country.
It is possible that the competition that immigrants appear to provide for public sector resources may play a part. In most areas this is not particularly rational because immigrants are not particularly heavy users of public sector resources, but at a time when public sector resources are under strain, any additional strain on them is going to come under scrutiny.
This in turn leads on to an entirely different explanation for the zeitgeist.
Cards on the table: this is my preferred explanation. The mood of discontent is not confined to surly yokels who could double as extras from Deliverance. Explanations such as immigration which seek to explain the rise of the far right, are missing what’s motivating the rise of the left as well.
Philip K Dick wrote in Valis about, among other things, drug-addled hippies who believed that the Roman Empire had never ended. I’m no hippie – can’t grow the hair – but I believe that the financial crash never ended. Exhibit A is the national debt, which continues to grow rapidly.
The consequent austerity has created losers in many different groupings and it has fallen out of favour. The (still mighty) deficit did not feature in the 2017 general election. Votes were won by promising to spend money on pet projects, whether Brexit or tuition fees or uncutting women’s pensions or whatever. The public want to see signs that the government can spend as well as tax. When David Cameron said that we’re all in this together, he was being truthful. A lot of people, however, were unhappy about that or have since lost patience.
Citizens of nowhere
In this regard, big business was a trendsetter. Bob Diamond said as early as 2012 that the time for contrition by banks was over. This, however, was not an idea whose time had come.
The public has been outraged by a succession of stories that suggest that many companies, especially internet companies, see tax as something for the little people. Starbucks, Amazon, Google, Facebook and now Airbnb have come under the spotlight. That they have properly paid all tax due misses the point: the system seems set up for the benefit of megacorporations and skewed against the ordinary people.
Nor does the private sector seem particularly competent. Southern Railways are a byword for dysfunctionality. Quasi-utilities like banks and phone companies seem incapable of keeping data safe.
So voters are seeing public services under strain. They are feeling the taxes but not seeing the spending. Meanwhile, the private sector is also failing to impress. The country is changing and not in ways that the voters like. Johnny Rotten finished the last Sex Pistols gig with the line “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Right now, the public have that feeling. Politicians who fail to understand that are in trouble.