The United Kingdom has triggered Article 50 in Brussels and there will be no going back on “Brexit” from the European Union. A catastrophe for the ruling class, today is nothing less than a moment of triumph for a populist uprising driven by the economic and cultural distress of the British working classes.
The Leave campaign could not have won without the 62 percent of skilled working-class and 54 percent of semi-skilled or unskilled working-class voters who are largely patriotic by nature and led the Brexit revolution in the Midlands, the North of England, and Wales. For working-class voters, Brexit was a chance not just to reverse European integration, but also to reject a rootless metropolitan middle class in London, which has ruled for its own benefit.
Crisis of Economy
Working-class citizens have been left behind with diminishing opportunities and squeezed living standards in an increasingly globalized economy. Average real wage growth since 2014 has stayed stubbornly close to 2 percent, and there are fewer technical or vocational routes to success for young working-class adults. Yet they are excluded from a knowledge-based economy which rewards middle-class, college-educated citizens.
There are also fewer good schools and affordable homes for working-class citizens. Out of all the main ethnic groups, white working-class boys and girls achieve the lowest grades in exams taken at the age of 14 to 16. Less than a third of white, working-class boys from deprived areas go on to study for the advanced secondary education known as post-16 qualifications. Home ownership has fallen in working-class areas by as much as 10.6 percent in the West Midlands since 2005, and by 14.5 percent in Greater Manchester since 2003.
This class divide has been reflected in regional inequality. Nine of the UK’s top 10 “low-wage, high-welfare” city economies are located in the Midlands and the North of England. Despite this inequality, London and the South East still receives the lion’s share of public investment. For example, the £2,731 per head invested by the government in London transport dwarfs the £5 per head given for transit to the North East. Working-class citizens appear to have been forgotten by the establishment in London for decades.
Crisis of Identity
The economic backdrop to Brexit was poor for the working classes, but it was not the deciding factor. Brexit was ultimately a vote about identity. While the Remain campaign focused remorselessly on the economic argument for EU membership, the majority of working-class voters were more concerned with the growth of mass immigration and the concept of European citizenship.
Under the New Labour government, net migration increased substantially from 48,000 in 1997 to 256,000 in 2010. Part of this radical upsurge was caused by Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to allow the free movement of EU citizens into Britain from new member states in Eastern Europe without any transitional controls. Non-EU immigration was also allowed to increase at a significant pace.
Mass immigration has transformed the economic and cultural fabric of Britain. Working-class citizens find themselves marginalized in an economy partially dependent on imported foreign labor, which has depressed wages. Public services and the housing market are under severe pressure. Segregated communities have formed in Britain’s major urban centers, with half of ethnic-minority citizens living in London, Birmingham, and Manchester.
By encouraging mass immigration, the Labour Party has created this working-class backlash. In 2015, over half of people with no qualifications believed that immigration had a negative impact on the economy and cultural life. A similar survey found that 65 percent of people identifying as working class were “anti-immigrant” in 2015.
Under David Cameron, the Conservatives tried to address people’s dissatisfaction with mass immigration and pledged in the 2010 and 2015 general elections to reduce annual net migration to “the tens of thousands.” For seven years the Conservatives consistently failed to deliver on this promise. Last year, net migration hit 335,000. Mass immigration within an integrated European market came to symbolize how little say the working classes had over the pace and scale of economic and cultural change in Britain.
The Decline of Labour
After years of broken promises, working-class voters used the Brexit vote to voice their anger with the establishment’s failures. This was the culmination of a long line of events—including the Iraq War, the financial crisis, a parliamentary-expenses scandal, and the phone-hacking scandal—which combined to make working-class voters skeptical and resentful of authority. This frustration was, inadvertently, captured by Michael Gove, a prominent Conservative campaigner for leaving the EU, when he claimed that people “have had enough of experts.”
Across Britain, the once strong Labour Party of Tony Blair has been losing support to forces defined by the politics of identity. Before the Brexit vote, skilled and unskilled working-class support for Labour declined from 50 percent and 59 percent, respectively, in 1997, to 29 percent and 32 percent in 2015. This is partly due to the rise of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party, which won 19 percent and 17 percent of these working-class groups in 2015. In Scotland, Labour’s decline has been even more dramatic, as its share of the vote collapsed from 42 percent in 2010 to 24.3 percent in 2015, and the Scottish National Party won all but three of Scotland’s parliamentary seats.
Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise to the Labour leadership in 2015 has only accelerated the party’s disintegration. Although Corbyn’s firmly socialist stance on socio-economic policy has won over a loyal base of young supporters, his staunchly internationalist approach to cultural policy has only further alienated working-class supporters. His refusal to sing the national anthem at the memorial service for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain made clear his contempt for the sense of patriotism felt so strongly by many working-class citizens.
The Labour Party, founded by trade unionists over a century ago, no longer represents working-class interests and is paying the price. Prime Minister Theresa May, almost by accident, now finds herself as the leader of the workers’ Brexit revolution. This could very well be the beginning of the Conservative Party’s transformation into a new patriotic party of the working class.
David A. Cowan is a freelance writer and conservative activist who graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history.