The metropolitan elite’s “obsession” with identity politics helped drive the Brexit vote as they don’t understand national pride, Australia’s top UK diplomat claimed in his outgoing speech.
Alexander Downer, who has represented Australia in the UK for four years, believes MPs, the Civil Service, the BBC are disconnected from the “mainstream” of society and as a result don’t understand the “pride” many have in Britain.
The outgoing Australian High Commissioner told an audience in Westminster that generations of leaders have “played down” the UK’s national identity, and as a result have not helped migrants integrate into society.
Downer, whose grandfather and father were both high-profile politicians in Australia, also warned it would be “humiliating” for the UK to stay in the EU’s customs union after Brexit, but leave its decision-making bodies.
Speaking at the Policy Exchange think-tank in Westminster, which he is about to become chairman of, Downer said his travels around the UK “made me wonder whether there wasn’t some kind of serious disconnect between the opinions of the mainstream of British society and the elites who dominated the nation’s major institutions.”
He added: “For example, I found the way immigration and ethnic relations had been handled grated with a substantial proportion of the population. Over quite some years, it was apparent that there had been only a very limited effort to integrate migrants into the mainstream of British society.
“Indeed for me as an outsider who comes from essentially a migrant country, it was quite striking to see how ethnic groups were so heavily concentrated into different suburbs and towns of the country.
“Contrary to the views of many in the commentariat, the British are very accepting of people of all races and religions.
“But it is not entirely clear to me that the elite understand that in Britain there is great pride in the country’s traditions and institutions. Tolerance of course is one of the country’s core values – and it has spread that tolerance to so much of the world.
“What seems to have happened in Britain as in other English speaking countries is that generations of leaders have played down the country’s national identity and replaced it with a near obsession with identity politics.
“Instead of building on an existing national identity by working to integrate migrants into the mainstream of society, the elite have salami sliced society with an ideology of identity politics.
“In defence of the elite, their obsession with identity politics is about rectifying inequalities and disadvantage in society.
“That is a laudable objective. But it might have been wiser to try to achieve that in a more consensual way building on notions of egalitarianism and national identity.”
Downer said he was surprised over the debate on whether the UK should stay in the EU’s customs union after Brexit, warning: “You would be better off remaining within the EU or being completely out of it in every way than leaving yourselves in such a position of weakness and irrelevancy. It would be humiliating for a once great country to end up by being little more than a dependency of the European Union.”
Earlier this week Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo announced his country should begin free trade talks with the UK the day after Brexit.
In a speech in London he said: “I believe that Australia and the UK should prepare now, with a sense of urgency, to negotiate as soon as possible a high quality and ambitious trade agreement of our own.”
Ciobo also called for trade negotiations with the EU to begin as soon as possible “to ensure that our limited access to the EU and UK markets is not further diminished as a result of the UK leaving the EU.”