Politics today feels a little too materialist and not analysed morally. Policies are argued from the perspective of benefits for GDP but their ethical value and purpose is never discussed. Sometimes it’s not the monetary value that people look to derive from politics when they listen to their elected representatives talk. Concepts such as democracy, fairness, justice, community and order have no material roots in them. They are not means to an end, not a process to something but the basis of politics itself.
This is something the Leave side understood during the EU referendum. It didn’t matter that their arguments were fiscally incoherent. It didn’t matter that they were offering a radical departure from the status quo with no promise of a wallet to generate funds for a dream of such heavy weight and consequence. For a lot of people it wasn’t just about economic security but a cultural and moral one too. They looked at the European Union and saw a distant elite unconnected to their lives, ruling from afar. Unaccountable and undemocratic; if you believe that power is local, that it should rest in the hands of citizens, then the concept of pooling your sovereignty together with nation-state neighbours to form supranational institutions can be hard to justify.
Britain’s post-industrial towns saw the erosion of communal identity, dignity and security under Margaret Thatcher. Unemployment rocketed, poverty soared, and power and wealth shifted away from workers towards the employers. Today, Britain is an unequal place. In fact, according to Oxfam, the world is a more unequal place. The 26 richest billionaires own as many assets as the poorest half. The wealth of the billionaire class had grown by $2.5bn a day. In Britain the poorest 10% were paying a higher effective tax rate than the richest ten% once taxes on consumption were taken into account.
This is the moral outrage of politics. And the damning thing for progressives is you would trust the conservatives to capture that sense of anger and despair better. They just redirect the anger at the powerless. But they see the fast pace of globalisation, the unease it generates, the economic struggles in places that can grow, and they find the narrative that people can pin hope and optimism on.
If you read Matthew Goodwin’s book on national populism, he articulates well that Leave understood that people weren’t self-interested materialists. What those on the Remain side sometimes saw as inward and unintelligent views were people deciding that family, community, tradition and localism mattered to them. They were prepared to take hits to their wealth to usher in what they thought was a better future. Goodwin stressed that although Britain was a terribly unequal society in which the highest earners enjoyed an astonishing share of the national wealth, and this prompted anger, it was the sense of cultural angst and disconnect with political that fuelled a vote for Brexit.
Remain are now in a position where we must revitalise that democratic connection whilst justifying maintaining membership in a supranational entity that is very undemocratic, and also maintaining Freedom of Movement and respecting people’s wish for greater cultural security. Brokering an agreement between Leave and Remain voters will not be easy, but at the moment Remain still seems trapped in a story of scaremongering about the economy.
No-one should take lightly these warnings either. For Britain to maintain that vibrant democratic spirit nurtured by the referendum there has to be some economic prosperity to make people feel politics answers their everyday concerns and needs. People aren’t materialists but they do have underlying basic material securities that need providing for. The left is determined to build a society of fairer wages, greater workers’ rights and democratising the economy to give ordinary people greater shares of the national wealth. These are respectable ideals but if Britain’s economy plummets in wake of Brexit, they will not be attained.
For Remain, victory will only be achieved through a positive and romantic story. Not about the European Union but its nations. We are neighbours and have been through time, both as peoples living together but as countries. We have fought against each other but when it mattered, fought with each other and prevailed against the forces of fascism. Today we are threatened by Islamist extremism while the imperialist surges of Russia and chaos of Donald Trump’s America makes the world more insecure and vulnerable. We made peace and kept it well and the survival of the European community against external threats depends on maintaining that sense of solidarity that was born during the second half of the twentieth century.
We need less warnings from business leaders about GDP hits and more from local politicians emphasising how culturally enriching our ties with our European neighbours are, and how we keep each other strong and safe.