At the climax of Bridge on the River Kwai, Alec Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, wide-eyed at his hubris, mumbles and mutters: ‘What have I done?’ before being killed in an explosion. For good measure, he falls onto the detonator that blows up the bridge he had obsessively built, dismissing criticism from his fellow officers. Watching the British Prime Minister on Friday, it wasn’t hard to figure out that this was Cameron’s Nicholson moment.
And so the country woke up to shock on the morning after the EU referendum. The recriminations started almost immediately. Apparently it was the metropolitan elite, the young, the educated and urban, versus the ‘little Englanders’ of the shires, the old, the rural and the uneducated. The media, pundits and laymen speculated who had voted leave and why. Several possible reasons were articulated, some of which were credible. But in the maelstrom of angst, few people realised that this was a moment of catharsis for Britain: an outpouring of frustration that had been simmering away in certain parts of the UK for decades.
Firstly, why did people vote leave? If you think the answer is solely immigration you may not be seeing the entire picture, although it was a significant factor. For some, especially in the Tory Shires, the issue of sovereignty was central. Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP, consistently opposed the EU on ideological grounds, stating that immigration will need to continue. However, if one looks at places such as Lincolnshire, East Anglia and the coastal towns of England, immigration was the number one grievance as locals stated a perceived rapid change in the demographic and cultural identity of their communities. This corresponded with deterioration in wages and quality of life, for whom the need to find someone to blame became paramount. The far left and Bennites also voted leave, having campaigned against the free trade, neoliberal doctrine of EU since its inception.
On Thursday night, when Sunderland voted leave with a big margin, the country sat up and began to take notice. As solid Labour heartlands voted leave one after another, it began to become clear that history was being made. And yet, there was surprise among politicians and the media. For the last thirty years, industrial heartlands across the UK have been eviscerated as the forces of neoliberalism and globalisation have gathered pace to fracture entire communities. Under labour, there was regeneration but not enough to support struggling communities who inevitably felt taken for granted. As Labour chased the Daily Mail vote in Middle England, the solid Labour base was steadily eroding.
Reading and listening to people from areas such as Middlesborough, Bradford and Ebbw Vale to name but a few, the issue becomes more complicated. Some voted as a two-fingers-up to the ‘establishment’, possibly oblivious to the likelihood that they were sweeping away one type of 'establishment' only to replace it with another. In areas where there is little immigration, people voted against immigration. Others voted so their voice could be heard as they simply felt disenfranchised. Finally there were those who, despite knowing that EU funding had helped their communities, still voted leave because they believed that Britain must go its own way, independent from Europe. Some of the poorest places in the UK that have been hit severely by Tory austerity cuts consequently decided to give Cameron a bloody nose. Except the vote was not about austerity or the complex reasons that have lead to the decline in these communities. This was a vote to leave or remain in the EU. For millions, the vote was an emotional exercise.
As the dust begins to settle and the brexiteers backtrack on their promises, some are regretting their vote to exit the EU. The 18-24 year old brigade blamed the over 65s. They claim they have denied them their future. 75% of young people had backed remain, but, if polls are to be believed only 43% of that age group actually voted. Most recipients of a higher education and AB’s voted remain while the C2DE’s voted leave. Well, they are less than intelligent and quite ignorant aren’t they, would be the reply of the cultured professional sipping their soya latte in Brixton (Hampstead and Islington are old hat). Hundreds of thousands of Asians voted to leave, citing EU immigration as a major concern. To explain their position further would require another essay, suffice to say the belief that a halt to EU immigration would lead to non-EU immigration being welcomed with open arms is impossibly naive.
It is clear that there is a disconnect in society, which runs deeper than just voting out of Europe. Britain is divided not only by class but by culture. There is a lack of understanding of what the loss of manufacturing has done to the concept of masculinity in working class communities. Once, where generations of families built cars and ships for the world, now their sons labour in soul-destroying warehouses on zero-hours contracts for major online retailers. One must not underestimate the effect this has on the male psyche. White working class culture has been denigrated by many. We have witnessed culture wars striking back on a national scale.
The referendum illustrated the complicity of politicians and the media. Politicians were insufficiently challenged on their claims and when they were, they were dismissed in a flick of the wrist. Scrutiny was mostly absent on lofty claims and it was the paucity of the quality of argument from both sides, which saw rhetoric become fact, that has led us to where we are now.
History will place Cameron alongside Chamberlain and Eden as blunderers on a monumental scale. The blame lies squarely on the prime minister’s shoulder for his opportunism in gambling the future of the country to appease the discontent of his backbenchers. A referendum that few ever desired has unleashed a Pandora’s box of uncertainty as inertia and a power vacuum hold sway. A special mention goes to Boris Johnson who hoodwinked the population into a debate on Europe, which became a naked attempt at a power grab. For Boris, his ambition may yet lead to his own Nicholson moment.
Hafeez Burhan Khan worked as an archaeologist before taking up teaching. He is a postgraduate student of History at Goldsmiths College, University of London.