Boris 2 | The Empire Strikes Back

It is easy to see why an elite of posh boys obsessed with their own power and privilege would lead the leave campaign and the subsequent Brexit government.  

The more complex question is why so many ordinary people would follow a group of politicians who treat them with snobbish contempt .

You could write a history of post war Britain as a battle between 2 social forces:

An egalitarian, meritocratic movement, and a hierarchical conservative reaction.   Brexit was the great triumph of elitism and reaction.   Brexit was not an anti elitist campaign – many supported it because it was reassuringly led by authentic Toffs who had never felt the need to hug a hoodie or drive a husky. 

One of the great myths of modern politics is the characterisation of red wall votes who backed Boris and Brexit as the Bob and Terry from the Likely Lads. Ordinary working class Northerners with a healthy mistrust of elites and unaccountable authority.  This photo from Sunderland gave a misleading view of Brexit voters:

The chap in the blue top later served prison sentences for racial hatred and child pornography

Typically Brexiters  aren’t northern working class voters like Bob and Terry, they are Hyacinth Bouquet from Keeping up Appearances, retired, comfortably well off, home owner, twitching her net curtains anxiously in case someone opens a Polski Sklep down the road.  There are plenty of Hyacinth Bouquet voters in the red wall seats where I grew up, and I recognise those attitudes towards Boris and Starmer.  

Red all towns like Hartlepool and Consett have become places where the young and talented leave and the old and retired stay behind.   They leave for University or jobs in a big city, and when they return they have changed – they have liberal attitudes, middle class tastes and are unimpressed by the socially conservative values and old fashioned values they find.   This is partly the consequence of Thatcher devastating old industries, but also the massive expansion of higher education and opportunities under Blair.

The people left behind have become grudgeful – they feel that the are slipping down the social hierarchy, their values are ignored or ridiculed.   They are anxious about the future and the miss the close knit socially conservative communities that they grew up in. They feel an acute loss of identity.

A big part of the attraction that posh boys like Boris have to these voters is economic.   They mostly own their own homes and have made some staggering paper profits over the last 12 years.   They trust a bunch of politicians who inherited wealth to protect their own unearned income.   The economic split in British politics is no longer between rich and poor.   It is between people who work for a living, who are mostly Labour and Remain voters, and people who don’t work for a living and who back Boris and Brexit.    The Brexit vote was born out of inequality; not a burning desire to reduce it but a stalwart commitment to maintain it.

Voters who don’t work aren’t as bothered about the economy as those of us who do; they believe that their incomes will be protected.   Austerity and Brexit were both economically damaging to the UK, but popular with voters who don’t work – they know that someone will take the hit, but they know that it won’t be them.    

But the attachment to Boris and the posh boys goes deeper than this.

There is a massive resentment towards people like Starmer (and me) who did well, went to uni, moved away, and when we come to visit we display our liberal values as being superior to the tight knit socially conservative values we left behind.

People used to always say to me not to forget where I came from, stay true to my roots, when what it really meant was don’t try and reach too high, change too much, get ideas above my station.  

Boris was born posh, and he is authentic and socially conservative. Starmer (and me) have ideas above our station, we think we are better than we were born to be.

The class system acts against people who don’t want to stay in the station in life they were born with; people who move away, get different values. Boris doesn’t pay the same penalty because he was born posh and stays true to his poshness in a way that Cameron (who pretended to be an ordinary middle class bloke) didn’t. Boris is authentic. Me and Kier aren’t, even if we grew up with a fraction of his wealth.

This is one of the unspoken aspects of the British class system – it perpetuates itself because it is self policing – it’s not just those at the top who stop people from moving up – it is people at all levels who feel that anyone who rises is a problem, who needs to be put back in their place.

The upper classes don’t need to stamp down on people who want to rise up – often they will accommodate talent from the low ranks if it strengthens their own hold on power. It is a particular group of working class people who will tear down anyone who rises up and puts on airs and graces.   

Tearing down those airs and graces and returning Britain to a rigid social order was an unspoken attraction of Boris and Brexit to voters who feared they were been over taken by graduates, minorities, foreigners.  

Whenever people bug me now about staying true to my roots and not getting airs and graces above my station I remind them off Paul Gascoigne – a supreme talent who was never able to break away from his roots and who ended up fucked.

Sometimes it’s better to wave goodbye to your roots from the sun roof of a speeding sports car than stay true.

These voters have a long standing trust in the British upper classes.  Orwell wrote about it in the Lion and the Unicorn.   

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed… [not]

….turn themselves into mere bandits, like the American millionaires, consciously clinging to unjust privileges and beating down opposition by bribery and tear-gas bombs. After all, they belonged to a class with a certain tradition, they had been to public schools where the duty of dying for your country, if necessary, is laid down as the first and greatest of the Commandments.

The older generation of post Tories shared in the hardship of war.  MacMillan, Eden and Heath all saw active service, were wounded and decorated.   The generation that grew up idolising Thatcher had no such experiences, nothing to teach them the hard lesson that actions have consequences and a foolish and ill prepared leader gets their men killed. No sense of duty or sacrifice.

That is why party gate is so damaging, not just to Boris, but to the whole elite project.   When it was time for them to share in the hardships they chose not to.  They partied and boozed, and handed lucrative contracts to their mates.   

They vowed to thee my country, the service of their love, then sloped off down the pub.   The current cadre of posh Brexiters have more in common with Burgess, Philby and MaClean than MacMillan, Eden and Heath, not least of which is a habit of hanging out with dodgy Russians.  

Lots of older voters in Red Wall share with the very posh and privileged a fear of meritocracy.   They grew up in a world in which men were elevated above women, white over minorities, straight over gay.   They see a meriticratic society as a threat to their status just as profoundly as those who went to Eton.   And just as they want to return to a world in which they make the rules at home, they share a nostalgia for a lost world where Britain made the rules how we it liked unburdened by the constraints of the EU or international relations or reality.  

Brexit is a once and for all opportunity to change the rules of the game.  Instead of Britain shifting from periods of progressive meritocracy and reactionary elitism instead the rule of the reactionary minority will be made permanent.  

PS I always think Down In the Tube Station at Midnight gets to the heart of the way people get torn down for trying to better themselves. The upwardly mobile protagonist “has a little money and a take away curry, on my way home to the wife, lining up the cutlery, I know she’s expecting me.. polishing the glasses, pulling out the cork”, while the assailants “smelt of pubs, and wormwood scrubs and too many right wing meetings”. I do however worry that he was only brining home the take away at midnight? Thats very late to be eating spicy food.

One thought on “Boris 2 | The Empire Strikes Back

  1. I always thought ‘Whatever Happened To . . .’ was a good early diagnosis of the emerging faultline in British politics – Bob embracing a changing world and on the way up, Terry increasingly bitter about it. Terry would definitely vote to smash it all up.

    But spot on that Brexit was primarily driven by the petite bourgeois – my respectable working class grandparents read the Express and Mail, not papers with topless girls in.

    The other problem with ‘Brexit as a working class desire’ is it ignores how much of the actual working class in this country is black, brown, East European, Filipino. People don’t want *their* children working as cleaners, hospital porters, delivery drivers, on the bins – but there are surely enough ‘unemployed’ white British to do those jobs.

    The other thing this post reminded me of is the Law of Jante – the downside to Scandinavian equality, and arguably a big part of our Anglo-Saxon legacy

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