In the spasms of defeat following the EU referendum, some Remain commentators have suggested that Brexit was a fundamentally racist choice. Indeed, one of the most forceful was Richard Elliot’s assertion on this blog that Brexit supporters are ‘the Cecil Rhodes of the twenty-first century’.
Elliot’s article reflects the stifling academic consensus which cannot even comprehend how ‘good people’ could vote to Leave. This breathtakingly simplistic analysis amounts to little more than the assertion that clever, open-minded people voted to Remain whereas stupid, backward people voted to Leave. It echoes the debate over joining the Euro fifteen years ago when, as Larry Elliot reflected, ‘People who liked the Euro were civilised, supported the arts, went to Tuscany or the Dordogne for their holidays. People who didn’t like the Euro drove white vans decorated with the flag of St George’.
There is a palpable disgust or, at best, mystification towards people who voted to Leave. As a PhD student in Oxford, I am keenly aware of this phenomenon. I was told multiple times during the referendum by puzzled friends that I was the only ‘Leave’ voter they knew. One former Labour politician asked in horror, ‘How can you vote to Leave? You’re an intellectual’.
Elliot’s article exemplifies George Orwell’s observation that ‘the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia [is] their severance from the common culture of the country.’ Revealingly, a week before the referendum, I went to the working men’s club in my mum’s village in Bedfordshire to watch the England-Wales football match. With the referendum on everyone’s tongues, one man stated, ‘I don’t know anyone who’s planning to vote Remain’. His friends agreed.
Benjamin Disraeli could have been commenting on the referendum when he wrote in Sybil that we are ‘two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets’.
What Elliot’s article fails to comprehend is that the British socialist tradition has never been simply made up of liberals and progressives. These are fine intellectual pedigrees, but they are not the full story of socialism in Britain by any means, especially among working-class Labour voters. Labour owes much to the ‘Radical Tory tradition’ of William Hazlitt, John Ruskin, and William Cobbett. As Ashley Walsh, my co-author of Camaraderie: One Hundred Years of the Cambridge Labour Party, explained in his talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival, the Labour tradition in Britain has historically been ‘suspicious of moralising universalism of the liberal left. It is [defined by] the pragmatism, common sense, and basic sanity of the British people, worlds apart from highfalutin sermonising’.
Therefore, Elliot’s instruction that Labour should team up with Liberals to provide ‘education’ to the ‘masses’ against nationalism and in favour of ‘liberal and progressive ideals’ runs contrary to the Labour Party’s historic strength in working-class communities.
Rather than preaching from on high to ‘those below’, the great potency of Labour as a popular party was that it shunned liberalism’s economistic, rationalist, and anti-patriotic trappings. ‘Beer and Britannia’ was a rallying cry from many early Labour MPs, such as Jimmy Thomas who served simultaneously as an MP and the general secretary of the railwayman’s union. As a matter of policy, many early Labour MPs such as Will Thorne and Herbert Morrison spurned the Liberal Party’s support of free trade, ‘frankly recognising that control over imports represented a more logical policy for a socialist government than free trade’ (Pugh 2010: 29).
As Paul Ward writes in Red Flag and Union Jack, ‘the majority of the British left has laid a claim to patriotism, not only when events such as wars have overtaken it, but most of the time’ (1998: 2). A core element of British socialism has been a belief in the nation-state which set it apart from liberalism. The Labour MP James O’Grady professed that a socialist he ‘could not live apart from the state. The state had a right to call upon him for service, even for his life’. The EU project, which has increasingly spurned the idea of a Europe of nation-states working in cooperation, departed from this basic instinct.
Worryingly, Elliot’s article is based on a flawed account of history. Drawing the parallel between Brexit and Cecil Rhodes once more, he claims that in the early twentieth Labour and the Liberals ‘combined forces in an electoral alliance in order to counter the potent nationalist appeal employed by Rhodes and his followers’.
Elliot’s assertion is puzzling, given that prominent Victorian socialists were avowedly patriotic, even nationalistic. Running somewhat counter to Elliot’s rendering of history, labour leaders such as Ben Tillett and Will Thorne were supporters of the Boer War, as was the Victorian socialist Robert Blatchford, whose best-selling 1894 book Merrie England was described by the historian Martin Pugh as ‘arguably the most effective piece of socialist propaganda of the era’ (2010:26). Echoing these sentiments, Independent Labour Party (ILP) chairman John Bruce Glaiser asked, ‘Why should not every British youth be prepared to defend the glorious privileges of his country?’
Instead, Elliot’s article reflects another keen insight from Orwell:
In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanised…In the general patriotism of the country, they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution… It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.
As the Labour peer Maurice Glasman has written, the ‘paradox’ of British socialism is that it has been motivated by resistance to change as much as support for it. British socialism is both traditionalist and radical. It recognises that change has costs, and those costs must not be ignored blithely. The whole concept of solidarity depends on some degree of fixity, familiarity, and regularity. Some forms of ‘progress’ can erode communal bonds, render places unrecognisable, and remove control which people previously exercised over their lives. Of course, change is not always unwelcome, but as the political theorist David Miller has emphasised in a recent book, to be successful it must receive democratic consent.
In the aftermath of the EU referendum, the worst thing Labour can do is complain about the result. Moaning that it wasn’t democratic or that people were stupid or racist is not going to do Labour any favours. Calling for a second referendum shows contempt for the British people.
Historically Labour communities voted to Leave in far greater numbers than many liberal commentators assumed. Approximately 161 Labour-held constituencies voted to Leave the EU, while only 70 voted to Remain, and C1 C2 DE (lower middle-class and working-class) voters all delivered majorities for Leave. These communities, many of whom are descendants of that ‘radical Tory’ tradition, are now looking for leadership in a post-EU United Kingdom. The Leave vote gives Labour the opportunity to look forward, set out positive vision for the country, think creatively about our future, and excite people, including its withering working-class base.
Labour can be internationalist while not accepting unfettered globalisation. It can support national reciprocity and co-operation without ceding democratic institutions. It can support immigration without giving up the nation-state’s ability to regulate it.
Rather than abandon the working class to parties like UKIP or patronise them as ill-informed, Labour as a party which is both socialist and traditionalist, internationalist and patriotic can be their home. Perhaps it is now time more than ever for Labour to ‘speak for England’.
Miller, David. 2016. Strangers In our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pugh, Martin. 2010. Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party. London: Bodley Head.
Thompson, Laurence. 1971. The Enthusiasts. London: Gollancz.
Ward, Paul. 1998. Red Flag and Union Jack: Englishness, Patriotism, and the British Left. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.