Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street,
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
For we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet."
A century or so after the poet and theologian GK Chesterton wrote those words, the people of England have spoken. After weeks on end of warnings from the great and the good, everyone from political leaders, archbishops, economists, major employers and business leaders and even celebrities such as Simon Cowell....... the people have voted in the opposite way. They have created a political earthquake, the repercussions of which are too early to tell but may well be the most contrary shift in this country's direction since Henry VIII broke with Rome. Why did this happen and why did the advice of the political elites and experts go so unheeded by so many?
The Remain camp believed that emphasising the economic risks of Brexit would decide the referendum. "It's the economy, stupid", as Bill Clinton once remarked. On the surface this made total sense, it is standard political wisdom that most people vote with their pockets and their vote is based on economic self-interest. However the problem with this approach is that the public's trust in politicians and economists on this issue was badly dented by the 2008 financial crash and the events thereafter. The MPs' expenses scandal, bankers' bonuses, even the revelations of the Panama Papers (which revealed that Mr Cameron's father had set up his investment fund in a tax haven) - all of these things heightened the popular sense of a nest-feathering elite that had become fatally out of touch.
Project Fear banged on endlessly about the economic risks of Brexit seemingly oblivious to the fact that many people at the bottom of the social pile; those on zero-hours contracts and those in high unemployment areas such as the north-east have got little to lose and were prepared to take a risk. As if to emphasise how out of touch he was, George Osborne announced that Brexit could, shock... horror, lower house prices. Thus adding thousands of prospective first time buyers to the Leave side.
In traditionally Labour areas outside of London they voted in huge numbers for Brexit because the Labour Party took the conscious decision in the early 1990s not to speak for these people. Tony Blair and New Labour regarded them as an embarrassing bunch of backward proles who were as obsolete as coal mines in the new age of globalised capitalism and couscous eating metropolitan shiny happy 'now' people with jobs in the media. I can recall a certain member of the Labour Party in Colchester, himself from the north east, telling me in the Blair era that these people, "should just move to the south". Very little effort was put into helping these areas which remain largely those of the white working class. In Wales, which voted for Brexit, ex-mining areas are some of the most deprived areas of the UK.
Now in 2016, the Labour Party suddenly expected to be able to reach these people and that they would jump into line. Why the hell would they when white working-class voters, the party leaders say, are bigots, raging against the modern world and globalisation? This condescending rubbish has come back in their faces because, during the campaign, it proved so disastrously self-destructive.
Time and time again the polls suggested that immigration was the number one concern of those who were intending to vote for Brexit. Here the failure of the political class goes back a long way. Ultimately there are two ways in which this issue could have been dealt with more effectively and honestly by successive governments. Approach one would have been to tell the electorate that immigration is good for the economy and for social diversity and to extoll its benefits. Approach two would have been to use the power that the British government has over non-EU immigration to reduce the numbers coming in from the wider world.
Governments could have chosen to do either one of the above or both. In fact they chose to do neither. Instead every government I can remember featured politicians earnestly saying how they were 'worried' about immigration and how they would 'do something about it', while actually doing the complete opposite. This disingenuous and deceitful approach has eroded the basic trust of the public in politicians who have been both too cowardly to point out the benefits of immigration and too cowardly to seriously reduce the amount of non-EU immigration if they were so inclined. Instead politicians have spent decades blaming the EU for high immigration, backed up by the tabloid press, and then wonder why the public don't want to stay in the EU. The term 'dur' springs to mind....
Moreover successive governments have failed to accept that there is a widespread perception in working class communities that immigration depresses wages and provides cheap labour for the bosses. Whether or not this perception is true or not is not the issue. It exists. They could of course have invested in these areas and spent some money on their public services. But no, the political class chose to impose austerity on these areas and since 2010 have provided inadequate investment in schools and hospitals to match the increasing populations. I remember reading a newspaper article in the 1990s where a Labour Party commentator (maybe Frank Field) was warning Tony Blair that if he didn't help deprived working class communities then they could turn to the BNP. This fell on deaf ears. When Gordon Brown called a woman a "bigot" for moaning about immigration during the 2010 election campaign the disconnect between the political leaders and the working class was writ large.
The problem is that too many politicians DO see working class people as a bunch of backward, bigoted, racist peasants and would rather just insult or ignore their concerns. Yes their concerns may be wrongly directed and they may be rough round the edges and use politically incorrect expressions.
However you don't change peoples' attitudes by screaming bigot in their faces or ignoring them as the chickens will eventually come home to roost, as they did in the referendum.
For weeks on end, every news broadcast has seemed to begin with the latest dire warning from some or other expert, economist or Remain politician about the consequences of Brexit. Many of these economic warnings may prove to be accurate although I hope not. However it was too much, it was overkill and many people just switched off and stopped listening. Some of the Remain claims were so over the top as to be ridiculous; David Cameron warning about World War Three for example. Worst of all however was George Osborne's bullying threat of an uber harsh austerity budget. It felt like bullying because it was bullying and I suspect it added hundreds of thousands of votes to the Brexit side. The sheer number of employers writing to their employees demanding that they vote to Remain will have had the same effect.
Yes the Leave side also peddled obvious over-the -top falsehoods. Glaring ones such as the £350 million pledge. However the public simply felt that both sides were engaged in lying to them and so went with their gut instincts.