Britain's Bellwether: The big vote for "Leave" in Sunderland was the first sign that Britain was on the way out of the European Union. But why did Sunderland, a strongly regenerating industrial city, not grasp the rational arguments for EU membership? Because rationality had nothing to do with how people voted. As always in politics, it was about power and control. Who had it - and who didn't.
SUNDERLAND was Britain’s bellwether. When the news came through on (our) Friday morning that 61 percent of its citizens had voted to leave the European Union (EU) the Pound went into freefall. Suddenly, the political class’s smug confidence that Britain would remain in the EU was exposed as wishful thinking. If the prosperous, go-ahead city of Sunderland had decided not to stay, then, clearly, Britain was leaving.
Sunderland prosperous and go-ahead? Well, yes, apparently. Once famed for its shipbuilding, coal-mining and glass manufacturing, this classic north-east English industrial city (roughly the size of Christchurch) has certainly experienced some very hard times over the past forty years. Today, however, it ranks as one of Britain’s more successful “regenerating” communities. The automobile manufacturer, Nissan, set up shop in 1986, and Sunderland now boasts Britain’s largest car factory. More recently, the city’s burgeoning service sector lifted Sunderland into Britain’s top seven “intelligent” cities.
From this distance, the temptation is to imagine a stereotypical group of cloth-capped, blue-collared, left-behind “Mackem”, sitting in the pub and jeering whenever a “Remain” campaigner appeared the TV to warn them of the serious economic consequences should Britain vote to leave.
“Eee, by heck, lad, yer cam oop ‘ere and tell us abart ‘serious economic consequences’, and we’ll sha yer tee rotting docks and tee closed pits and send yer back tee London and all yer canny mates wi’ tee message that lee-if oop ‘ere could ‘ardly git any worse!”
In Maggie Thatcher’s Britain of the1980s, maybe. But not in the “Sunlun” of 2016.
On the basis of Sunderland’s recent economic performance, the response of its overwhelmingly working-class population to the EU Referendum was expected to reflect a cautious optimism. It is, after all, a city in which upwards of 60 percent of citizens own their own homes, and where large numbers of young people are taking full advantage of its expanding tertiary education sector. Sunderland is also an overwhelmingly white city, with fewer than 10 percent non-white residents.
Why then did it vote so decisively to leave the EU?
Exactly the same question is being asked by members of the political class from all over Britain – and the world. Wasn’t “Remain” the only rational choice? Even with all its flaws, weren’t the British people indisputably better off within the EU than without it? Obviously, voting to “Leave” was politically irrational. It made no sense. Why would anyone do it?
But leaving the EU was never about behaving rationally. Those asking their fellow Britons to vote for “Leave” were speaking directly to their hearts – not their heads. Overwhelmingly, the people who voted “Leave” in the referendum were guided by how they felt about themselves; their community; and their nation. And these feelings, like just about everything else in politics, were driven by issues of power and control.
Do you feel in control of your life? Do you feel in control of your community? Do you feel in control of your country? Do you feel in control of your future? Who has power over you? Who do you exercise power over?
To those whose employment is both precarious and/or oppressive, the sense of being in control of one’s life is weak. The sense of being at the mercy of others, on the other hand, is very strong.
The presence of EU immigrants in British communities, with all the attendant pressures on local housing, health, education and employment, not only fuelled anger and prejudice, but also stoked a deep sense of powerlessness. The EU’s rules had steadily eroded local communities’ power to decide who could, and could not, join their ranks. It was a power they were anxious to reclaim.
The growing realisation that the candidates chosen by both major parties were fundamentally out-of-sync with the values and aspirations of the people they purported to represent was alienating significant numbers of voters from the entire electoral process. Democracy means “power is exercised by the people”, but more and more of the British people were beginning to feel that they no longer exercised any power at all.
The flipside to these feelings of diminishing power and control were identifiable in that fraction of the British population who experienced their country’s membership of the EU as both liberating and empowering. Far from feeling oppressed in their working lives, these folk saw the EU as the bringer of ever more exciting opportunities. They welcomed the growing diversity of Britain’s communities and regarded migrants as exciting and valuable additions to the national mix. Nor were they alienated by the sort of people ending up in Parliament. In their eyes, at least, they were admirably representative.
Feeling thus ruled both sides. “Remainers” clearly believed a majority of Britons shared their positive feelings towards the EU. “Do they heck as like!”, responded the good folk of Sunderland.
This essay was originally posted on the Stuff website on Monday, 27 June 2016.