The left-behind are the result of hard problems, not organised malignancy. The problems of Brexit are likely to worsen their lot.
On the steps of 10 Downing Street, Theresa May promised a government “not just for the privileged few”. As she expelled her predecessor’s “Notting Hill” set of ministers and installed new ones in her image, an excitable political class thought it had at last found someone to correct Britain’s lopsided economy of low productivity, twilight industry, a sluggish north and addiction to financial services and shopping.
As if this time will be different. Remember the prime minister who promises to ignore the poor, puff up the rich and dismantle the state. David Cameron, that politician incubated in wealth whose election victory 17 months ago gave Mrs May her new job, exhorted similarly vacuous words about the poor, frail and elderly when his was the new face.
We lived through his austerity for six years before anyone mustered enough vim to do away with him. And, in the end, the downfall came from something else: you do not call referendum on a giant subject, flunk it and then keep your job.
Other than from obsessives, there was never much clamour for leaving the EU. But bashing the elite in service of the “ordinary” is the cheapest applause line in politics (hence why it is favoured by new prime ministers). Brexiteers who want to redesign Britain as a Singapore-ish stateless entrepôt blamed the EU for prohibiting the nationalisation of a failing steel plant in Wales. To the extent that ordinary people are seething, a pitch for more “control” — whatever that is — is enough to win a plurality on a matter of national destiny.
For the sake of democratic accountability, Britain should now leave the EU with as many of the Brexiteers’ promises intact as possible. This is no cinch. The illusion of EU à la carte will crumble on its first contact with reality. Mrs May, a tepid but sincere Remainer, was the last candidate standing to succeed Mr Cameron, being the only one to survive more than a fortnight of scrutiny.
We await her utopian vision of a fairer and more equal nation that will make every person who came before her look like a klutz for missing. Those left behind by globalisation, the real victors of Brexit for reclaiming “their” country, exist not because the system is rigged against them or elites hate them. They are afflicted because their problems are hard to solve. Rebalancing the economy away from London will actually take some considerable effort — as will boosting wages sustainably, improving schools and correcting the system of globalisation that brought the wrongs.
The northern provinces and post-industrial towns are left behind because their problems are so hard, because their votes mostly do not swing elections and because Britain has been successful in many of its metropolises (that is, more than just London).
For all the anger about “uncontrolled” immigration — the proxy for all left-behind grievances — Britain has record employment. Immigrants’ (small) net benefit to the economy has reduced, not increased, pressure on public services. There is, therefore, some truth to the claims of a “strong economy”. There is a vested interest in economic continuity.
Square this circle, prime minister. The economy is working more or less for much of the population. Unpicking success — and lower immigration is likely to be economically damaging — is nobody’s idea of an intelligent policy. Extending the success beyond metropolitan hotspots is very much an intelligent policy, which is why thinking of it and doing it is so hard.
We did not need the referendum to expose the lot of the left-behind, but it did make it harder to ignore. Or it should have done. We must hope — in the absence of any real opposition given Labour’s reveling in irrelevance — that the government succeeds. Cross your fingers. The likelihood of extricating Britain from the single market and free movement mixed with the absence of any credible plan for a replacement, then, will worsen the lot of the left-behind. The first victims of an economic downturn are the present losers. But, with all the difficulties, we have no choice but to betray. They expect differently, but they must be used to losing by now.