The 2016 Brexit referendum divided Britain along class lines. Why? Two novels on Brexit, class and the dynamics of division
Who voted for Brexit and who opposed it? Not long after the vote, Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath looked at the polling data in a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “Put simply, older, white and more economically insecure people with low levels of educational attainment were consistently more likely to vote for Brexit,” they say (Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities, August 31 2016). Other researchers agree. Leave voters did share some important traits that do not correlate directly with income or education – more on that later. Neither did lower-income people necessarily vote for Brexit, especially if they were young. Still, broadly speaking, if you were poorer and lower-skilled, you voted Leave.
But this is the group that is the first to suffer in any downturn , and is therefore likely to be hurt most by Brexit in the end. So why vote for it?
Researchers like Goodwin and Heath can uncover a great deal from data. But to really drill down, you need a novelist. Several have now written novels that are, to a greater or lesser extent, a response to Brexit, and try to put it in context. I have just read two of them; I liked them both, but they don’t tell quite the same story.
First, Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut.
Cairo Jukes is from Dudley in the West Midlands. He’s an ex-boxer in early middle age, scraping a living as part of a team of labourers digging up abandoned factories and other sites, clearing up the mess and recovering what they can that’s useful. When we meet him, he’s working in an abandoned abattoir. In his off hours he lives with his parents and his own daughter and her baby.
In The Cut, Author Cartwright uses this encounter as a vehicle to show the gulf between those who voted for either side, and tries to show us why. This approach isn’t an accident; Cartwright was commissioned (by the Peirene Press) to write this novella as a response to the Brexit vote.
That might make one expect the worst sort of didactic novel, the sort that Orwell warned against in Inside the Whale. But Cartwright does not fall into that trap at all. Cairo Jukes is a working man who votes for Brexit; it would be easy for a certain type of reader to dismiss him as someone who does this simply out of resentment and ignorance, but Cartwright won’t let us get off that easily. Jukes is a nice man. He does have something to say, and it’s said subtly. There’s no racist raving against foreigners here, just someone who reckons his class has given far more than they have got in return. The industrial wasteland he digs up is a metaphor for Britain; it used everything towns like Dudley could produce and more, and moved on - and now those left behind scratch a living picking at the mess it left, feeling that they are despised and seen as stupid. In one memorable passage, Jukes ponders that people are tired - “tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong.”
This does strike a chord – even with me (and I am quite posh). The day after the referendum there was a pic doing the rounds on social media that showed lots of supposedly delicious European food on one side, and on the other, a solitary can of baked beans. I grew up on a traditional British diet, and my mother was a wonderful cook. I found the picture offensive. Ignorant peasants, your food is shit. Your identity is shit. “The rest of the country is ashamed of us,” thinks Jukes. You want us gone in one way or the other.” Tired of being told what to eat… what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong. Meanwhile Grace tries to understand him, and a relationship – of a sort – begins; but the gulf is too wide, and they seem doomed from the start to hurt each other.
This novella was probably written quickly, and there are some flaws. Jukes is vividly drawn and very sympathetic. Grace, the film-maker, is somehow neither; it clearly wasn’t her that Cartwright wanted to write about. She is a bit two-dimensional. And I found the end of the novella (which I won’t give away) a bit melodramatic; from the readers’ reviews, others have felt the same way. But I think Cartwright meant it to represent the pain inflicted on two people who have misunderstood each other – as they do, tragically, at the end. Without revealing the plot, something happens to make Jukes feel unwanted and disposable, and his reaction leads to tragedy for both him and Grace. It is a little over the top, but it is an apt metaphor for the mutual self-destruction that has driven Brexit. And in general, The Cut packs a punch. It’s not perfect, but I wouldn’t have missed it.
The Cut is an intense story, seen mainly through the eyes of one person on one side of the divide. Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes is shot with a wider lens, and from both sides. But the result is just as unsettling.
Beckett is a science-fiction writer, and a successful one (his 2012 novel Dark Eden, in particular, was very well received and won the Arthur C. Clarke award). Two Tribes may be a bit of a departure for him. There’s a sci-fi angle, but this is a book about the present. From other readers’ reviews of Two Tribes, it looks like it didn’t work for some of his readers, but it worked very well for me.
Two Tribes is, amongst other things, a love story, and I did get quite invested in Michelle and Harry and wanted things to work out for them. (This isn’t the place to say if they do.) But what Beckett really seems to want is to show us the divisions in English society and where they could lead. He does this in part by showing us the relationship between Harry and Michelle, their miscommunications and there struggle to relate. But whereas The Cut is very focused on its main character, Two Tribes has multiple viewpoints. There’s a wealthy retired Army officer on the outskirts of Breckham who is trying to recruit a right-wing militia, and you see exactly how he does it by playing on working-class frustrations and resentments. Meanwhile one of Harry’s fashionable friends has a daughter who lectures at LSE and argues that there might now be a need for a “guided democracy”. The so-called liberals lap it up.
In fact I got the impression Beckett had equal sympathy for both tribes; at any rate, he doesn’t take sides. He seems more concerned with what all this could mean for the future. To that end, he’s used the plot device of a researcher in the 23rd century, who is reading Harry and Michelle’s respective diaries and filling in the blanks to make a narrative. It’s a bit artificial compared with the present-day bits, which are immediate and resonant. I did wonder if Beckett should just have written a novel set in the here and now. Still, this device does let him tell us what happened in England in the years that followed, with a picture of division then conflict – and cataclysmic climate change, which no-one prevented as they were too busy fighting teach other.
Besides, the book’s well-paced and the characters are very alive. Harry’s the hero if there is one, but he’s very real; he is tactless with Michelle, introducing her to people who clearly make her uncomfortable. He also seems to have an almost anthropological interest in her, as if she came from an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon basin. The anti-Brexit crowd preach liberalism and tolerance but this doesn’t seem to extend to Brexit voters – yet they are too self-satisfied to see the paradox; Beckett has quite a lot of fun with this. (Cartwright, in The Cut, sees it too. As Cairo Jukes thinks: “It’ll end in camps, it’ll end in walls, you watch, and it won’t be my people who build them, Grace, it’ll be yours. It’s already happening, in your well-meaning ways.")
Meanwhile Beckett’s fascist old officer gets guest speakers to talk to his militia, and it is chilling how the recruits’ psychology is manipulated. It is also very believable. And it is important, because Brexit wasn’t solely – or even, in my view, mainly – about economics. To be sure, Cairo Jukes comes from a class that has been used then abandoned, and he sees it. But Michelle’s different; she isn’t wealthy, but she runs a business of her own (she’s a hairdresser) and clearly has her life together. If you’re on the radical left, it’s tempting to see the Brexit vote as an uprising of the poor. That is part of it, but the whole truth is messier.
As I said at the beginning, voting Leave correlates with limited income and education. A number of studies have confirmed this. In their report for the Rowntree Foundation, Goodwin and Heath also do so. But they also note that younger voters tended to vote Remain, even if they were not wealthy. And they add that the disadvantaged voters who did vote for Brexit “are also united by values that encourage support for more socially conservative, authoritarian and nativist responses. ...Over three-quarters of Leave voters feel disillusioned with politicians; two-thirds support the death penalty; and well over half feel very strongly English.” The “nativist” bit matters here. Veteran politician and pollster Lord Ashcroft has found something similar. In a survey on referendum day itself in 2016, he found that of those who described themselves as more English than British, 66% voted Leave. Of those who said they were English not British, 79% voted leave (A reminder of how Britain voted in the EU referendum – and why, March 15 2019).
One suspects many people who would have identified as British 40 years ago now sense that people in the other home nations are now less likely to do so; so they don’t either, and identify as English instead. At the same time, however, they also sense that it is somehow unfashionable to be English, that foreigners prefer the Scots, Welsh and Irish. The picture I described earlier, with its implication that British food is crap, is an example of this sort of prejudice, and resentment at this may also have played a part. So it seems that part of what drove Brexit was a weakened and offended sense of identity amongst the English. I know of no data that proves that. But if true, it would explain the correlation found by Ashcroft and, I suspect, by others.
This is what resonated with me when reading the passages in Two Tribes in which Beckett describes his ghastly old fascist, his “recruits” and the guest speakers that manipulate their emotions. I found myself thinking of Eric Hofer’s The True Believer, and the historian Peter Fritzche’s Germans into Nazis – both books that show, albeit in very different ways, how populists, including Fascists, prey on those who feel a need for unity and belonging. I also found myself thinking of academic Jan-Werner Müller’s definition of populism, as laid out in What is Populism? I wrote about that book at the time it was published in 2016 (here). But in essence, a populist identifies with “the people” but either does not define them, or does so in a way that “others” many of those around them, rather as Hitler did with Jews. So if you’re not in the core group of “the people”, you’re out of luck. It’s striking that, according to Ashcroft, the the vast majority of Asian and black voters went with Remain. For what it is worth, anecdotal evidence suggests that ethnic minorities can identify as British but find it harder to identify as English, and if they do, they do not always feel that assertion is accepted. If Brexit is about English nationalism, the future doesn’t look great for them.
It’s a dodgy cocktail. A people looking for an identity; a deeply flawed cause, Brexit, in which they find it; and a growing exclusion of all those who, for whatever reason, don’t sign up or are not invited. Meanwhile those who can see the disaster unfolding do not really understand how it has come about, and lack the skills and the grace to prevent it. Maybe Beckett is right, and nastier things than Brexit might now be on their way. In fact Two Tribes feels prescient. As for The Cut, it is a warm and humane picture of a decent man with nothing to lose. Polling data can tell you a lot, but now and then a novelist hits the nail right on the head.
Mike Robbins is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. They can be ordered from bookshops, or as paperbacks or e-books from Amazon and other on-line retailers.