There are two Britains. Divided not by left and right but between the haves and the have-nots. One Britain is prosperous and the other is struggling. One is embracing globalisation, the other is suspicious of it. One believes the nation is going to hell in a handcart whilst the other is on the Eurostar for a weekend in Paris.
They exist in the same towns and in the same streets. They can be young or old, North or South. There are many divisions; they share the same pubs and cinemas but they never mix. The intensity of the EU debate is because of this great cultural gulf, not the cause of it.
The fact that there are two Britains means that the leave/remain arguments from both sides seem irreconcilable. Do you want your country to be modern and outward looking? Or do you want your country back? The two Britains speak past each other and not to each other. When they do address each other, it is to call the other side stupid or corrupt.
For too long our leaders have only appealed to one of the two Britains. All our leaders and MPs, on both the left and the right (save for a few rare exceptions) come from the prosperous Britain. Some politicians (again almost always from the prosperous Britain) have mobilised the less prosperous Britain to upset the establishment and extend their own influence. They have raised populism, anti-politics and hatred of elites to achieve this. The Westminster bubble, the expenses scandal, politicians refusing to give straight answers and sometimes showing concept for the public: all these are very real, but fan the flame of anti-politics lit by those who stand to gain from starting a fire under the establishment.
Not all the politicians and writers exploiting the anger of the less prosperous Britain and directing it at the political establishment are conservative or in favor of Brexit. The radical left, of which I am supporter, has been complicit in stirring up anti-politics, populism and hatred of the political establishment. This was done in the name of fighting neoliberal hegemony. However, pointing at business and media elites and shouting about how there is a conspiracy against the public has been used to cover up the lack of a convincing economic model to replace capitalism. The radical left is partly responsible for the appeal of anti-politics and the hatred of politicians.
Plenty of politicians from outside the dominant parties are also responsible for spreading anti-politics sentiment. Nigel Farage is the self-appointed spokesperson for the frequently ignored Britain, whether they agree with him or not. He has used his position to fan the hatred of mainstream politics, because it is the easiest way of achieving his political goals. Through repeating the lie that the media and mainstream political parties are out to suppress him, Farage encourages the hate of the political establishment.
The prosperous Britain is far from blameless for the spread of anti-politics and disillusionment. There are plenty of metropolitan liberals (who vote either Labour or Conservative) who sneer that any argument for Brexit is racist or stupid. They cry about the threat to recovery from Brexit, without ever thinking that there are towns in Britain that have not recovered from the 1980s. What difference does boom and bust make to perpetual poverty?
There are Tories in large houses who deny the realities of poverty and claim that the poor are poor because they are lazy. These are the people who cannot see why everyone else does not aspire to be more like them. They care nothing for those left behind by the relentless march of globalisation.
There are Labour and Green voters who swell with sympathy for the less well-off, just so long as it does not involve talking to them, listening to them, looking at them or visiting where they live. These people want to make a better world, so long as they do not have to give up their iPhone or holidays to Italy. The prosperous Britain shows indifference or outright hostility to the less prosperous Britain and is responsible for expanding the divide.
We are reaching the point where our political system is starting to break down under the tension of this division. We cannot shout about politicians being in the pocket of big business without spreading disillusionment with politics. We cannot tell someone that their country has been stolen from them and not expect them to despise the political establishment. We cannot sneer and degrade other people’s opinions without pushing them further away.
The immigration issue is symptomatic. Calling out racism is always a worthy cause, but mixed in with the genuine bigots are millions of people with unanswered concerns about housing and jobs that feel ignored or dismissed by the main parties. The root causes of these concerns have more to do with the legacy of the 1980s and the run-down of the welfare state than immigration, but they have been simmering away unaddressed for years in less prosperous Britain. The failure of the two Britains to communicate with each other on the issue lurks behind Farage’s noxious ‘Breaking Point’ posters as well as the watch-it-burn mentalilty of Brexit.
So how do we heal the rift between the two Britains? Is the solution a strong evidence based political campaign to bring us together? A campaign of honest debate and not emotional blustering? This seems optimistic as the two Britains seem entirely unwilling to engage with the arguments of each other. The EU debate is an example of this. One side shouts about the economy, the other about immigration. There is no debate. Trying to create a new consensus around intelligent debate is not going to work.
Perhaps we could try to understand each other, to see what drives the anger of each side. It seems we are drifting towards a situation where our differences can only be resolved by direct conflict and not empathy. This will be unpopular because understanding sounds like compromise and compromise sound like giving up. We need to swear off anger and hate if we are to heal the rift between the two nations.
This week Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen was murdered in her consistency. Her death is an enormous loss to British politics and at this point we do not know the full story. What we do know is that this did not happen in a vacuum. Widespread hatred of politicians is a fact of contemporary political discourse. We need to stand up to the hatred of politicians. We need to stop anti-politics. We need to heal the divide between the two Britains. Understanding is the only antidote to hatred and division. Tragedies like this cut us deeply and show how divided we are as a society.
We need to stop talking across each other and start listening to each other. We need to stop every radical left winger who finds it easier to spread hatred of politicians than to argue coherently for their cause. We need to stop every right winger wants to spread hatred of some group or other to gain influence. We need to stop every person from the prosperous Britain who denies the need for change, who denies the divide between the two Britains itself. We need to find a way to make the two Britians one again.
Please donated to the Go Fund Me campaign set up in memory of Jo Cox and to support causes that were important to her. More details can be found here: