When discussing the Britain left behind post-referendum, there has been a liberal use of the word “elites”.
It’s used to describe the people that make up higher education, think-tanks, policy groups, the media – those who supposedly shape society. Michael Gove’s “The British people have had enough of experts” appears so apposite that it is destined to be a topic line in school textbooks decades from now. The ‘elites’ have been toppled by a Brexit they didn’t expect or want, and are now being called upon to fight back against rampant anti-intellectualism.
Whilst it’s initially comforting to be, as a Remainer, elite by association – I am slightly concerned by their apparent incompetence. Not only did they lose the referendum, but they lost on the most predictable of issues – immigration and democracy. Even more absurd is their horror as Britain descends from egalitarian paradise into a kind of 1984 dystopia where the proles have finally decided to revolt. The divisions today are the same as those on the 22nd of June, the 22nd of January, and long before that.
“In truth, it’s like gagging at what’s been scraped from under your own toenail”
The fear of globalisation, an ever-expanding European Union and immigration has been ever-present for decades. Tellingly it was the majority of over 50s that voted leave – generations born in the 60s, 50s, 40s and 30s – lives spent in the century of the Cold War, unparalleled nationalism, the emergence of mass migration and social change at Industrial Revolution pace. The changes clearly require complex policy solutions as well as a positive cultural narrative about the benefits these changes bring, but the establishment couldn’t get it to stick. Instead, politicians have been content with rationalising xenophobia so as to not alienate voters, sweeping the problem under the carpet.
Economic and regional inequalities remain unaddressed, a key determinant in the Brexit vote. Those earning lower incomes feel more threatened by high levels of immigration, but the response from the elites has been a sneering dismissal. The ‘proles’ witnessed the ‘elites’ lead them into a financial crisis and then were burdened by somebody else’s mistakes. Average wages in Britain have only returned to 2009 levels this year. Within the European Union, the UK’s proles watched on as the EU tore up democracy in Greece. An angry, disengaged portion of the population grew under the noses of all those elites who are now repulsed at the reality, but in truth, it’s like gagging at what’s been scraped from under your own toenail.
“Schools need to produce active, engaged citizens who grow up with an understanding of the institutions that surround them”
Many are now calling for schools to teach Politics as a compulsory subject and it’s hard to argue against. Jeremy Paxman’s BBC documentary, shown just a couple of weeks before the vote, was applauded for being informative and impartial. The only problem was that the documentary was (and had to be) predominantly occupied with actually explaining what the EU was, rather than the merit of being in (or out) of it. Leavers acted as if they’d established an incisive case whenever they asked “Who can actually name their MEP?” All they really did was point out why there shouldn’t have been a referendum at all. Schools need to produce active, engaged citizens who grow up with an understanding of the institutions that surround them.
Both elections and referendums have a tendency to turn into point-scoring, fact-bending, smearing and soundbites, much to the dismay of the public. But in truth, campaign strategists are left with little choice with a busy, impatient electorate. Teaching young people how the institutions work could mean they’re open to longer, more complex arguments, as well as being more scrupulous.
“Education may make the future look brighter, but short-term there is no quick-fix”
Clearly, Britain is divided now. Education may make the future look brighter, but short-term there is no quick-fix. Split between the 52%, the little-Englanders, closet racists and demagogues, and the 48% – the naive youth and unpatriotic, weak-willed cowards. The hyperbole, contempt and distrust for the views of others is understandable, if misplaced. But above all else there has to be an effort to not reduce politics to the ‘proles’ versus the ‘elites’. Whilst the self-appointed elites might fear a future fuelled by anti-intellectualism, maybe they should be just as frightened at how they managed to let it get to this.