Time Out with Nick Cohen

In his search for England, Julian Baggini expected to find racism, sexism and fear. He found somethi

Julian Baggini seems a standard member of the liberal intelligentsia. The books he reads, the clothes he wears and food he eats match those of tens of thousands of others. He stands out because he has done what very few of his contemporaries are prepared to do and confronted England. Not by denouncing its government or letting out long sighs about its lack of sophistication, but by living among people he wouldn't ordinarily notice, in an attempt to understand the core beliefs of the England which doesn't listen to the Today programme.

It is a simple idea, and I'm surprised no one has thought of it before. Polly Toynbee and Fran Abrams have written poignant accounts of life on the poverty line, while the Sunday Times wasn't exaggerating when it described Michael Collins's The Likes of Us as an "absolutely essential" guide to London's white working class. There are also thousands of academic studies of the national character - from the British Social Attitudes Survey to Kate Fox's Watching the English.

But Baggini wasn't interested in the poor, of whom there are too many yet who are the exception, nor did he follow Collins by staying in London, a separate country, as everyone says. He determined instead to concentrate on the mainstream English who can't be found on the minimum wage or living in the capital, but among the homeowners of the prov inces. The piles of academic research and opinion-poll findings helped him, but they couldn't give him the feel of England. For that, he had to uproot himself mentally and physically.

He asked the computer analysts who compile demographic profiles for the Acorn marketing company to give him the postcode of the English district that was closest to the national average: the town or network of streets where he could find, in microcosm, the mixture of wealthy people and poor pensioners, struggling families and single men and women that best encapsulated the country. They consulted their databases and told him to head for S66 on the outskirts of Rotherham. Its working men's clubs, as-much-food-as-you-can-cram-on-to-your-plate restaurants, out-of-town shopping centres and local radio stations are indeed typical, but they are also about as far away from Baggini's liberal England as it is possible to get without crossing the Channel.

"Three of the last four constituencies I lived in went Liberal Democrat at the last election," he said, as he tucked into an un-English vegetarian breakfast. "And the Lib Dems only lost the fourth by a few hundred votes. I have been in a parallel country for most of my adult life."

Baggini expected to find sexism, racism, homophobia, celebrity worship, provincialism and unreasonable fears about crime. What makes his Welcome to Everytown: a journey into the English mind (Granta) a thought-provoking book is not that he didn't discover illiberal prejudices in Rotherham, but that he managed to come to terms with and, in a few instances, sympathise with them. For Baggini isn't quite the standard middle-class liberal. His mother is from the Kent working class and his father from an Italian farming family. His Italian side meant that he "never really felt entirely at home in this country", while his working-class background distanced him from the public-school boys and girls of the London intelligentsia. More important, I think, is that he is a member of a group of freelance intellectuals who gather round the Philosophers' Magazine and live by their pens. None has the security of a university job, and all are suspicious of intellectual orthodoxy. (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, two of Baggini's colleagues, produced an attack on postmodernism, whose title, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, sums up the group's approach.)

Baggini's background and philosophical training gave him the intellectual honesty to be as critical of the biases he and his friends shared as he was of the biases of others. Even before he went to Rotherham, he was wary of the thoughtless anti- patriotism that lay behind David Hare's cry that "most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate Englishness with everything that is most backward in this country."

Baggini told me he had noticed that when his friends went overseas "they always found something to delight in. They would tell me how wonderful it was to share a glass of wine with the old boys in a rural French bar, and not realise that if those old boys were speaking English they would probably be saying, 'That Jean-Marie Le Pen, he's got the right idea.'"

He moved to Rotherham, rented a modern house by a main road, bought a car, and read the newspapers and watched the television programmes his neighbours read and watched. He encountered many prejudices he disliked, but gradually his views on popular attitudes softened. Only the Daily Mail was too much for him. Six months of reading it turned a mild distaste into an unappeasable loathing.

The regulars of Rotherham pubs and clubs deserve credit for the softening. They didn't allow the strange, bookish southerner to sit by himself for long. But Baggini also realised that what he had taken to be idiotic views had a comprehen sible philosophical underpinning, even if it was a working-class philosophy that didn't always appeal to him. His reliance on the explanatory power of working-class attitudes may unnerve some, but his argument seems well grounded to me. Although the polls which report that almost six out of ten people still regard themselves as working-class invariably produce middle-class guffaws, Baggini says you only have to listen to the radio programmes he heard and go to the bars he drank in to realise that working-class culture dominates England. Many people may have more money than their parents had, but that does not mean that working-class attitudes have changed. Central to them is the importance of place.

The majority of the English still live within five miles of where they were born, and the attachment to locality keeps England a communitarian country. They want "local jobs for local people", local radio, local papers and raffles for local good causes. Complementing local pride is the strong notion that you can't enjoy England's benefits without belonging. Baggini got into endless arguments about the Human Rights Act, but his attempts to persuade his new friends that foreign terror suspects should never be deported if they could face torture always got nowhere. The new Labour slogan "you can't have rights without responsibilities" was the view of the English mainstream, he found. "It's an illiberal thought," he told me. "Liberals believe that you have rights on the basis of your membership of the human race. But most of the English aren't liberal. They believe that you only have rights if you are a fully paid-up member of this society. That's why they will be very illiberal about 'Muslim preachers of hate' and say, 'We don't care about their rights. What about ours?'"

Although he met a few real racists, Baggini doesn't see such beliefs as racist in themselves. Instead, he draws on the image of the "hefted" sheep of northern fells, whose instinctive knowledge of where they can and can't graze means they never stray from their patch of land, and uses it to explain the desire of the English of all classes to keep their little worlds intact.

"Frankly, I didn't believe it when people in Rotherham said they wanted immigrants to fit in. That's not quite right. If you go to Manchester or London, there are Chinatowns that advertise their differences, but no one ever says that 'the problem with these bloody Chinese is that they don't fit in', because there's no threat or no perceived threat. The multicultural agenda is that everyone must respect each other, but I don't think that's possible. We need to be far tougher with the minimal demands that people don't threaten each other and must respect the rule of law.

"On its own, upholding the law won't lessen what people call racism because sometimes threats are inevitable. People who have lived in an area all their lives are uncomfortable if the character changes because of a large influx of immigrants. But that doesn't make them racist. They just want their locality to stay the way it was. No one calls families racist when they object to large numbers of students moving in to their street or says that the residents of Hampstead were racist for wanting to live in an area without McDonald's."

He is far less sanguine about sexism. Watching the way women tried to please men in Rotherham clubs and reading semi-pornographic lads' mags didn't make him think that the reassertion of traditional stereotypes was "natural" or harmless fun. There is, he says, nothing natural or fun about a country where most women say that they are deeply unhappy with their appearance.

Baggini refuses to adopt the declamatory style of the polemicist. His writing is refreshingly self-deprecatory. At one point in Welcome to Everytown he says he had to leave Rotherham to visit London. Once in Islington, he couldn't resist the lure of "proper food". He went to an Italian restaurant, ordered pasta, olives and a glass of wine, then buried his head in a book. Minutes later, he looked up to see another man of his age and class come in and order pasta, olives and a glass of wine, and then bury his head in a book. "In Rotherham, I lost a certain sense of superiority I had about food, holidays and the things I did to enjoy myself. I now find it hard to say that liberal middle-class culture is better than looking after your garden, going fishing and watching ice hockey. There's nothing intrinsically less in that than in listening to opera. Some of the world's worst people have been opera buffs."

I was glad to find that he had not overreacted and become an inverted snob. He doesn't pretend that he would like to spend the rest of his life in S66. He's got his world and the mainstream have theirs, and he's not going to play the hypocrite by pretending to be something he's not. But he has relaxed.

After he had finished his breakfast, I asked if he felt more comfortable with his country. "I think I've learned that most people here are fine with you as long as you treat them fairly. I'm very pleased that my book has gone down well in Rotherham, even though I was unsentimental and didn't hide my disagreements. That speaks well of the people I wrote about, and so, yes, I feel more at peace with England."

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad