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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The working class revolts

In the spirit of William Cobbett, a young writer travels by bicycle through Britain’s former industrial heartlands before and after the vote for Brexit.

One recent afternoon I set out on my old Raleigh bike on a tour of post-Brexit Britain. Two years earlier I had travelled the country on my bike as I researched a book. Now, after the vote for Brexit, I began another journey, this time with an even stronger sense of political disorientation. I wanted to discover what had become of the euphoria and, indeed, anger so present after the referendum of 23 June. For two weeks I cycled through the ex-industrial towns and cities of the Midlands and the north of England, two of the regions I visited in 2014.

My method then had been basic and, to some, ill-advised. Over the four months I cycled, I either wild-camped or stayed in the homes of people who had heard about my venture by word of mouth, or whom I’d met along the road, and I asked people, simply: “What is life like here?” I received a bewildering range of responses, from ­worries about wages or what world their children might inherit, to explanations about ecological and community projects built on a sense of renewal and hope. I encountered generosity and insight into different ways of life in Britain, and last summer published my findings as Island Story, a travelogue in the spirit of William Cobbett and Orwell.

Many of the areas I had written about are now readily associated with Brexit, such as Barnsley (68 per cent Leave), the former mining town in South Yorkshire. Covering the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Channel 4 News sent a crew there. Its report featured a local man who explained why he had voted Leave: “It’s not about trade or Europe or anything like that, it’s all about immigration. It’s to stop the Muslims coming into the country, simple as that.”

The presentation of what people in this town or Sheffield and Wakefield nearby had called “Barnsley Man” had been a sore point. In Sheffield (51 per cent Leave) Allie, an artist and teacher, felt it absolved the wealthier south of responsibility, even though the south had voted in far greater numbers to leave. Barnsley Man – old, white, working class, ignorant, racist, and unable to speak without losing his temper – was a sign of a prevailing narrative of Brexit as a catastrophic revolt by a misinformed and alienated northern working class, an explanation that became increasingly unsatisfactory as I travelled and talked to people.

“Damn good thing it were, too,” said one former miner at a working men’s club, as we discussed Barnsley’s vote to leave. Some agreed, others shook their head. I had passed “Vote Leave” stickers plastered on the walls of a derelict social club, and encountered common justifications that cited uncontrolled eastern European migration, resulting in the loss of local jobs. But people’s concerns were not about immigration itself, or cultural identity; rather, they centred on low wages and employment. “There’s nowt round ’ere ’cept call centres,” said Rory, a young betting-shop worker.

Many customer-service centres operate in the nearby Dearne Valley. The work is insecure, stressful and subject to a demeaning level of surveillance (call response rates, targets met, time spent in the toilet). Other sources of employment include distribution warehouses and factories of several major clothes retailers. I was told repeatedly that these companies recruited and bussed in Polish workers from Warsaw to work on a seasonal basis for low pay, at the expense of local people.

“I’ve been trying to take it to the papers,” a young woman said to me as the issue was raised in the back room of the Red Shed, the Labour club in Wakefield, West Yorkshire (66 per cent Leave). She had become aware of the practice of bussing in through a friend at one factory, but my later research showed that it’s an open secret. One must attribute some validity to such stories, at least in terms of how local people feel. They hint at the complex and contradictory stories and motivations behind Brexit in former industrial areas such as these.

“It’s divide and rule,” said a woman who had earlier told me about her involvement in the miners’ strike pickets thirty years earlier. “We have to fight to push up their wage, and challenge the bosses.”

 

***

 

In what the political economist William Davies calls a “shadow welfare state”, many people across the north are employed in poorly paid call-centre or service-sector jobs, subsidised by in-work tax credits. Child and working-tax credits, implemented by the New Labour government, in effect benefit low-wage employers as much as workers, and cost the state £30bn a year. A further £9.3bn in housing benefits was paid to private landlords last year. Though tax credits and housing benefits provide a lifeline to workers and their families struggling to make ends meet, they do nothing to address the underlying problems of low wages or unemployment, or the need for a new public strategy to encourage higher-skilled, higher-waged work.

Cycling from one former industrial town to the next, I observed that the primary contributions to the built environment in the past three decades or so are the retail park and out-of-town supermarket. Like the call centre or the distribution warehouse, they are the principal points of Britain’s service sector, and are enabled by unskilled local workforces on state-subsidised low wages and the complex logistics of globalised trade. Spread across Britain and similar in appearance everywhere, these bland structures signal the possibilities and pitfalls of state investment guided by short-term economic gain.

Workers are increasingly caught in a cycle of insecure and unpredictable shift patterns, thanks to zero-hours contracts. This makes claiming housing benefit difficult, and includes spells of unemployment during which credit cards, payday loans or borrowing from friends and family become the main means of subsistence. A recent Trades Union Congress report found that 3.2 million households were in “problem debt”, spending more than 25 per cent of their household income on unsecured debt repayments. Of this number, 1.6 million households are in “extreme debt”, handing over more than 40 per cent of their earnings to creditors. Some of the poorest households choose not to join the electoral register, fearing that their details will be shared with debt collection agencies, and are thus locked out of political representation.

In the wilted yet cheerful seaside town of Morecambe, Sonya painted a stark picture of her work as a private lettings agent. Over £9.3bn of public money was paid to private landlords in housing benefit last year, a doubling over ten years, and far more expensive than building affordable accommodation. Sonya’s tenants are “trapped” in cycles of poverty and debt, with no obvious reprieve or refuge. “What good are food banks when people can’t afford to pay their gas or electricity to heat the food?” she said.

Although such stories illustrate the UK’s gaping wealth inequalities, they also show the dismal progress in some areas in the quarter-century since John Major’s pledge of a “classless” society and the infamous (mis)quote of John Prescott that “we are all middle class now”. The political effects of such social shifts have not yet fully come to light. The surge in support for Ukip across the ex-industrial north and east over 2014-15 has been stalled, for now, by uncertainty about the party’s leadership since Nigel Farage’s resignation. But I was struck by a pessimism in these communities, so many of which felt overwhelmed by an unfair fate. The horizons of political possibility had been hemmed in by the miseries of economic hardship.

Many I met felt untouched by politics, perhaps because politicians of all stripes rarely speak with any insight into the difficult decisions involved in juggling household debt, or the mixed feelings involved in claiming benefits. It has become a banality to invoke the Stakhanovite image of “hard-working families”; less often do we hear directly from these individuals, with the occasional exception of exploitative TV series such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street or The Great British Benefits Handout (Channel 5).

On the road, few people spoke about political leaders, and Labour’s spate of self-flaying in its second leadership election since May 2015 prompted indifference or disappointment. Talk of Trident or renationalising the trains may be too theoretical, even middle class, in places where basic poverty is an elementary concern. Usually, luminaries on the left, such as the polemicist Owen Jones, address the comfortably converted, gathered punctually in town halls, immune from the debate among the depoliticised masses in the pubs, supermarkets and bedrooms of this island.

 

 

***

 

Cycling around Britain, I would set out most days without knowing where I’d end up. Such nomadism came not without stresses. But it was a fair exchange for serendipity – sunset conversations with shepherds along Loch Eriboll, blue jokes in the lock-ins of Liverpool and Dalmellington, or the drama of lugging a weighty steel mule up the steeps of Snowdonia and the eye-watering wonder of plunging down the other side.

I had no map, and sometimes relied on the tent and a discreet field or park for a place to kip, but more often I found contacts through a blog and social media. Pulling over on street corners or stopping at fast-food outlets, supermarkets and pubs, I would mine passers-by for clues.

As I travelled through Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, I listened to people projecting the effects of austerity on to migrants. In Corby, Scottish workers told me that Poles had “overrun” the area. “I just don’t like the ones claiming [benefits],” said a barmaid in one town-centre pub. Others such as Ashgar, a former steelworker in Rotherham, blamed the “greed” of “London” or factory owners for the loss of local steel jobs, rather than any government policy or trend towards deindustrialisation.

Stories of feeling left behind by the economic development of “London” were common. “London” had privatised industries and utilities, and cut funding from communities to prop up a corrupt banking system while people outside the capital were sanctioned for minor or non-existent benefit improprieties. “London” had imposed a narrow political and cultural vision on the rest of the country which gave communities no great say in how they were governed. To many of the people I met, the word “London” carried the same negative connotation as “neoliberalism” or “globalisation”, and had a similar meaning.

The chain stores may stock the latest cheap gadgets and clothes from the Far East, but for many communities the loss of jobs, community buildings, social care and affordable rents has been too high a price to pay. Voting Leave became a kind of protest button, pushed in anger at decades-long disempowerment. Brexit, a largely English independence movement ostensibly against the EU, is at times indistinguishable from a movement for independence from “London”. Voters judged that the potential hardships associated with leaving were a price worth paying to regain sovereignty from the capital.

In Nottingham (51 per cent Leave), David talked of friends in his home town of Long Eaton, Derbyshire, who had voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit. “A whole two generations of massively disenfranchised people put two fingers up to the elite,” he said. To Jeremy Corbyn’s chagrin, many Brexiteers live in safe Labour seats.

For the painter John Wilkinson, the problem was clear: “In England it is already yesterday.” Among left-wing artists in the exhibition “Fighting for Crumbs” in Sheffield, the mood was disillusioned yet reactive. In these pessimistic visions, the future seemed lost or abandoned. Beside Wilkinson’s paintings were photos by Connor Matheson capturing teenage ravers, food banks, Grimethorpe miners celebrating Thatcher’s death, and more mundane moments amid allotments and council estates festooned with St George flags. Reconstructions of the past seemed to preoccupy many people, as they struggled to identify new sources of pride in their decaying environment.

Dependency on benefits to subsist in boring, insecure or difficult low-wage work does not inspire gratitude. Writing in June in the London Review of Books, James Meek made a similar observation about farmers, many of whom supported Brexit even though they are heavily reliant on EU subsidies to augment the plummeting prices paid by supermarkets. “It’s an unholy mess that’s developing,” said Eden, as we spoke on his sheep-rearing smallholding beside a large Argos distribution centre in Darlington, on Teesside. Globalisation has reduced prices and forced many farmers into a race to the bottom. “People want to blame the poor for the situation they find themselves in,” he said.

But it’s not only farmers who feel beleaguered, their pride or way of life tested by recent developments. The collapse of manufacturing, mining and steel since the late 1970s has resulted in what Jeremy Seabrook, interviewing people in the West Midlands last summer, called “unhealed social and psychological lesions of class”. In his book Cut Out: Living Without Welfare, Seabrook argues that these areas were not given the chance to grieve for the industries they have lost and around which generations of communities had developed.

Travelling through the same parts, I found it common to hear of cities spoken about in the past tense. In Wolverhampton it was locks and furniture; Nottingham, bicycles and lace; in Bradford and Halifax, textiles. Each town had its trade. “It’s got a lovely history,” said Ian in Wolverhampton. “Shame it’s a s***hole now.” For there is no belonging or co-ownership in the glut of retail parks left behind, nor in the finance sector or on the property ladder. “We used to make things,” said Steve in Derby, using his own city’s economic uncertainties as a symbol of something broader.

Emma, a part-time teacher working in the Midlands in Tipton and Dudley, told me about young mothers to whom she taught basic budgeting and childcare. “People complain about scrounging . . . Most people I meet, they’re just trying to get by.”

The Brexit vote has exposed rather than initiated this incoherence. If a shared sense of place or identity is defined by making or doing, then those who cannot make or do – from welfare recipients to foreign nationals who use the NHS – become, in the eyes of some, despised. Two implications follow. First, pride in work correlates to a misleading notion of a “traditional working class”, readily linked to manual work, social conservatism and older age, such as that of Barnsley Man. This understanding of class as primarily cultural (through which the concept of a beleaguered, mythically homogeneous “white working class” often arises) obscures what is the original and more obvious economic definition of “the working class”: those who must work, will work, or have had to work full-time for a basic living. Class is no longer clear.

A second implication of pride in work emerges in how this is internalised where such work isn’t readily available, as in Barnsley or Rotherham, or the struggling former industrial cities of the north-east, such as Ashington and Middlesbrough, or Newport in south Wales. In Langley Moor, County Durham, Clarissa and her daughter told me about the high suicide rate among young men. Elsewhere I heard tales told, in hushed tones, of brothers, fathers and friends who had taken their own lives – each for different reasons, but so often in places bereft of investment and hope. Where communities, certainties and “jobs for life” are disarrayed by forces so distant and complex they might well be confused with fate, the individual effects can be terrible.

 

 

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Pessimistic narratives of decline and “Broken Britain” are tedious, and also stand as obstacles to imagining political alternatives. Seismic changes to the fundaments of the United Kingdom will have consequences over the coming decades, but exactly how so remains unclear. Absent from most of the debate during the Brexit campaign was a discussion about the future of the political union between not only Britain and Europe, but also the UK’s member states. What kind of society do, say, the English desire? How will it be powered, how will its people house and employ themselves, and how will it be governed?

Across my post-Brexit journey, I quizzed people about the kinds of political transformation they would like to see. In Nottingham, I heard compelling arguments for a universal basic income and a 30-hour working week, aided by automation and progressive taxation. In Sheffield, the artists Glen Stoker and Anna Chrystal Stephens invited me on a group trespass of a patch of derelict wasteland near the city centre. Discussions about what this site could become in public hands led to wider questions about who owns much of Britain. In Manchester (60 per cent Remain), Jen enthused about rediscovering politics along with neighbours in her community and Steve refused to acknowledge what some would call realism – the necessity of compromising one’s political intentions. In Liverpool (58 per cent Remain), Brian, an indefatigable trade unionist, debated with international students the need to invest in green energy.

All were inspired by developments in Scotland, where a very different-natured independence campaign has led to lasting discussions about a progressive and better future for all. Instead of reactions against low wages, or perceptions of immigration or the effects of austerity, here there are ­discussions about renewable power, buying back local land into common ownership, as well as rediscovering local histories and the Scots Gaelic tongue.

Is it naively idealistic to imagine that the same could happen here, elsewhere in our post-Brexit land? Perhaps, but within such hope lies the motivation to act.

J D Taylor’s book “Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain” is published by Repeater

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage