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The Brexit referendum tells the story of the radicalisation of Middle England

It was another stage in the creation of a compelling, insidious narrative: that something was rotten at the heart of England.

I can’t offer an overall theory of the trends that have brought us to this dismal pass, merely a few scattered observations. Forgive me, at the outset, for mentioning my latest book, but it does occur to me that the question “Britain: where did it all go wrong?” could almost be the subtitle of my novel Middle England.

I wrote it quickly, in about ten months, in an attempt to explain to myself some of the forces that lay behind the 2016 referendum result, and some instinct told me to start the story in the late spring of 2010, when a small technical accident catastrophically derailed Gordon Brown’s election campaign. Brown was caught on microphone referring to an elderly Labour supporter as “a sort of bigoted woman” and the public never forgave him for using those words of someone who was merely raising – to use a popular phrase – “legitimate concerns” over immigration.

Looking back, I’m not sure it was really his accusation of bigotry that turned people against Brown in the wake of that episode, but a perceived double standard: saying one thing to the woman’s face, saying another in private. The public’s sense was of a mask having slipped, and such moments can be extraordinarily powerful. Boris Johnson can say anything he likes in his column or on the radio and many people will give him a free pass because he’s doing it in plain sight. But if Middle Englanders get a sniff of what they believe to be hypocrisy, their blood will boil.

This is why the role of the MPs’ expenses scandal is not mentioned often enough in discussions of the referendum result. Although most of the sums involved were trivial, it planted a powerful image in the minds of Daily Telegraph readers (it was the Telegraph that broke the story and ran with it day after day) of a political class professing virtue in public while privately milking the system for all it was worth. Faith in the institutions of Westminster was profoundly shaken.

We should also not underestimate the ripple effect of another scandal from the previous year: on 18 October 2008, the BBC broadcast crude messages left by two of its stars on the answering machine of Andrew Sachs, and the Daily Mail succeeded in blowing this up into a huge furore. When the truth about Jimmy Savile began to emerge a few years later, the conservative commentariat had already managed to sow the suspicion that the BBC was a corrupt institution with a questionable attitude towards sex.

Once again, with the bileful assistance of newspapers whose function is to serve their proprietors’ interests and ideology, public faith in a major pillar of national life was encouraged to crumble. It was another stage in the creation of a compelling, insidious narrative: that something was rotten at the heart of England.

Austerity and the fallout (or lack of it) from the banking crisis have played their part as well, of course. But political journalists are, understandably, inclined to analyse things in terms of party manoeuvrings and economic trends when the public mood is often swayed by small, accidental events and snap character judgements.

I know people who have no particular problem with Jeremy Corbyn’s political programme, but despise the man because they think he tried to score a point by being photographed sitting on the floor during a crowded train journey. To these same people, Theresa May, for all her bull-headed and robotic approach to Brexit, remains trustworthy.

If the story of the referendum is, among other things, the story of the recent radicalisation of Middle England (or, as Anthony Barnett calls it, “England without London”), it can be helpful, sometimes, to look at the trigger points – even though they are sometimes tiny, and usually the product of unfortunate accident rather than design or conspiracy. The butterfly effect theory of history is often the most persuasive. 

Jonathan Coe’s novel “Middle England” is published by Viking

Update: an earlier version of this article erroneously included a paragraph of material on "liberal Britain" taken from another piece by a different writer. 

Click here to read the rest of our “State of emergency” series, featuring articles from writers including David Hare, Elif Shafak, and Colin Kidd.

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency