In this week's magazine | Divided Britain

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24 - 30 June issue
Divided Britain

 

Divided Britain: Stephen Bush on how the referendum exposed a new culture war.

George Eaton on how the EU referendum became about immigration, not Europe *PLUS* Why two-thirds of Conservative MPs are Brexiters in their hearts, and a second referendum is likely.

Mary Creagh writes the Diary in tribute to her fellow MP Jo Cox.

John Bew on the English in revolt.

Simon Heffer recalls his father, who fought at the Somme aged 17.

Jeremy Seabrook on the death of Britain’s industrial way of life.

View from Bilbao: Christopher Finnigan on why the far left is poised to make gains in the Spanish general election.

First Thoughts: Helen Lewis on a father’s murderous rage.

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Win or lose, the walls are closing in on Dave.

Tom Gatti meets the award-winning novelist Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone, at home in Ireland.

John Gray on what The Face of the Buddha tells us about the genius of William Empson.

Tom Holland traces the doctrinal roots of Islamic State through a new book by Shiraz Maher.

****

Cover story: The battle for the soul of Britain.

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society, argues Stephen Bush in this week’s cover story – and it’s not between left and right:

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is divided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

 

George Eaton: How immigration took over the EU referendum.

The NS political editor, George Eaton, explores the paradox at the heart of a referendum campaign in which Remain supported immigration but struggled to speak of its benefits, while Leave opposed immigration but refused to speak of the costs of reducing it:

In the record store of politics, Euroscepticism was long to be found in the “alternative” section. The UK voted by 67 per cent to 33 to remain in the European Economic Community in 1975. Six years later, Labour endorsed immediate withdrawal but at the next general election it endured its worst result since 1918. In 1997, James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party won just 2.6 per cent of the vote and disbanded soon afterwards. William Hague’s call to “save the pound” in 2001 did not save him. When David Cameron told his party five years later to stop “banging on about Europe”, he was offering sound psephological advice.

But at the start of this decade, the EU’s opponents came up with a hit record: immigration. It was this issue that enabled Ukip’s ascent and, more than any other, spooked Cameron into offering a referendum. As the New Statesman went to press, a victory for Remain appeared likely but far from certain. Were it not for immigration, the outcome would not have been in doubt.

At the outset of the campaign, a strategist for Vote Leave told me that it would adopt a “full-spectrum” approach. Rather than focusing narrowly on immigration, the Brexiters vowed to make a liberal and internationalist case for withdrawal. It was a commitment institutionalised in the separation between Leave.EU (backed by Nigel Farage) and Vote Leave (backed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove). But as the campaign progressed, liberals looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and could no longer tell which was which.

PLUS, on newstatesman.com: George Eaton explains that a narrow victory for Remain will probably result in a second vote under a future Conservative government on Britain remaining a member of the EU. A Tory minister tells Eaton that two-thirds of current Conservative MPs are Brexiters “in their hearts”, including some cabinet ministers who supported Remain:

He spoke of knowing winks and nudges from cabinet ministers officially on the opposing side.

The European question will not endure among a weary public. Should Remain win, there will be no mass movement to rival Scotland’s “45 per cent”. Ukip will not achieve an SNP-style landslide at the next general election. But it is a certainty that many Tories will repudiate Cameron’s 2006 advice and keep “banging on about Europe”. The Prime Minister’s successor, as he privately acknowledges, will likely be a Brexiter. Few voters rank the EU as one of their top ten concerns. Few Tory members rank it outside of their top three.

A Remain victory will not be regarded by Leavers as a definitive endorsement of the EU. Rather, it will be heralded as proof that voters were duped by “Project Fear”. The grievances itemised throughout the campaign, such as the government’s £9.3m leaflet campaign and the Treasury’s economic warnings, will be repeatedly recalled. There is a ready-made audience for this. A YouGov poll found that 46 per cent of Leave supporters believed the result would “probably” be altered by the authorities.

The Eurosceptic MP Bill Cash adds:

“I’ve campaigned on this for 30 years; I’m not going to change my opinion about the need for democracy. I don’t believe that the EU is capable of it.”

 

Diary: Mary Creagh’s tribute to Jo Cox.

The MP for Wakefield, Mary Creagh, reflects on a week in which she and colleagues mourned the loss of the MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox.

Thursday morning
My office is above the Labour Party Yorkshire headquarters. I spend a couple of hours phoning voters and chatting with colleagues from other offices as they come in to collect leaflets. Then Ciaran, a regional organiser, bursts in with the terrible news that Jo Cox has been stabbed and shot. I have a moment of total disbelief. We must evacuate the office. A gunman is on the loose in West Yorkshire and we must go somewhere safe. I burst into tears of shock and Michelle, my wonderful office manager, gives me a hug.

Everyone comes back to my house. There is no TV aerial, so no TV. We drink tea. I speak to Rosie Winterton, the chief whip; Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary; and our regional director. We wait. I send my caseworkers, Jo and Shaf, home. There was so much to do this morning. Now all we can do is wait, hope and pray. Michelle and I move chairs around. Then Brendan Cox tweets a picture of his wife by their boat and I know that she is dead. Jo Cox is dead. I go for a walk with Michelle and I repeat those terrible words. It is a waking nightmare.

Thursday night
Journalists are ringing, apologetically asking about Jo. They are just doing their job but I want the world to rewind to the morning, to when Jo was alive and doing a school assembly. I [want to] write about Jo, to tell the world what a fantastic woman she was.
 

We buy flowers and Michelle drives me to Birstall. I have no paper to write a note and head into a fast-food restaurant and write my note on one of their order pads. I am an idiot. I have written my message to Jo on a fast-food order pad. I realise that she wouldn’t have cared; she would have laughed. This is all part of the galloping surrealism that her loss has brought.

 

John Bew on the English in revolt.

The historian John Bew notes that the appearance of the long-predicted English Revolt – just as Celtic nationalism is waning – is one of the many ironies springing from the EU referendum campaign:

A diminished faith in our political and economic establishment is one of the lag effects of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Underpinning the sense of frustration are structural problems, such as entrenched income inequality and decreased social mobility. In many cases (though far from all), concern about immigration is not anger directed at another people but reflects a profound sense of lost control in a rapidly changing world. The failure to address this feeling of dislocation has left the door open to the deployment of “truth hyperboles” – the Donald Trump strategy of playing to people’s fears and fantasies.

Although we have shown that we are not immune to such crass populism, there is a uniquely British context to this debate and there remains a different flavour to it. Indeed, there is an underlying irony that the English are rousing themselves in the spirit of protest – the long-predicted “English Revolt” – just at the moment when the nationalism of the Celtic fringes might have reached a plateau.

While the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is growing, the Irish nationalist vote has fallen. Polling figures suggest that support for a united Ireland is at an all-time low. Many conflate the continued success of the Scottish National Party with a desire for independence, yet its majority in Scotland is as much to do with the collapse of Labour north of the border, and the mini-revival of the Scottish Conservatives suggests an appetite for an alternative. There is no threat to the SNP’s supremacy in the short term, but the party’s strategists are far from convinced that it could win a second Scottish referendum, even after a Brexit.

Since 1998, there have been great exertions of energy and emotion on questions relating to the future of the UK. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, it was economic self-interest and inherent caution that ultimately trumped nationalism, rather than any great surge of enthusiasm for the status quo.

So, what lessons should we learn from recent experience? The first is that it is counterproductive to narrow the terms of political debate in a way that exasperates a large proportion of our population, even the famously phlegmatic English. Against this, we would do well not to jettison the sense of equilibrium and equanimity that has characterised Britain’s political development over the centuries.

In the 1860s, the constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot adapted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to argue that the fair competition between ideas was one of the things that gave Britain a comparative advantage over other nations. Yet he also believed that the way in which the British expressed themselves in debate – vigorous and spirited but not excessive or cruel – was just as important. There is a happy median somewhere, in what Bagehot called “animated moderation”.

 

Personal Story: Simon Heffer remembers his father, James, who fought at the Somme.

Simon Heffer tells the story of his father, James, who was enlisted in the army in September 1914 and found himself fighting on the Western Front at the age of 17:

On 30 June 1916, the day before the Battle of the Somme began, my father’s regiment, the Cambridgeshires, were 40 miles north at Richebourg-Saint-Vaast. What happened the next morning was a great acceleration of attrition along the front. My father’s diary – a black hardbacked book, fraying at the edges 100 years on, but with his immaculate pencil handwriting still legible – records that the Royal Sussex Regiment, in the line in front of his, launched an attack but “had to retire with great loss leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind”. The Cambridgeshires also suffered; 28 were killed or wounded.

The next morning was a “lovely day, very hot”. Relieved in the afternoon, his company “passed graves of men who fell on the 30th. It was a sad sight to see the rows of dead waiting to be buried, with a chaplain reading the burial service over them.” He was 18 years and six months old: 2578 Signaller James Heffer, 1/1st Cambridgeshires, had enlisted on 7 September 1914 at the Hills Road recruiting office in Cambridge, aged 16 years and eight months, two days after the Kitchener poster was published in the press. He had lied about his age, claiming to be 19, the minimum at which one could be sent abroad. He was a tall, healthy lad and the recruiting sergeant might just have been taken in. He was on the Western Front by May 1915 and served there for most of the rest of the war as a signaller (he was fluent in Morse code even in old age) and despatch rider before manning the first tanks. The war, and particularly the Somme, coloured the rest of his life and cast a perspective on everything. If you could survive that, you could survive anything.

I was a child of his second marriage. He was widowed in his late fifties and was 62 when I was born. I recall the Saturdays before Remembrance Sunday in the 1960s, when he would drive to Cambridge for his regimental reunion. He came back uplifted: he was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians. Yet he made friendships in the trenches that lasted for life; the Cambridgeshires had their share of losses but were not devastated in the way that some other regiments were.

James Heffer and his three brothers all served on the Western Front for over three years and came back in one piece. When I was a child, he would take out some maps he had of the front, used so often that their seams were patched with brown Sellotape. He had marked the trenches on them and would talk me through passages in the diary with reference to the maps and recall long-dead men whose names he had noted. Visiting war cemeteries in the 1990s, many years after his death, I found some of them. For him, remembrance was never abstract.

[. . .]

James Heffer went back to France early in 1917 and was still six weeks from his 21st birthday when the Armistice was signed. He talked of the Somme, like the rest of his war, with the detachment of a historian (he became a tax inspector) rather than with the emotion of one who had been up to his ankles in blood there. Perhaps even for one so calm and as philosophical as he was, any detailed introspection was, even half a century afterwards, more than would be wise.

 

First Thoughts: Helen Lewis on a father’s murderous rage.

The NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, recalls an encounter with Ben Butler, the man who has just been found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie:

She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential.

The NS’s chief snout in Westminster, Kevin Maguire, reports on an embarrassing episode for the Prime Minister while canvassing for Remain:

David Cameron suffered a series of indignities during a bruising campaign, though perhaps none greater than in Henley, coincidentally Johnson’s old Oxfordshire stamping ground. My local snout muttered that a town hall-style gathering with the Prime Minister was moved to a smaller space when it was noted that even a busload of Remainers driven down from Oxford would fail to fill the venue that had been booked. Win or lose, the walls are closing in on Dave.

Plus

Laurie Penny argues that our attitude to drugs must change.

Peter Oborne on The Panama Papers by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier and Parliament Ltd: a Journey to the Dark Heart of British Politics by Martin Williams.

The NS Poem: “I am signing none of the emails with an ‘x’ ”
by Kathryn Maris.

Anna Leskiewicz investigates problems with “marketplace feminism” in Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once.

Film: Ryan Gilbey explores the breadth and limits of a director’s imagination with Omer Fast’s Remainder and Julio Medem’s Ma Ma.

Television: Rachel Cooke feels stuck in the middle of messy divorces
in the BBC2 series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator.

Radio: Antonia Quirke scrutinises the marginalia of great composers in Radio 4’s Tales from the Stave.

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396.