The Brexiteers’ greatest trick was convincing the old they hated Brussels more than London

The politicians and financiers of the Leave campaigns turned the latent politics of anti-London into the politics of anti-Brussels.

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The politics of Brexit or UKexit as it should be called, for it will take the UK, not Britain, out of the EU has been addressed in many different ways. But two dimensions have generally remained missing from most analysis: the politics of anti-London, and of the old. 

The Brexit vote came from non-metropolitan areas of England, mainly from Conservative voters, as Anthony Barnett emphasises. These were votes of the old. Indeed, Brexit was framed to appeal to the old, as a desire to return to a national past, and a critique of the nature of an ever more powerful capital. Brexiteers, the politicians and financiers of the Leave campaigns, also turned the latent politics of anti-London into the politics of anti-Brussels, a formidable and significant achievement. 

It is obvious that the recent experience of London has been very different from that of the rest of the UK. London has emerged as a city state of great wealth and power, a growing, young, cosmopolitan island in a fallen nation. London is successful in a nation which, generally, is not. 

This was an unexpected development. In the thriving post-war United Kingdom, London was a declining city, reaching its nadir in the early 1980s. London had turned inward as the capital of a new nation usually called Britain, having been an outward-looking capital of global capitalism and empire. 

Yet in the new liberal economy since the 1980s, London was to boom, returning in many ways to the pomp of the Edwardian years. On the surface it seems that the world of Mary Poppins  bankers, nannies, and all has returned.

But the cosmopolitan and global city of today is very different from Edwardian London. The city is now a place where world capitalism does business, no longer one where British capitalism did the world’s business. To an astonishing degree, London has a larger role in world finance than the whole United Kingdom does in world trade. 

The city once exported capital, and sucked in the profits of that investment. London now imports foreign capital and foreign talent. In 2018, 37 per cent of London’s population was born outside the UK, and 22 per cent were not British nationals (compared with 9 per cent for the UK). For the rich London borough of Westminster, the non-British population is 49 per cent. The new London has an immigrant elite, and is one of the cosmopolitan capitals of a global kingdom of capital. 

All this pointed to a possible rebellion of the provinces against capital, of industry against finance, of workers against owners, of the nation against globalisation. But that political potential could not be realised through the existing parties. New Labour was the party of global liberalism, and was born out of the rejection of the politics of the nation Labour espoused into the 1980s. Furthermore the key anti-New Labour elements (Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn) of the Labour Party were London-centred and stood for the capital’s multi-culturalism, if not its capitalism. Nor could the renewed Tories of the 2010s be a party of the provinces or of the makers. Remade in the image of New Labour it was led by London-financial figures, like David Cameron and George Osborne. 

Even the Brexit parties were themselves London oriented. The first significant Eurosceptic was Sir James Goldsmith, funder of the Referendum Party (1997), a London-based Anglo-French financier. Ukip’s (and now the Brexit Party’s) Nigel Farage is not a manufacturer from the North, but had been a minor City of London figure, displaced by international capitalism. The other key agents in Brexit have been three major London newspaper groups  the owners of the Daily Telegraph, the Times and Sun, and the Daily Mail – with owners financially centred outside the UK. 

But the Eurosceptics did mobilise the potential English anti-London vote. In the code of being hostile to immigrants and experts, Westminster politics and the “metropolitan elites”, they were attacking something very much like London, and nothing which was recognisably the rest of the country. But this London could not be named, or its full reality attacked, for Leave was also London politics. 

Such a strategy could not work for the young: London represents a world of possibilities, for good and ill. Indeed London is young: it has twice the proportion of 25- 34-year-olds of the UK as a whole. For the old, however, the new London can be presented as alien, and a betrayal of the idea of a united British nation led from London. 

There is no doubt that the old have been mobilised behind the Tories and Leave. Some 64 per cent of over 65s voted Leave; in 2015, 64 per cent of over 65s voted Tory or Ukip, and among this age group the Tories had a 24 per cent lead over Labour. What’s more, 60 per cent of 2015 Tory voters voted Leave, and more, surely, of the historic Tory voters, many of which had previously switched to Ukip. 

The politics of the Tories has been the politics of keeping of the old vote. The prices of their houses have been kept high, their pensions protected, and their cost of living kept low. The NHS a service primarily for the old and pensions were specifically excluded from austerity. As many have noted, the Brexit vote was not generally a vote of the economically desperate; indeed Will Davies sees it in part as a rentier vote.

The politics of Brexit has also been a politics of the old. Newspapers have for decades been mostly Eurosceptic. They are read by declining numbers of old readers. The Leave campaign summoned up, as central to its programme, a past where the nation was sovereign and in control. 

It was suggested to the old (who had voted Remain in 1975) that they could return to the national world they knew in their youth, where nearly everything in the United Kingdom, whether cars, or food, was British. They were invited to wallow in the nationalist (not imperial) nostalgia of their youth, expressed in the belief that “Britain” was alone in 1940. In 1940 things were very different, a reason perhaps, the very old were more likely to have voted Remain than the merely old. In contrast to most great political projects, Brexit was not sold as a vision of a new future. Nor behind the silence were there any serious plans for how to bring Brexit about, or analyses of what its effects would be. 

The Leaver ideologues have no intention of creating a new British nation pulsating with national effort. For them the future is London selling deregulated financial services to the world, while the people get tariff-free uncontrolled food and manufactures from abroad, as domestic agriculture and industry crash. 

Brexit is a London project, a radical Thatcherite free-trading and financial project which will increase the division between London and the rest of the UK.  It is the revenge of the hardest of Thatcherites, feeding off the nationalism of the old, which they themselves betrayed long ago. If, as was once famously said, anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, then Brexit is the radical liberalism of fantasists and the nationalism of the deluded. 

David Edgerton is the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a twentieth-century history (Penguin).