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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.


Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.


What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.


Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt

Amazon's picking warehouses. Credit: Vincent Boisot/ Riva Press/ Camera Press
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Less than zero: six months working in low-wage Britain

Going undercover in low-pay jobs, the author discovered a fearful and atomised working class that had lost its pride and dignity.

Rolling over in bed in South Wales at half past six one frost-bitten November morning, I switched on the radio. As I turned the old-fashioned dial, through the crackle a heated argument boomed out. The outraged tone seemed to capture the mood of the times. An hour or so later I picked up a newspaper, which five months after the vote for Brexit was awash with recriminations, post-mortems and fleeting despatches from parts of the country that were said to feel bitter and “left behind”.

South Wales marked the penultimate stop in my own six-month journey across Britain. I had set out in February 2016 to gather information for a book about the low-pay economy. Having wandered around this world in my early twenties – I had worked in a yoghurt factory, as a casual labourer and as a postman – I wanted to go back and examine something that was for the most part concealed from prosperous Britain. The aim was to offer a window into a hidden land in which work had gone from being a source of dignity to a humiliating assault on a person’s self-respect.

The first stop on my journey was Rugeley, a former colliery town of 24,000 people in the West Midlands. I had got a job via an employment agency at Amazon, and was subsequently put to work for ten-and-a-half hours a day, four days a week in one of the huge “fulfilment centres” that processed items sold by the world’s largest retailer. Everything at Amazon had a euphemism. We didn’t work in a warehouse and we were not employees; rather we were “associates” on temporary zero-hours contracts. You weren’t sacked at the end of nine months; you were “released”. We were pawns in an algorithmic system of management that was a throwback to the theories of Frederick Taylor, who believed in the scientific perfectibility of labour activity.

Everything you did during a shift was carefully monitored and categorised, from how long you took to go to the toilet to how many items you picked off the shelves each hour. The job itself was fiendishly exhausting. I would clock off at close to midnight. With suppurating feet a dozen of us would traipse over frozen ground for the mile or so it took to get back to the poky dwellings we rented from local landlords. We filed past the murky waters of the Trent and Mersey canal and down rows of red-brick terraces that once served as the barracks of local industry. The stomp of steel-shod boots on the tarmac and the movement of the winding gear had long since fallen silent, replaced by the Romanian curses of my co-workers.

The Lea Hall Colliery, once the biggest coal mine of its type in Europe, had closed on 25 January 1991, two decades before Amazon arrived. The closure of the pit immediately threw 1,250 men out of work. In reality the total was far higher, for it also included the support industries and the corner shops that the miners frequented at the end of their long shifts underground. Alex, a former pit mechanic who drank at the Lea Hall Miners Social Club, told me one evening that Rugeley had “never recovered” from the closure of the pit. “There are no jobs,” he said glumly, “or they’re minimum-wage jobs and they’re jobs based on short-term contracts and fear”.

Towns like Rugeley have “merely replicated their economies” since the crash deindustrialisation of the 1980s and early 1990s, according to a 2015 report from the Centre for Cities think tank. They had “swapped cotton mills for call centres and dock yards for distribution sheds”. Despite some initial excitement whipped up by Amazon’s PR people and complaisant local newspapers when the warehouse first opened in Rugeley in 2011, there were few British order pickers by the time I arrived in 2016. Many of my co-workers were eastern European migrants, transported in on coaches from nearby towns such as Wolverhampton and Walsall: an invisible army that came and went while most people in Rugeley slept. Desperation had brought many of them to these shores; it was now their job to service the shopping whims of Britain’s middle class. As one young Romanian co-worker put it to me: “You can work here like an animal; you work four days, you know, and you have £240. I am a nobody here, yes; but back in Romania I am a nobody without enough money to eat.” Alex, who for years had got up every morning to face a terrifying coal seam 300 feet under the ground, told me that he wouldn’t work at Amazon because of “how they treat people”.

I encountered something similar as I left the Midlands and travelled down to the Welsh Valleys. At the end of a long and undulating street in the town of Cwm in Blaenau Gwent the imposing Marine Colliery had once employed over 2,000 men. It was the last large deep mine to work in the Ebbw Valley and closed in March 1989, one year and eight months before Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister. Apart from cars on the bypass close by, the only sound you can hear standing at the top of the hill in Cwm today comes from the hundreds of tiny birds in the pines, oaks and Sitka spruce that form a patchwork of green on the surrounding hills – hills that were once synonymous with a modest prosperity.

“There’s no work around here, there’s nothing,” an elderly woman named Anne in a beige overcoat told me as I made my way down from the old pit one cold December afternoon. “There’s a couple of workshops down the bottom, but I don’t think they employ many. Nothing where you can say there’s ten or 20 people working or anything.”

Britain’s former mining areas are home to about 5.5 million people – about 9 per cent of the population. The scorched-earth policy enacted by the governments of the 1980s left a legacy that can still be observed today. Indeed, the Welsh Valleys offer an aperture into the “post-work world” that has become a talking point now that middle-class jobs are threatened with automation (a recent report by Deloitte found that over 100,000 jobs in the legal sector are at high risk of being automated in the next 20 years). The unemployment rate in South Wales is one of the highest in the country and has been ever since industry was wound up abruptly by Conservative governments intent on crushing Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers. “When Maggie Thatcher beat the miners’ union a lot of people in this country didn’t give a damn about it,” said Selwyn Williams, a former miner I met in the Merthyr Tydfil Labour Club. “But it affected everybody that’s working, even up to this day.”

In Blaenau Gwent, one in six residents in a population of 60,000 was collecting a prescription for antidepressants, according to NHS data from 2013. In nearby Ebbw Vale, a town whose steelworks once produced the material used to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Stockton and Darlington Railway lines, five food banks operated within an area of about 42 square miles. Streets named after heroes of the labour movement were full of rent-to-own stores, betting shops and arcades. On the short Ebbw Vale high street I counted three pawnbrokers. In the Wetherspoons a portrait of the late former Labour leader Michael Foot was squeezed incongruously between two flashing fruit machines.

To get a job you often have to move away from towns like Ebbw Vale and Cwm or commute to bigger cities – Cardiff is an hour and a half away on the train. I was selling car insurance in a call centre in Swansea – a sleek and streamlined world all but impenetrable to those without the language skills or cultural capital required for the customer-focused “service economy”. In 2012 in the South Wales coalfield area, the number of jobs per 100 residents of working age was estimated at 41.

 Family values: wives and children at a miners strike picket line in Rudeley, Staffordshire, 1972.

Other towns I visited were beset by different challenges, albeit with similar consequences. I spent six weeks in Blackpool over the summer months, where I worked as a home carer. The job was physically and emotionally consuming and poorly remunerated. From early morning until late at night an overwhelmingly female workforce of isolated, harried and cobalt-uniformed workers dashed through the cluttered terraces of Blackpool’s South Shore. It was our job to wipe bottoms, give baths, administer medication and, occasionally, to clean up piles of sick (“Extra Strong Mints are the best thing to get rid of the smell of poo and sick,” one carer told me).

Most care visits had to be completed within 20 minutes, resulting in what has been accurately described as “clock-watch care”. At a time of punishing cuts to local authority budgets, the care companies that promised to empty the most catheters and change the most sanitary pads at the lowest cost invariably won the contracts from the council. The result, as one care worker put it to me, was that Britain’s elderly resemble “units parcelled up and sold to the lowest bidder”.

Beyond the front-of-town façade of rock shops, bouffanted crooners, stag parties and lager tops, Blackpool is a forlorn place, far from the “abode of health and amusement” it was described as in 1789. On my first night in town I stayed on Central Drive, a street that begins near the promenade a few blocks from the 19th-century Winter Gardens complex and snakes for about a mile until it reaches Bloomfield Road stadium, home to Blackpool FC.

It is the poorest area of Blackpool and one of the most deprived in England. There is an off-licence for every 250 residents and half the population smokes. Half the children in this part of town live in poverty. The homeless population is huge and very visible. The highs and lows of seasonal work in Blackpool have been exacerbated by the recent recession and subsequent government cuts. Between 2008 and 2012 the level of peak winter claimant unemployment in Blackpool doubled. “People come here for the day and think, ‘Oh, what a nice place; everyone must be buzzing’… All it is is zero-hours contracts,” said Gaz, an unemployed man whom I found traipsing desperately up and down the promenade hawking a glossy magazine for £3.

The final leg of my journey was spent in London among workers in the burgeoning “gig” economy, in which self-employed contractors are sent jobs via apps on their phones. For several months I drove an Uber taxi and was directed through the city by the capricious instructions of an algorithm under the pretext of “being my own boss”. Behind this euphemism I found a familiar story of exploitation masquerading as liberation.

Much of my job flexibility as an Uber driver was illusory. At a training session I was told that I could not “pick and choose” which fares I accepted. “The reason you’re online is to accept any job that’s given to you,” I was told by the representative of a company that was supposed to be my “partner”. Such was the level of control exercised that I was even told what conversational subjects were off-limits with passengers – politics, religion and sport, for example. A tool that allows passengers to award drivers between one and five stars at the end of every journey was sometimes abused, with passengers leaving poor ratings if you didn’t let them put loud music on or offer them free bottles of water. If your rating fell below 4.4 Uber threatened to ban you from using the app altogether. As much as Uber liked to say the passenger was your customer, it felt like they were Uber’s. It was this purported “freedom” for which gig workers had sacrificed most of their employment rights.


Much of the inequality and division I witnessed on my travels had been there in the background for some time, like the engine under a car bonnet whose whirrings you ignore until you find yourself broken down in a dingy layby. What was different about 2016 was that discontent began to percolate up to the surface, whether in the vote for Brexit, the dramatic swing of the Labour Party to the left, or in the rise of demagogues, like Donald Trump in the US. It would be naive to call Brexit a working-class revolt, yet as every one of the depressed towns I visited went on to vote overwhelmingly to leave the EU, it seems clear that the outcome was about more than a rejection of foreigners and European regulation. To many of the people I met, Europe was a target for their resentment of the pain inflicted by the untouchable hand of the market. Whether in Blackpool, Rugeley, Ebbw Vale or Cwm – all over there were persuasive reasons to want to “take back control”. “My personal view,” said Brian, a former miner at Bryn Colliery whom I met in Port Talbot, “is that it all started [to go downhill] as soon as we joined the EU… Look at this country [Wales], and look at how it was thriving in the Fifties, Sixties, even up to the Seventies, but since we joined the EU it’s just gone down”.

Britain is wealthier than it was in the 1970s, but much of today’s wealth is extracted from an underclass whose penurious existence is characterised by an almost total subservience to the whims of their employers. Trade unions have little power in this world. “Like Maggie Thatcher said when we were on strike – when I finish, she said, I want ten men chasing one job,” Selwyn told me over a pint back in Merthyr Tydfil. “And everyone thought she was talking pie in the sky. But it’s right today, isn’t it?”

When I left London early in 2016 Britain was not expected to leave the EU and it was assumed that Hillary Clinton would be a shoo-in for the White House. By the end of that year the complacency of four decades had given way to a powerful sense of dread. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a flurry of introspection and a renewed interest in those citizens who were said to feel “left behind” by globalisation.

This empathetic about-turn was short-lived. The backlash that created so much political turmoil two years ago has produced a further backlash: the working class have again become maligned caricatures or, worse, invisible. Despite a series of unpleasant shocks, the liberal capitalist order clings on. There is little understanding – at least in the communities I visited – of how change might come about. The mood there was characterised by a doleful apathy as much as by anger and resentment at the status quo. Few expressed voluble enthusiasm for the Labour Party, despite its recent transformation.

As I drank a mug of strong tea in a South Wales bedsit, it struck me that, almost 40 years after the curtain was violently brought down on the social democratic consensus during the bitter miners’ strike, there was a great deal in Britain to be in revolt against. Indeed, it took a certain type of affluent liberal hubris not to see it. The road to 2016 had been paved by several generations of politicians who believed not only in the fantasy of the “end of history”, but who had assumed that the market would guarantee the good life for just enough people to ignore those who failed to grasp the levers of social ascent. The result of this complacency has been the rise of demagogues who promise, in common with the fascists of the 20th century, to replace the invisible power of the market with the visible power of the infallible leader.

For all its dirt and danger, the old world of pits and steelworks at least offered the chance to join a trade union and take charge of your own destiny. It also gave birth to valuable neighbourhood associations – the factory became an extension of the wider family. In contrast, employment for a diminished and cowed working class today is often characterised by its antipathy to either pride or dignity. Both qualities were absent from the world I occupied for six months – a fearful and atomised domain in which the balance of power had been firmly tilted in favour of management. Of all the hardships facing the working class, I suspect it is this erosion of self-respect and solidarity that is the hardest to bear. “People actually say, ‘I’m only at Amazon,’ and in the past they would’ve never said, ‘I’m only at the pit,’” Alex told me over a drink at the Lea Hall Miners Social Club one evening. “You’d have said, ‘I’m a collier,’ because that’s what you were and you were proud of it.” 

“Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain” is published by Atlantic Books

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt