This morning I woke up to find all the lights had gone out in the bathroom. The bathroom lights have always been a bit dodgy – but such is life. I am crap at fixing things, so I called Michael, who was round within minutes to sort me out.
Michael is Irish and has lived in Kentish Town for years. I asked him how he had voted on Thursday – not that I really needed to ask. I kind of knew, but I wanted to check, just in case I was stereotyping him.
“I voted out, of COURSE,” he laughed. “Best thing that has happened in years. We’re getting our country back. Now we can do something about immigration.”
He pointed at my kitchen table.
“How many people can you get round that table?” he asked me.
“Dunno,” I said. “A few.”
“That table’s like this country,” he said. “There’s only room for so many people. Then it’s full up. The country’s full up.”
Obviously this is not strictly true, but it is how it feels to Michael. In a city where there is not enough housing and your kids have got as much chance of getting a council house as they have of winning the Euromillions, then resentment towards immigrants in social housing is understandable. I do not have those feelings and I don’t like hearing them as I have both an intellectual and emotional dislike of racism. More importantly I do not need to have those feelings as I am not competing with people from other countries for my home and my job.
I listened to Michael and then replied. I understood why he felt the way he does but surely the problem is more that there is not enough housing in London and that all the council houses have been sold off? That land that could be used to build affordable housing is sold to developers to build luxury flats on – flats that no one ever actally lives in as the people who buy them are more interested in capital growth than providing accommodation.
Michael agreed with me. He is not a stupid man. But he still sees immigration as a problem however much I want to tell him it isn’t. I have to accept this just as we have to accept that people voted to leave the EU on Thursday. We have to accept, reflect and then try and do something positive – like elect a government that addresses the fact that lots of our fellow citizens have been left to rot for the last 35 years. We need to ask ourselves why it is wrong to be racist but OK to treat white working class people like their lives don’t matter.
I am a card carrying member of the liberal middle classes. I am a feminist and an internationalist. I cringe when I see England flags hanging from the estates in my areas and tutted when one of my kids requested an England football shirt in Primark – I have a horrible feeling I told him it was ‘racist’. The truth is probably more that I thought it was in some way lower class – like many metropolitan liberals I am uneasy with patriotism and displays of national pride. How much nicer and more ‘progressive’ to identify as European, with all the associated connotations of culture and sophistication. Basically I would rather eat a plate of pasta than a plate of chips. Both are peasant foods made of carbohydrates, but somehow the pasta is ‘nicer’. This is all about class and identity and I think that is why Remain was a cause that so passionately united the metropolitan middle classes. Identity is a powerful motivator and I think this is what united the Remain side. That was what spoke to me – and also a terror of rising interest rates. I didn’t want to be a racist and I didn’t want to lose my house.
However, if you live in Gateshead or Wolverhampton or any other area that used to be a thriving manufacturing area but is now a post industrial wasteland, the rhetoric of Remain just sounds like unadulterated bullshit. If you are struggling to put food on the table, why would you care about international trade or being ‘progressive’? Your basic needs are not met. You are angry. You need proper employment not a zero hours contact job pushing boxes around the Amazon or Sportsdirect warehouse. You need to be valued as a person with thoughts and feelings and needs, not a disposable serf to be hired and fired at whim. You also need decent education that skills you up for the challenges of the modern world – education that is free, not education that puts you in debt for the rest of your adult life. You need what was given to the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s before it was decided that it was cheaper to make our clothes in Bangladesh than it was in Bradford. Before it was decided that it was easier to fob the working class off with casual labour or benefits than it was to equip them for the challenges of the future.
Imagine if former miners had been educated to make mobile phones rather than signed off on the long term sick. Just imagine. Imagine a government that gave grants to Goldman Sachs to set up an office in Wolverhampton. You can trade with a mobile phone pretty much anywhere in the world – imagine if the wealth that comes from the financial services sector was spread throughout our nation rather than concentrated within a few miles.
Maybe I am drifting off into fantasy land, but maybe what has stunted our country is a total lack of imagination – especially when it comes to dealing with difficult questions like how to regenerate parts of Britain that have declined in the face of global competition. Mass immigration is the other consequence of a global economy and that has been handled badly too. But it’s never too late to change and rise to the challenges presented to our country. We owe it to our people to try. We owe it to you and to me and to my kids and to Michael and his kids and all the people who feel that no one values them. We need to learn to be a nation again.