Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Press On Wards

This blog does not usually venture into politics, but I think I can say that last June's referendum on our membership of the European Union transcended politics: it was History (capital H!).  Since I wrote the flurry of posts at the time (on the eve of the vote, the following morning and the day after), it has all given me plenty to think about.

There was an interesting article yesterday from the BBC, which has been going through the details of the votes by electoral ward, every pocket of country, and finding trends and quirks in the result.  I find this fascinating —  it is proof of the variety and character of the country that has always been there.  To think of this result as a revolt by the English and Welsh 'regions' against the London 'metropolitan elite', with Scotland and Northern Ireland going their own way, was always rather a simplification.  The BBC finds all sorts of patterns — islands of one result isolated by swathes of the other, sharp contrasts between wards in similar regions — and so on.  The article asserts that the factor that correlated most strikingly with the results was the level of formal education.  The lower this was per ward, the more strongly that ward tended to vote to Leave.  Thus 82.5% of the people of Brambles and Thorntree in Middlesbrough, where 5% of people have a degree, voted to Leave; Market ward in Cambridge, which includes most of the colleges, voted 87.8% to Remain.  Rural areas and more deprived parts of England, on the fringes — places people never visit, which are the places I am interested in — were more likely to want to Leave.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why I dithered so much about my vote.  On paper, it seems I ought to be a staunch Remainer.  I am in my twenties, have grown up in London and have a degree — come to that, a degree in French and German.  I am very fond of European cultures.  Yet I fall wholeheartedly, even gratefully, into the category of the 'Left Behind'.  Perhaps the very interest I have in the particularity of the wards, even the delight I take in their names  (Milkstone and Deeplish!  I had never heard of either) betrays this.   Globalisation, or at least globalised culture, makes me dizzy.  I feel much of the time as if I am living in the future, not the present.  I have never taken an international flight in my life; my instinctive idea of a holiday is not to go abroad but to plunge into the narrow hollows or intricate coastline of my own country.  It isn't at all that I'm not curious and deeply interested in the whole world.  But I can only enjoy it in tiny mouthfuls, because everything I find I must savour.  (But how much does this have to do with the European Union?  I'm not sure).  I think, too, that I shared with Leave voters a feeling that sovereignty was the crux of the whole affair.  The nation is far looser and less important than the family (and the British have lost sight of this in the past) but there is the crucial similarity that we are, to a greater or lesser extent, rooted in both.  These feelings did not make me a Brexiteer any more than the others made me a Remainer, but I have more of an idea now why, almost alone it seems, I felt sympathy in such stubbornly equal parts towards ordinary voters (as opposed to campaigners) in both camps.  

In fact I don't, incidentally, really think there ought to be a contradiction between these two feelings.  My studies and ventures into Europe made me more fiercely fond of my own country even as I came to know and understand French- and German-speaking cultures better.  It did not, however, stop me from dithering over my vote to the point of its hardly seeming to count...

I would be dithering still, if I allowed myself to.  But I have decided not to.  Now that we have a result, there is no reason why we should not all set to and try and make a success of it.
One way of seeing the result: A view northwards from Leith Hill, the highest point in south-eastern England, down across the Holmwoods ward (57% Leave) in the foreground, over Dorking South (63% Remain) in the dip this side of Box Hill in the middle distance, and then London, world city, practically its own nation and most certainly Remain, in the far distance.  All this variation in the landscape of Meredith and Vaughan Williams and the Lark Ascending.
Of course, I would be a lot happier about it all if I had more faith in the country.  It is often tempting to despair at the scale of the decline of civility, the collapse of marriage and the family, the unthinking public swearing, the callous behaviour on the roads, the ugliness in both popular and high culture, the characterlessness of architecture, the dry tonelessness of language, the dictatorship of relativism, the moral uncertitude, the unhappiness of so many people — especially among young people of my generation, where it might least be expected — the materialism it is such an effort to resist, the crush of fashion, the burdens that people have to shoulder, often alone.  

But then I take myself in hand.  There are many people trying, and indeed succeeding, in doing good, all over the place.  Often they are not seen, which is the proof of the goodness of their actions.  And there are all sorts of movements, ideas, societies, choirs, clubs, even traditions, that carry on unobtrusively without making a spectacle of themselves.  One of the things I was wholeheartedly pleased to see in the referendum was the quiet but firm subversion of celebrity culture, which I would once cynically have supposed held us all in a glitzy grip.  And there are legions of good and just people — I could reel off the names of a hundred people, known to me, many my friends, who number among them — who will not let civilisation crumble on their watch.

Postscript: By the way, I think we should resist the drawing of comparisons between our own referendum and events trans-Atlantic.  It may be that both represent an apparently-unexpected popular uprising, but what has happened in America is the triumph of a brand, whereas the British referendum went the way it did precisely because it was unbranded.  The question was put to us with few bearings, and without the attachments of the main parties, so people voted more freely.  So in my opinion it is unwise to speak of the two events in the same breath, and certainly not allow our feelings about one to affect our opinion of the other.  Right, enough politics!


  1. Very interesting, Dominic!

    How much does it have to do with the European Union? I think it has everything to do with the European Union. The EU is a federal project, and I just don't see how unity of infrastructure, laws and economy-- not to mention the virtual abolition of borders-- can't have a homegizing effect on culture.

    Even little things like the replacement of our Irish currency with the dreadful, characterless euro is an example.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Maolsheachlann! Yes, homogenisation is the word. I have never seen why there should be any contradiction between an opposition to homogenising and globalising forces and goodwill towards other nations. The European Union was only ever one way of co-operating with our neighbours.

    When the prospect of British entry to the euro was on the cards around the turn of the millennium, I remember being fiercely against it. I was quite young and didn't know anything about economics. I 'just knew', for purely emotional reasons, that it would be wrong to relinquish the £. In fact I still know nothing about economics and still would oppose the euro, and I think it's a shame that the Punt and the Mark and the franc are no more. So I would defend to the hilt anyone who voted 'Leave' from nothing more than instinct or intuition. I might easily have been among them, and it might have been the right instinct.

    What surprised me more than anything about the referendum — even the result itself — was the vehemence of some Remain supporters. I don't mean them all, by any means, but before the vote I found myself several times in conversations where, having admitted I was having trouble deciding, I was made to feel as if I might as well have said I was choosing 'Leave'. I think that was probably widespread and counterproductive.

  3. I was deeply shocked and annoyed by the bitterness of the response. For me, it was a formative moment similar to Roger Scruton's witnessing of the 1968 riots, or Chesterton's opposition to the Boer war (against many of the people who he'd thought of as his comrades until then).

    One acquaintance of mine had this as his Facebook post on the day Brexit happend: "The dwarves are for the dwarves". (A line from The Lord of the Rings when the dwarves are refusing to help the other races fight against Sauron.) This was one of the reasons I left Facebook-- the sheer venom, spite and (worst of all) condescension of the response to Brexit, PARTICULARLY amongst people I generally liked and agreed with. The Leavers were treated as complete troglodytes who had no idea what they were voting for. It pushed me, maybe not towards the right (since that term is so loose), but towards a fiercer opposition to political correctness and willigness to offend sacred cows.

  4. Yes. And I was willing to be persuaded: I wanted to hear solid reasons at least in part because I wanted to agree with them. As it was I had to look for my own, largely.

    Unfortunately this is only one of several recent national debates which have gone sour like this.


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