No One Will Listen

This is a simply freakin’ brilliant description of the English vote for Brexit as well, I think, the appeal of Donald J. Trump in the United States:

To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy. The people who grow up in these places come from a cultural background which equipped them for reasonably well-paid manual labour, un- and semi- and skilled. Children left school as soon as they could and went to work in the same industries that had employed their parents. The academically able kids used to go to grammar school and be educated into the middle class. All that has now gone, the jobs and the grammar schools, and the vista instead is a landscape where there is often work – there are pockets of unemployment, but in general there’s no shortage of jobs and the labour force participation rate is the highest it has ever been, a full 15 points higher than in the US – but it’s unsatisfying, insecure and low-paid. This new work doesn’t do what the old work did: it doesn’t offer a sense of identity or community or self-worth. The word ‘precarious’ has as its underlying sense ‘depending on the favour of another person’. Somebody can take away the things you have whenever they feel like it. The precariat, as the new class is called, might not know the etymology, but it doesn’t need to: the reality is all too familiar.

What, over the last few decades, has been the political ‘offer’ to these people? In truth, nothing much. The reality of the modern British economy is that the thriving sectors raise the taxes which pay for the rest. The old work has gone and is not coming back. The decline in UK manufacturing is real but the headline figure – it used to be 25 per cent of our economy and is now 10 per cent – conceals the fact that we are still a significant manufacturing economy. Our proportion of manufacturing is more or less the same as in the US and France; we are the eighth biggest manufacturing economy in the world. Some of the decline is relative, since the services part of the economy has grown faster. But these jobs aren’t quite the same as they used to be. UK manufacturing is now a high-skill, high-value industry; we don’t make cars and fridges and washing machines and phones and things that everybody notices, but we do make high-technology components and industrial devices of a sort that nobody ever thinks about. The UK, for instance, has the second biggest aerospace industry in the world. The most complicated bit of a plane is the wing; the world’s biggest passenger aircraft wing belongs to the Airbus 380, which is made in Wales. (They’re so big that they travel from the Dee estuary in North Wales to Pauillac on the Gironde estuary on a specially built roll-on roll-off ship.) This industrial work is high-skill, high-value, and doesn’t provide mass employment; it’s a lot like the kind of service work which thrives in London and the South-East.


…There was no strategy to replace the lost industry; that was left to the free market. With these policies, parts of the country have simply been left behind. The white working class is correct to feel abandoned: it has been. No political party has anything to offer it except varying levels of benefits. The people in the rich parts of the country pay the taxes which support the poor parts. If I had to pick a single fact which has played no role in political discourse but which sums up the current position of the UK, it would be that most people in the UK receive more from the state, in direct cash transfers and in benefits such as health and education, than they contribute to it. The numbers are eerily similar to the referendum outcome: 48 per cent net contributors, 52 per cent net recipients. It’s a system bitterly resented both by the beneficiaries and by the suppliers of the largesse.

One of the things you notice, travelling around the country talking to people about economics, is that young people in particular feel they are living in an economic system rather than a political one. They think about jobs and paying the rent and whether they will ever own a home and, increasingly, about student debt, and they don’t see politics as having anything to say to them about those issues. That’s because the economics are the same irrespective of which political party is in charge. This is one of the reasons the Remain campaign failed to win the argument. Making economic arguments to voters who feel oppressed by economics is risky: they’re quite likely to tell you to go fuck yourself. That in effect is what the electorate did to the almost comic cavalcade of sages and bigshots who took the trouble to explain that Brexit would be ruinous folly: Obama, Lagarde, Carney, the IMF, the OECD, the ECB, and every commentator and pundit you can think of. The counter-argument wasn’t really an argument but a very clever appeal to emotion, to the idea that the UK could ‘Take back control’.

And yet more, as to why immigration is an issue in both countries:

Immigration, the issue on which Leave campaigned most effectively and most cynically, is the subject on which this bewilderment is most apparent. There are obviously strong elements of racism and xenophobia in anti-immigrant sentiment. All racists who voted, voted Leave. But there are plenty of people who aren’t so much hostile to immigrants as baffled by them. They feel left behind, abandoned, poor, ignored and struggling; so how come immigrants want to come here, and do so well when they get here? If Britain is broken, which is what many Leave voters think, why is it so attractive? How can so many people succeed where they are failing? A revealing, and sad, piece in the Economist in 2014 described Tilbury, forty minutes from London, where the white working class look on resentfully as immigrants get up early and get the train to jobs in the capital which, to them, seems impossibly distant. ‘Most residents of the town, one of England’s poorest places, are as likely to commute to the capital as fly to the moon.’

Immigrants contribute to the economy more than they take, Lanchester writes, adding the replacement labor the British economy will need to sustain social welfare benefits for the entire nation. But like the unaccountable economy, the kind of change migrants have imposed on the white English working class has been beyond their political control, and thus any sense they get to shape the world they live in.

One of the most important ideas to emerge from micro-economics – or at least, the one with the most consequences for democratic politics – is ‘loss aversion’. People hate to have things taken away from them. But whole swathes of the UK have spent the last decades feeling that things are being taken away from them: their jobs, their sense that they are heard, their understanding of how the world works and their place in it. The gaps in our society have just grown too big. …

Lanchester has harsh things to say about all involved in what passes for British politics these days. This is a long piece, and well worth reading, but he concludes by noting that the very people who demanded to be heard with their Brexit vote will likely not be listened to even as the UK leaves the EU.

The same is likely to happen with Trump voters as well, whether Trump wins of loses.

Anyway, read it.

One thought on “No One Will Listen

  1. This situation reminds me of something I once heard on my car radio. It might have been 10 years ago, maybe 25 — it was during one of the economic downturns. A women was being interviewed, and perhaps she was an employment counselor or maybe an economic analyst. She was talking about the inevitable continued loss of manufacturing jobs, and the interviewer asked her what laid off workers should do. She suggested they learn to become sales reps or some similar sort of work. I knew that was not going to go over well among blue-collar workers. Even the most highly skilled and industrious of them, maybe they especially, would refuse such a radical shift in workplace culture. I heard mechanics and electricians talking about how much longer they needed to keep their current jobs before they had enough to survive on, with their houses in the country already paid for. They would do odd fixit work and sell used car parts out of junks parked on the land behind the house rather than take a suit job. I know one guy who does pretty well buying cars at auction and flipping them for cash. But then the economy is pretty solid around here. A large university is an unfailing fount of money from the state and student’s families, and this helps keep not just the town afloat, but all the surrounding counties as well. Without it, we would look like West Virginia.

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