In Harry Potter the Mirror of Erised shows the viewer what he/she most wants to see, be it a sui generis bucolic “country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” (John Major), “Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist” (George Orwell), a vibrant industrial powerhouse full of shipbuilding, engineering and coal mines (anonymous Sunderland Brexiteer), a low-tax/free-trade/low-regulation cross between Singapore and the Bahamas (Legatum?) or “eternally 1900 when Britain was at the height if its power and did not have to make messy compromises with foreigners” (Fintan O’Toole). In many ways the Leave side of the Brexit referendum framed their campaign on the Anna Karenena principle “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
To encompass as broad a coalition as possible the Leave campaign was deliberately vague about the actual Brexit on offer. Prof Simon Wren-Lewis likened it to an abstract painting. Leave voters could imagine the canvas as they pleased. On reflection (if you excuse the pun) it is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter where you could imagine a Utopia of your choice.
Who are these various Brexit tribes? There have been dozens post Brexit analyses, academic studies, some heavyweight books for example The Road to Somewhere (David Goodhart) and The Lure of Greatness (Anthony Barnett).
The Public Tribes
On the night of the referendum the narrative of the “left behind” disenchanted Northerners and people from the Welsh Valleys seemed to carry the day, but more recent studies indicate that the bigger picture was that there was a collation of different groups whom the FT described as its “six tribes of Brexit” (three Leave and three Remain). The Three Leave groups as described by the FT (October 18 2017) were “‘British Value Leavers”, “Working Class Leavers” and “Moderate Leavers” but I prefer the term “Little Englanders” and “Left Behinders” for the first two of these groups. The percentages below are those quoted in the FT article.
Little Englanders (10%)
I have the good fortune to live in the parish of Whalton in Northumberland. The village has a 13th century parish church, a Manor house with a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll, a Junior School (which was attended by my son when he was younger c 30 pupils) and a Pub. It is a bastion of common sense and Remain Voters. There is no shop and for groceries I have to venture a little further afield to Waitrose in Ponteland. Ponteland is one of the most affluent areas in the NE of England and a preferred location for premier league footballers and well heeled retirees. The Daily Mail is by far the most commonly bought paper with the Telegraph also very popular. Overwhelmingly Tory voting, fueled by a fear of immigration, nostalgia for the past and a suspicion of foreigners. They have a pathological dislike of the EU fuelled by a decades long relentless diet of fake news stories and vitriol in the right wing press. There are pockets of these in the NE but they overwhelmingly live in the south of England. The Lure of Greatness focuses on this Tribe. These are stirred by English Nationalism, patriotism, and a feeling of exceptionalism. Sovereignty is a major issue and it seems 90% would sacrifice the Union with Scotland and 82% peace in Northern Ireland to get the Brexit they crave. Economics is not a key issue, they are wealthy enough to weather a substantial downturn in the economy.
Left Behinders (15%)
Northumberland consists of a few distinct areas but there is one “industrial” area around Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth that consists of former prosperous coal mining towns and villages now with a low wage high-unemployment economy full of run down charity chops and faded hopes. This group has been well covered for example in ‘The Road to Somewhere’ and has been badly hit by the austerity agenda of the past decade. This was a prosperous area before the neoliberal Thatcher revolution. What they crave is a good job and a return to the industralised past. These are the casualties of globalisation. Fear that immigrants are driving down wages and taking jobs is present but the primary dream is economic revival and the need for hope. A little further south is the City of Sunderland which has become an icon for these attitudes. These are people who have felt voiceless for years and saw the Referendum as a way of giving the establishment a bloody nose. The EU was a proxy for government in general, they crave decent jobs and self esteem. The Road to Somewhere is very good at giving voice to this tribe, for this tribe the economy is key, but not in an abstract GDP sense. The thought that leaving the EU could affect car manufacturing such as Nissan is dismissed as ‘project fear’.
Moderate Leavers (18%)
I make a habit of talking to people and Northumberland has a very White-British population. The Moderate Leavers I come across tend to be tradespeople, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners etc. These are nearly all English but with a fair smattering of Scots, and a remarkable number of people having Irish blood. “One of my grandmothers was Irish!” is something people tell me with surprising regularity (I’m Irish myself and warm to this as a sign of welcome). There is a mild distaste for immigration and a feeling the country is getting too crowded (given that Northumberland is by far the least densely populated county in England and there are only 2% immigrants this is a bit strange). The feeling is that the EU is remote and has little effect on their lives, costs millions and they get little or nothing in return is very strong. The infamous “We Sent the EU £350 million a week. Lets Fund the NHS Instead” battle bus slogan struck a chord. There is a belief that Brexit doesn’t matter, “nothing really changes whatever way you vote”.
If the FT percentages are correct then the Leavers are only 43% of the population. This seems a bit low; most of the recent polls put leavers at about 48% of the population. What is possibly more remarkable is that the hard core “Little Englanders” only comprise about 10% of the population and yet it seems that they are driving the agenda. If the percentages are correct, if Brexit has to happen, a super-majority of the public would be content with a softer Brexit such as the Norway option (a slim majority indeed would prefer no Brexit at all). The Government still insists on the feasibility of a “cake and eat it” deal. It seems very likely that a very hard Brexit will be the outcome egged on by the right wing press and the story spun to blame the EU for not giving in to the UKs ridiculous demands. The British negotiations have been described by the Observer as being shambolic and as a dead end approach by our own Ivan Horrocks. Chris Kendall, a trade negotiator for over 20 years is equally scathing. The Financial Times argued a few days ago “Brexit Britain is at Europe’s Mercy“. Things are not looking good with the possibility of a train crash Brexit seeming ever more likely with talks breaking down completely. It seems that rather than “Taking Back Control” there seems to have been a bloodless coup with shadowy right-wing power brokers running the country. Power is at its most effective when it is least observable. But who are these Power brokers? As they hide in the shadows there is some speculation here.
The Power Broker Tribes
Of course the power-brokers behind the referendum are manifested most publicly by the right-wing media spearheaded by Murdoch, Dacre and the Barclay Brothers. However there was also a major social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter. I use Facebook a bit and just before the referendum I was surprised to get obscene ads regarding the accession of countries such as Turkey to the EU being imminent, playing on the worst paranoid fears of the gullible public. I reported these as “offensive” which seemed the best option at the time (June 2006) but now there are more options including “It’s misleading or a scam” or “It’s a false news story” which are a more accurate description. There are concerns that physiological tools normally reserved for military intelligence were used by Leave and also that there has been considerable Russian interference.There is also the shadowy group who poured unknown (and possibly vast) quantities into the Leave campaign most visibly through the DUP.
I have identified five tribes which are: The Right-Wing Media Barons, The European Research Group (ERG), Right Wing Think Tanks such as Legatum, The Atlantic-Bridge and The Pragmatists.
The Right-Wing Media Barons
These are the most visible of the power broker tribes headed by Murdoch, Dacre and the Barclay Brothers, who are the owners (editor in Dacre’s case) of the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. The rot seemed to set in in the late 1980s when Boris Johnson became the Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph. The headline Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead is a good summary. Of course the right wing press has detested the EU for years and during the referendum campaign the Mail and the Sun seemed to vie with each other to play on the worst fears of the electorate; relentless anti-immigrant headlines took their toll.
Since the referendum they have been relentless in the pursuit of a hard Brexit. The Mail famously called the high court judges ruling that parliament was sovereign Enemies of the People but more generally there is a relentless stream of anti EU propaganda and sycophantic support for the hard Brexit line taken by May. Even the Telegraph which used to be a decent broadsheet (though always right-wing) has become a propaganda rag attracting headlines Why has the once-great Daily Telegraph become Pravda for Boris Johnson? There is no attempt whatsoever to keep a balanced view. Dacre in particular seems to be a favorite of May, inviting him for a private dinner at No 10 and recently taking time out of her busy schedule to attend his 25th anniversary party. He has been a major champion of May as PM and holds a set of views much cherished by the Little Englander tribe.
I fear that if talks break down as seems inevitable they will go on full scale attack mode blaming the EU and poisoning relationships for years.
The European Research Group
The ironically named ERG has been described as a party within the Tory party and is the foremost Brexit pressure group in parliament consisting of about 100 MPs. Their stated aim is a hard, uncompromised exit from the European Union. For a few years they were in the shadows but have now become semi public and there are calls to open investigations for an expenses scandal. They seem to have enormous influence within the Tory party and particularly with Theresa May. Their leader is Suella Fernandes and she has recently been interviewed at conservative home. In Fernandes’ view, the positive effects of Brexit include cheaper prices for food and clothing and the chance to move to a New Zealand system of agriculture along with some platitudes on Tax Evasion which need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. They seem to be heavily influenced and bankrolled by Legatum.
New Zealand’s agricultural policy so admired by the ERG seems to be based on WTO tariffs and succeeded because of a dramatic devaluation of the NZ dollar, equivalent to the £ UK trading at about 55c (Euro). Whether this would work for the UK is a good question.
The Legatum Institute is extremely well funded and the web site is very professional and glossy. It seems to have an extraordinary hold on Government. It is a subsidiary of Legatum Limited and was founded by New Zealand billionaire Christopher Chandler, who made his fortune by “disaster capitalism” – exploiting trading opportunities created by extreme political disruption. It is considered to be central to the Conservative Party’s case for Hard Brexit. It seems to have very little understanding of the EU and how it works but on the face of it seems to be promoting a New Zealand, Australian, Singapore and a UK Anglo-sphere ideally incorporating Canada. The worry is that the backers may have zero interest in the long term future of the UK but want Brexit to be as disastrous as possible a they see the opportunity for profits on a massive scale. On the surface they appear to favour something like a Greater-Singapore model with a low wage, low regulation on environment and worker protection and a low tax economy. Very good for the top 1% and bad for the rest of us.
The Atlantic Bridge
Liam Fox or to give him his full title the disgraced former defence secretary, is the most prominent member of the Atlantic Bridge in the cabinet which very much wants a trade deal with the US. Indeed Fox was brought back into the fold because of his very strong links with this shadowy group. This group again wants a hard Brexit but prioritises a trade deal with the US. A train crash Brexit is preferred as they will argue there is little alternative. Any trade deal with the US is likely to be done by terms dictated by the US. They see a future as the UK being not far from a vassal state of the US.
A group whose most prominent member is Philip Hammond who seem to think leaving the EU is nonsense, however if it has to be done should be done as slowly as possible with minimal disruption and a long transition period, with something like the Norway option as a holding place.
We are in an extraordinary position in the UK where a narrow referendum victory based on very dubious and incomplete information and probably considerable external meddling has been hijacked by right wing pressure groups as if in a bloodless coup. If the Ipsos Mori results as presented in the “Six Tribes” analysis is correct at best only 10% of people want the ultra hard Brexit pressed for by nearly all the power players behind the scenes. The public is being fed a diet of propaganda: the Newt Gingritch approach of the Leave campaign “And that what people feel about an issue is more important than what the actual facts behind the issue are.” It is saddening how one of the worlds oldest democracies has been shown to be totally inadequate in handling the threat. Unless public opinion changes dramatically before March 2019 there seems no way out. Of course Prof Simon Wren-Lewis has a much simpler explanation, the 100,000 or so Tory Party members are overwhelmingly Little Britainers and are driving the entire process. Once the vision seen in the Mirror of Erised crystallizes into harsh reality there will be many very disappointed people.