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The Three Currents Roiling the Waters of British Politics

Two people holding a long banner in the street
Campaigners for Vote Leave unfurl a banner in Sunderland, UK, on June 4, 2016.  © Simon Dawson/Getty

Over the final three months of 2017, after two years of political shocks and upheaval, my colleague Peter Harrison-Evans and I undertook a series of focus groups for a project exploring contemporary nostalgia. We looked at its influence as both a cultural and political force across five countries in Europe, starting with England.

Through the English focus groups, we sought to understand three different subjects. First, we wanted to focus on the forces shaping people’s views of the UK’s politics, its economy, and its society in general. Second, we wanted to draw out—and question—people’s rosy memories of the past. Third, we wanted to learn more about their fears, their hopes, and their ambitions for the future.

While we spoke with Britons of all ages and in a wide range of places, the group most predominantly represented in our research were Britons who were white, at least 50 years old, and living in areas that had undergone significant economic and cultural disturbance over the past 30 years.

Ultimately, we collected huge swaths of verbatim transcripts featuring citizens expressing unguarded views about many of their country’s most pressing issues. And although the range of opinion was predictably broad, after a closer examination, we noticed three overarching themes from the focus groups which especially stood out:

1. An omnipresent feeling of precariousness

On an economic level, we spoke to many people in work, who feel barely able to make ends meet and are highly exposed to financial shocks. But the sense of loss is also very much grounded in social experience; participants mournfully described Britain’s lost sense of community, with deindustrialization, the razing of council terrace housing, and the material demands of capitalism blamed for creating a nation of “individualists.”

2. A frustration with “political correctness”

The insecurities are also cultural in nature, with participants speaking animatedly and at length about the over-extension of political correctness, which is seen to be supressing patriotism, the celebration of British identity, and the nation’s Christian values. In white Britons who were at least 50 years old, especially, we found a group increasingly split between those prepared to accept the inevitability of change, and those who continue to regard themselves as the dominant social and political force.

3. A skepticism of immigrants as well as politicians

We found that concerns regarding immigration are less due to racial prejudice than to cultural segregation and “welfare chauvinism.” One of the primary drivers of negative attitudes toward immigration appeared to be a feeling that migrants’ economic and cultural integration did not always match the responsibilities demanded by British citizenship. There was deep skepticism that politicians would deliver a fair “settlement” of the issue.

Admittedly, the summary report does not always make for comfortable reading. But these citizen focus groups provide ample material from which leaders in government, business, and civil society can draw lessons—and come up with the most effective ways to confront and address the insecurities and fears which are hounding so many Britons today.

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