The Three Currents Roiling the Waters of British Politics

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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The UK has retained its sense of geographical and emotional insularity for hundreds of years tempered with nostalgia often based in mythology. The characteristics you describe emanate from this as well as a widespread (largely global) feeling of antipathy towards the political class and a belief that the current system has failed the many and benefited the few. That can only be reversed by an increased sense of community, locally, nationally and globally - those voices are still there even if presently not being heard or heeded.

Very interesting, but since I note that this research was conducted in England and you talk about the UK, I wondered if you might also share the results of the focus groups in the rest of the UK? (Scotland Northern Ireland and Wales?) Or is this an England only exercise? If so, should this not be made clear?

The sense of loss of community is an astute observation in England, where the majority of population movement in the last 20 years has and continues to be driven by affordability issues. People flip properties on the one hand and are priced out from other areas on the other. This clashes with the traditional "Pub + high street" layout of most communities. Where roads were once empty and the kids flocked out of terraced homes onto the street to play ball on Sunday while the parents set up the BBQ with the neighbors, today the same roads are busy with noisy traffic, debris from loft extensions and other developments to add a premium to the price tag. Once you start going inland the landscape changes completely. The pub is empty, with only a Betfred next door having survived the carnage of years of neglect and deindustrialisation.

Having worked in deprived areas at community level for a a couple of decades, I'd say this is a pretty accurate capture of what has happened in terms of people's thinking. During the years prior to the general election of 2010, huge amounts of money and resources (including some very talented people) were being focused on areas of deprivation, and some of that was getting through to some very good work locally (major infrastructure improvements (bar one or two vanity projects), Children's Centres and the support of local voluntary sector service providers being notable examples). But after the 2007-8 financial crisis and the 2010 election, after which followed the trashing of the organisational infrastructure that delivered what was working, and austerity, then things began to go really sour for the population group that were part of this survey. The seeds were already there, but it was after this period that they became potentially and actually toxic. It's interesting that respondents can now see through the lies they were told at the time, and now may have voted differently, but the level of ignorance around immigrants still needs to be addressed. This has not been helped by the deliberate 'dumping' of refugees into low income areas, into the very worst housing in the worst parts of those areas. It fuels negative perceptions of immigration in the very areas in which it is likely to become most toxic.

Unfortunately the summary provided is perpetuating the myth that it is the over50's and economically deprived who are against change and causing a backlash against progress. Anyone looking at the Brexit results will see a much broader set of influences. For example Kent and Essex both voted for Brexit. Large numbers of residents in these counties commute every day to London, are from all age groups and could hardly be described as economically deprived or badly educated. Many have chosen not to live in a London that they feel increasingly alienated from. More than a third of the people living in London were not born in the UK according to the census and appear to care little for their hosts country values and culture.
One of the issues we must address is the dislocation of the political and administrative elites from the reality facing many citizens. The urbane Indian consultant seen at the prep school gates at pick up time is the only sign of immigration many of our leaders see. They don't live on a street where Roma get housed or where the houses are bought up by extended families leaving local residents isolated. When our citizens complain about this the elites say they have an irrational fear, a phobia, and proceed to denigrate them.
Change has to be acceptable to everyone and perhaps this Foundation could focus some funding on training in citizenship and integration. At the risk of being controversial perhaps showing to our older citizens that they are grateful to be here would help. The sense of entitlement displayed by some to the benefits and support structures built up by generations can grate.

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