‘Brexit’: what once was once a witty epigram is now an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet what happened to the losers? The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign was frequently criticised for its over-use of a tired economic message that failed to connect with a UK population more concerned about the thorny question of immigration. In the Long Run’s Hettie O’Brien spoke to James McGrory, co-Executive Director of Open Britain, a pressure group formed out of the disbanded Stronger In campaign.
H.O: You’ve spoken about the ‘tone’ of politics – do you think the vitriol seen between politicians, and the press, has effectively changed the tone of UK politics for the future? Are we living in a political moment of hatred?
J.M: We’re certainly seeing a politics of nationalism, of fear, of division, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. You can politely call it identity politics, but in my view, that’s quite a generous way of describing nationalistic values. I’m afraid, regardless of what side you’re on, the referendum divided people in our country by age, by geography, by a sense of belonging – and that is going to be very difficult to put back together.
Young people voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, and older people voted overwhelmingly the other way. There is a real and palpable sense of anger amongst young people, that their future is being taken away from them by a generation that has really done quite well.
In my view, talk of blue passports, of the reintroduction of imperial measurements, and of taking back our country, is like calling for a return to an Albion that never existed.
H.O: For young people in the UK, there is certainly a sense of intergenerational inequality that was perhaps exposed in the EU referendum. Why, do you think, older generations who voted for Brexit wish to return to this ‘Albion’ of nostalgia, despite having arguably experienced net positives such as cheaper tuition, cheaper house prices, and more job security?
J.M: We should be wary of blaming individual people. There are genuine concerns about the pace of change, about immigration, about globalisation. We should look at ourselves on the progressive side of politics, and say, that we have not answered these people’s concerns in some time, probably going back for a few decades.
But, in addition, these people have been aggressively assaulted with myths from large parts of the press in this country, that have told them that all of their ills (and some of them don’t even have that many ills), all of their bugbears, can be blamed on someone else.
If it’s not the EU, it’s the immigrants. If it’s not the immigrants, it’s Westminster. If it’s not Westminster, it’s the “elite”. If it’s not the “elite”, its bankers. If it’s not bankers, it’s people in London.
H.O: Amongst those on the left, it seems that immigration is construed as a smokescreen for many other ills, while on the right, there is a greater tendency to see immigration as a substantive, genuine issue that must be dealt with. How do you heal this rift in society when it comes to the immigration question?
J.M: Immigration has been a good thing for this country, and will continue to be a good thing, and a necessary thing for our economy, for our public services, for our society as a whole. The world, and immigration, isn’t going to go away. To people who say they don’t like globalisation, I would say – your stand isn’t going to make globalisation, or technology, change. You’re not going to change the movement of people.
You can wish it away, wishing to return to a time when people kept their back doors open. But it’s not going to happen. We’ve got to deal with the world as it is, not how you might like it to be.
The missing part of the debate – it comes back to people on my side of the argument – we have not put that case across.
H.O: But, in terms of putting that case across – and we’re sitting in an office in London – it depends on talking to people who might disagree with us. How do you cross that divide without being patronising or telling people what to think?
J.M: What is striking, is that people’s picture locally is different to people’s picture globally. I’ve found that people who are quite praising of immigrants in terms of the work they’ve doing, could also be absolutely withering about the state of immigration nationally, in terms of porous borders and benefits for nothing.
Unless you go out into people’s communities, and talk to them on the doorstep, you’re not going to be getting that across.
You can’t dictate how people are going to feel about immigration. And, you have to address those things that people are concerned about that aren’t the product of immigration.
That requires genuine public policy solutions, not immigrant blaming.