Globalization Met Localism in UK Election

December 17, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2020


The British election seems to have been all Brexit all the time. It was front and centre in the Conservative campaign, and afterward the badly beaten Labour Party’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC: “This was the Brexit election. We hoped a wider range of issues would cut through and we’d have a debate, but that hasn’t happened.” Oh yes it did, because Brexit is where globalization met localism in Britain.

Thus, Brexit and Boris Johnson are the British answer to U.S. President Donald Trump. Both, like Trump, drive the smart set crazy, partly because they embody valid criticisms the elite can’t seem to hear.

The 2019 electoral map of Britain is a remarkable sea of Tory blue until it turns Scottish National Party yellow. As with the 2019 Canadian election, this high-angle view can mislead because there’s a fair bit of Labour red concentrated in dense urban areas, primarily Greater London, Greater Manchester and Liverpool, Greater Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Greater Cardiff and Swansea in south Wales. But it reveals more than it conceals because it tells us Brexit voters are, by and large, English people outside the cosmopolitan centres who felt left out of globalization.

David Goodhart, author of “The Road to Somewhere,” has drawn a distinction between those who live “somewhere” in the modern world and those who live “anywhere,” like former Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, a dual-citizen Harvard professor who once memorably called Canada “the place on Earth that, if I needed one, I would call home.” The somewheres don’t just have a home, they need one desperately. And English “somewheres,” cherishing actual places with histories and traditions, identify the sophisticated, successful, non-loyal “anywheres” immediately and viscerally with the European Union’s transnational multilingual bureaucrats.

Now it may be objected, and has been much remarked, that north of Hadrian’s wall, the map changes. Scotland was heavily “Remain” in 2016, and in 2019 voted overwhelmingly (48 of 59 seats) for the Scottish National Party that wants to leave Britain and stay in the EU. So are the Scots huge enthusiasts for globalization?

No. It’s partly the old story of English and Scots sneering at one another since it was Saxons and Gaels, though as a “somewhere” I care that actually my lowland ancestors are primarily Saxon, too, which is why Scots is a Germanic language. But I digress.

The point is, Scots who feel left out of globalization identify it with the U.K. just as their southern neighbours identify it with the EU and, in North America, the U.N. as well as the coastal elites and in Canada MTV (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver). So Scots vote Remain to protest the same thing their English cousins vote Leave to protest: being scorned and left behind.

It is an open question whether an independent Scotland really could join the U.K. since Spain has sworn to veto it because of their sensitivity to separatism, especially Catalan. And while the Eurocrats might be keen to welcome Scotland as a poke in the eye to English Brexiters, in their more reasonable moments, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, and company probably realize the fragmenting of the United Kingdom would be a geopolitical disaster.

Of course, the disintegration of the unity of Europe would also be bad given the geopolitical ramifications, but the EU in its current form doesn’t bring out the best qualities of what was once called Christendom. Some European leaders may even remember, as Thatcher did, that the British and their colonial offspring rescued Europe twice in the 20th century (three times if you count the Cold War). And for what?

There’s the rub. The 2019 British election and Brexit are a populist revolt by people who feel betrayed by how the world has gone in the last half century, because globalization has passed them by and the elites don’t care. Which brings me to a vital argument from “Bell Curve” co-author Charles Murray about what happened and why.

Supposedly globalization is a neoliberal, market-driven, opportunity-knocks-and-devil-take-the-hindmost philosophy in response to which, you’d imagine, lower-status voters would turn left. And the Corbynites were very left wing, which is supposed to mean being on the side of ordinary people. But obviously ordinary people don’t see it that way, turning in the United States not to Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren but to Trump, and in Britain not to Jeremy Corbyn but to old Etonian Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Likewise, in Canada, the rural hinterland is more likely to vote Conservative than socialist NDP, let alone urban Liberal.

So unless populist voters are the basket of deplorables the smart set often thinks and sometimes blurts out, this pushback isn’t against market economics supposedly exposing everyone to a withering blast of competition that swept away jobs and traditions. Rather, it’s a protest against a world of elaborate rules deliberately or fortuitously made too complicated for regular folks without law degrees to navigate, to the great gain of those clever people who made them.

In a withering Daily Telegraph piece, Sherelle Jacobs dismissed Labour’s it-was-all-Brexit excuse as “metrollectual nonsense.” It’s a telling phrase about who really benefits from modern complexity including a swollen regulatory state: urban sophisticates with college degrees, good connections, and lucrative jobs in prestigious service industries from banking to government. As Jacobs wrote, “The working classes have deserted the Labour Party en masse because it does not — and crucially, cannot — speak for them.”

Cannot. It’s a strong word. But after a few well-considered comments about Corbyn’s failings, Jacobs wrote, “Labour seems to have already convinced itself that this rout is a blip; that its heartland has ‘lent its vote’ to the Brexit cause temporarily, and will inevitably gravitate back to the Left. The BBC, meanwhile, appears convinced that the witless masses have succumbed to American-imported populism …”

Instead, she argues, Labour once stood for pragmatic better-deal-for-the-working-man unionism. “Sadly, a strain of middle-class fanatical socialism that is alien to the British working class infiltrated Labour.” She quotes one ordinary voter calling Corbyn a “snotty Islington weirdo who hates Britain like the vegans hate Sunday roasts.”

Hates Britain. See? The somewheres love hearth and home. The anywheres do not. The somewheres also love clarity. The anywheres love ambiguity, complexity, and instability.

Thus, Jacobs adds that a lot of northern England went Tory because “the North is fiscally conservative. To anyone who has grown up in a striving working-class family, the resonance of ‘living within one’s means’ is obvious.” Unlike the cleverness of Keynesian deficits.

Now consider an example that seems to have nothing to do with Brexit or politics, until you remember conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart’s dictum that politics is downstream from culture. An article in The Atlantic last fall said the American divorce rate is falling because the marriage rate is falling, especially for those lower down on the socioeconomic ladder. They don’t divorce because, disastrously, they never marry.

It’s another case of the clevers creating fantastically complex family rules that they then navigate with self-congratulatory skill, raising their children in mostly intact homes and sending them through elite colleges into six-figure jobs in major urban centres even while mocking the old “Ozzie and Harriet” families they live in. Meanwhile, those once protected by simple, robust, legal, and social rules about the sanctity of marriage flounder and succumb to opioids and other forms of slow-motion suicide and do so without sympathy. Just try to inject talk of family breakdown into the TV panel echo chamber.

If this analysis is correct, the great problem with modernity is that it has made a world too complex for ordinary people that privileges an entrenched urban elite that dominates public debate. And if so, the solution must begin with that elite genuinely embracing diversity, recognizing that not everyone is like them or should be, and that there is merit in those “somewheres” who miss the old England, Canada, or America where family was strong, faith mattered, and you felt some attachment to where you were from.

If not, brace for more Brexit and more upheaval.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.