[Marxism] Wigan’s Road to ‘Brexit’: Anger, Loss and Class Resentments
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 17 09:10:45 MST 2019
(Anecdotal rather than statistical, this NYT article from 2016 is still
NY Times, July 5, 2016
Wigan’s Road to ‘Brexit’: Anger, Loss and Class Resentments
By Andrew Higgins
WIGAN, England — After jobs as a garbage man, a bakery worker and now a
packer at a canned food factory, Colin Hewlett, like most people in
Wigan, a gritty northern English town, takes great pride in his
working-class credentials. He plays snooker and drinks pints at the
Working Men’s Club across the road from his red brick rowhouse, and at
every election that he can remember, he has voted, like his father
before him, for the Labour Party.
The governing Conservative Party, which last won a parliamentary
election in Wigan in 1910, is “for rich sods and second raters on the
make,” he explained.
On June 23, however, Mr. Hewlett broke with the habits of a lifetime and
bucked the Labour Party line. Ignoring its stand that the European Union
is good for Britain, he voted to bolt from the European bloc, along with
64 percent of the population in a town that, according to Will
Patterson, a local Green Party activist, would normally “vote for a cow
if Labour put one up for election.”
The overwhelming vote here in favor of “Brexit” — much higher than the
52 percent who voted to leave nationwide — delivered a stinging rebuke
not only to the Labour Party leadership in London but also to the
party’s local politicians. They hold 65 of the 75 seats on the Borough
Council and campaigned, albeit with little zeal, for the Remain camp.
The Conservative Party, whose leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, also
campaigned for Britain to stay in Europe, got kicked in the teeth, too,
as did President Obama and legions of other prominent figures in Britain
and abroad who urged voters like Mr. Hewlett not to rock the boat.
But rocking the boat, no matter what the risks, was precisely what he
and millions of other Britons — who, regardless of their real economic
situation, see themselves as members of a downtrodden “working class” —
wanted to do. To them, it was a last, desperate effort to restore a lost
world of secure jobs and communities that was far harsher in reality
than it is in recollection.
Their votes were stark evidence of how working-class resentments, driven
by feelings of being ignored and left unmoored in a rapidly changing
world, are feeding nationalism and other efforts to reclaim a sense of
identity, upending ideological assumptions and straining ties to
political parties and other institutions.
Indeed, the well-documented demise of traditional working-class jobs in
Wigan and the rest of Britain has not ended people’s attachment to the
idea that they belong to a put-upon proletariat. A survey of social
attitudes released last week by NatCen Social Research, a British
research group, found that while only 25 percent of Britons had jobs
that involved routine or manual labor, the traditional markers of
working-class membership, 60 percent of British people viewed themselves
as working class.
No Great Expectations
This disconnect between the jobs people hold and their class allegiance
is a phenomenon that the researchers called “working class of the mind.”
It helps explain that while only a small minority of Britons share the
real insecurity and poverty of workers like Mr. Hewlett, many others
feel they are getting a raw deal — and want to stick it to those in
power, whether in Brussels or London.
“I don’t think a lot will change. But we have to give it a chance,” said
Mr. Hewlett, 61, sitting next to his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease,
in a cluttered front room, its faded walls plastered with photographs of
their six children and 14 grandchildren. Life, he said, has “gone to the
dogs,” and meddling from outside is to blame. “I don’t like people
telling us what to do from miles away.”
In just three years, Mr. Hewlett explained, his take-home pay had
crashed from more than $665 a week to just $318. Worse, he added, is
that his previously secure full-time employment contract has morphed
into a “zero hours contract,” under which his employer decides how much
he works and how much it pays him depending on what it needs on any
“It is basically slave labor,” Mr. Hewlett said. He complained that an
influx of eager workers from poorer, formerly communist parts of the
European Union meant that employers now had no incentive to offer a
fixed contract or more than the minimum wage for menial work.
The real number of immigrants living and working in Wigan is tiny, with
only 2.9 percent of the population born outside Britain, compared with a
nationwide figure of 11.5 percent, the Office of National Statistics
says. Only 1.7 percent of those living in Wigan were born in European
Union countries other than Britain. The unemployment rate, the local
council says, is only 5 percent, slightly below the national level and
half the rate in European countries that use the euro.
But this has not stopped even some of Wigan’s immigrants from
complaining about there being too many foreigners, particularly Poles,
in the area.
Abdul Rao, a longtime immigrant from Pakistan with three children born
in Wigan, said he had voted for Brexit because he did not want new
immigrants spoiling his children’s job prospects.
Justyna Kolenda, a Polish immigrant who works in a clothing store,
complained that too many Poles and other newcomers did not speak English
and mixed only with one another. “There should be more controls,” she
said, strolling with her English boyfriend down a pretty shopping street
bedecked with British flags in memory of the bloody 1916 Battle of the
‘This Sceptered Isle’
Free-market advocates hail so-called labor flexibility, ensured by zero
hour contracts and other devices, as one of the main reasons for
Britain’s robust economy compared with the sluggish or shrinking
economies of the Continent. Yet, for workers like Mr. Hewlett, who has
no special skills and is not in a position to acquire any, this
flexibility is a curse — and one of the reasons that poorer,
less-educated Britons voted heavily to quit the European Union.
That the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels played no role in shaping
Britain’s labor market — that was done by elected policy makers in
London as Britain fought to retain its competitiveness amid the
pressures of globalization — did nothing to dent a widespread view here
in Wigan: that leaving the European Union might somehow jolt the country
onto another track, preferably one that recovers the lost security and
sense of belonging of the past.
Mr. Patterson, the Green Party activist, recalled how he had struggled
in vain during the referendum campaign to convince Wigan voters that
their interests were aligned with those of “workers in Stuttgart and
Gdansk,” and that they needed to make common cause with them against
right-wing governments across Europe pushing austerity and pro-business
When he put this argument forward at a debate in Wigan, he recalled, a
woman jumped to her feet and shouted: “I am not interested in Stuttgart.
I am only interested in Wigan.”
Britain’s feeling of remoteness from Europe is often attributed to its
self-image as what Shakespeare called “this sceptered isle.” But the
country is not just one island — or two when Northern Ireland is
included — but a host of largely self-contained islets, each with its
own history, its own accent and its own proud sense of splendid isolation.
“Wigan is a very insular society. When the chips are down, the
population here is very loyal to itself,” said David Molyneux, the
Labour Party’s deputy leader of the Borough Council. After years of deep
cuts in funding from London, which has slashed the local budget by 40
percent since 2010, Wigan voted not so much to grab decision-making
power back from Brussels, but from London.
Local pride, particularly strong in a town that resents George Orwell
for portraying it as a sinkhole of misery in “The Road to Wigan Pier,”
sometimes swerves toward xenophobia, though overt racism is mostly
limited to a tiny far-right fringe.
Yet, in many ways, Britain’s referendum result was less a revolt against
the European Union than against political and economic forces that are
blurring not only boundaries between countries but also smaller,
narrower frontiers that once clearly defined who was and was not
“local,” and who belongs where in that most enduring feature of British
life, the class hierarchy.
Mark Bradley, the leader of the Wigan branch of the U.K. Independence
Party, or UKIP, the driving force behind the Brexit campaign, complained
that the area’s Labour Party member of Parliament, Lisa Nandy, was out
of touch with her constituents and their desire to leave Europe because
she “is not even from Wigan.” She grew up in Bury, a town barely 15
“She is definitely not local,” Mr. Bradley said.
Owen Jones, a columnist for the left-wing newspaper The Guardian,
described the shocking referendum result as being “above all else a
working-class revolt,” a cry for help by the downtrodden whose travails
and desperation Orwell chronicled 80 years ago.
When Orwell visited Wigan, however, the working class existed as a clear
socioeconomic category defined by backbreaking work for near-starvation
wages in coal mines and factories. Today, the mines and cotton mills are
all gone, extinguished by forces set in motion long before Britain
joined the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the European
Union, in 1973, or reaffirmed its membership in a 1975 referendum.
Mr. Molyneux, the deputy council chief, said the area had changed
markedly for the better since 1975, with large areas of slums and
derelict factories cleared away. But, he added, “memories are clouded of
what life was really like,” and many people hark back to a lost, albeit
mostly imaginary, era of secure, tightknit communities built around coal
mines and manufacturing.
Mr. Bradley, of UKIP, lamented the decline of locally owned pubs, shops
and other businesses in the face of competition from corporate chains.
“There is a longing for a better time,” he said.
Like a phantom limb, the lost era still twitches, with fading,
rose-tinted memories kept alive in places like the Leigh Miners Welfare
Institute, a bar and social club on the edge of the borough.
Taking a break from a game of bowls on the club’s manicured bowling
green, Raymond Gorton, an 81-year-old former coal miner, showed off a
mangled finger smashed by a mine accident in the 1950s and recalled how
he had almost been killed in a 1965 accident that shattered his neck.
All the same, he had fond memories of the camaraderie of a lost world
that revolved around the pit.
Forced to give up mining decades ago because of his injuries, Mr. Gorton
said he still wakes each morning at 5, a routine left from his time on
the early shift at the Wood End Pit. “It is very hard to break old
habits,” he said.
He, too, voted to leave the European Union, not because it had
interfered with his life in any concrete way but because he did not like
the idea of “taking orders from outsiders.” He had also been impressed
by the claim — entirely false — put forward by Brexit campaigners that
leaving would save Britain 350 million pounds a week that could be
better spent on the National Health Service.
He volunteered that he did not mind immigrants, noting that he got on
well with two Polish families living on his street, but nonetheless
thought that “we need to start thinking more about our own people.”
Clinching the argument for Brexit was the memory of his father, who he
said had served with the Royal Air Force and been killed by the Germans
in 1940. Britain, he said, should not be part of a European bloc
dominated by Germany.
But it is not just German power that bothers him. He is more uneasy over
a local imbalance of power that has left his own hometown, Leigh,
controlled by the Borough Council in Wigan after the merging of several
districts in 1974. That amalgamation, which had nothing to do with
Brussels, has left many in Leigh resentful of Wigan, which is only five
miles away but which they see as an alien and bullying force.
“We feel pushed around,” Mr. Gorton said.
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