[Marxism] Wigan’s Road to ‘Brexit’: Anger, Loss and Class Resentments

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 17 09:10:45 MST 2019


(Anecdotal rather than statistical, this NYT article from 2016 is still 
worth reading.)

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 
particular day.

“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 
Somme.

‘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 
labor policies.

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 
miles away.

“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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