I’ve been thinking back to growing up in South Yorkshire, trying to understand some of the cultural roots of Brexit and it strikes me that an under-remarked driving force of the whole process is the strange relationship so many in the UK have with the USA.
The USA looms large for Brexit politicians, witness Banks and Farage and their attempts to “crack the American scene.” Or think of Gove and Fox’s relationships with USA think tanks, BoJo’s endless invocation of UK as Ancient Greece to USA’s Ancient Rome. Or marvel at the weird contortions of Hannan and the CANZUK crowd as they try to summon up the ghost of the Anglosphere without mentioning the biggest member of that description. And much of the Brexiteer discourse played into a notion that Britain could become closer to the USA (witness the talk about “front of the queue” and trade deals) but also dropped plenty of hints that “we’re not European.” Now of course, one counterpart to that is “we’re not European, we’re British” but all the invocation of the Anglosphere et al was also about hints “we’re not European, we should look to the USA.”
But I’m always saying politics grows out of culture, so how can we locate this in our culture? I’m going to think about the 80s because so many Brexit voters are my age or older. First, we should look to the well-off, but less educated, “self-made” men and women who seem to form the backbone of the Brexit vote. This makes me think of the small businessmen of South Yorkshire and one in particular who parlayed a bit of family farmland into a successful filling station and camping/caravanning supplies shop and then a couple more filling stations etc. Someone who did well and built a family business.
This is the 80s — where did they buy a holiday home? Florida. More accessible by air than before thanks to waves of change (partly prompted by Laker and then Branson) and a common language made the USA a real destination for those that were earning enough to go somewhere other than Spain for sunshine. We should also remember then that as the Cold War rumbled on, Europe didn’t have the same feel to it. And of course, for family holidays, the theme parks of Florida were a huge attraction.
Now not every self-made man or woman could afford a home in Florida, many just went on holiday. But the aspiration was there and so was a real appreciation for a sort of ex-urban lifestyle. A car based lifestyle but one in a country where there was enough room for open roads and a huge house on a huge plot where you could be “king of your castle” but drive by the local roadhouse for some beer and massively abundant supplies of food.
And they brought back that affection for the culture, aided massively of course by Hollywood. It filtered out into wider society, from the importation of the odd muscle car to the “line-dancing” nights in many towns and villages. Cowboy hats and boots, often a Confederate flag (perhaps we can blame Dukes of Hazzard?) even some NASCAR fans. (We can also tie in the 80s boom in American Football fandom, but should note that crossed more demographics.)
And for many more further down the economic scale, who in S. Yorkshire largely turned out to vote Leave, they might only have been to the USA once in the 80s or just know someone who did, but it confirmed a feeling about the lifestyle, the freedom, the space, the abundance.
So when we look at some of the things Brexit supporters says about “the country is full” and “there’s no room” and “there are always traffic jams” we need to consider that they are aspiring to a lifestyle, to a comparison, with not just “the way things were” but with the USA of their inner mind.
And when you add all this up, you have to feel that part of the Brexit vote was about a desperate yearning not to be European, but in a very specific way, it was a yearning to be a large, empty, different country. And this is a yearning guaranteed to be disappointed, because we’re not part of the USA (or CANZUK) we’re a small, relatively densely populated, rainy island off the coast of Europe.