Do not talk to me about the London Bubble
It’s the new “politically correct” and it must die.
You hear about it everywhere at the moment. It’s a shorthand for the out-of-touch metropolitan elite, the people who drive around in swanky cars drinking Super Tuscans and wearing Varvatos but still think of themselves as liberals or even leftists. It’s a way of saying that the Brexit vote shouldn’t have come as a surprise because “real” people wanted it. It says that there are perspectives outside the educated capital that matter, that have worth and honesty and truth.
On that last point, fine. Yes, there are. Of course, there are. And there is evidence that groups vulnerable to poverty were more likely to vote Leave. Education was also a major factor: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that “[o]ther things being equal, support for leave was 30 percentage points higher among those with GCSE qualifications or below than it was for people with a degree.” And that is an indicator of how badly we, the metropolitan elite, have failed the rest of the country. We’ve been sleeping on the job — albeit we have also been hampered by the country’s continuing unwillingness to elect a government of even passing competence and virtue. Heaven help me: on the first point, at least, and within a very narrow set of boundaries, I have some hope of Theresa May. One of the few Conservative MPs I have ever met whose dedication, intelligence and compassion were immediately obvious and impressive knows her well and rates her very highly. I wish she wasn’t Prime Minister, but I also wish Tony Blair hadn’t gone into Iraq, that we hadn’t squandered the post-Cold War peace dividend, that Osama Bin Laden had become a somewhat renowned reserve goalkeeper for Arsenal FC. We live with what we have.
And undoubtedly the modest recovery we have experienced since the Sub-Prime collapse has not reached those who need it most. People in Cornwall who are very poor, for example, still have little chance of breaking out of that poverty. They have little opportunity to acquire skills for what the economy is becoming, and little or nothing to fall back on.
In December, 2,095 people used Redruth’s food bank — a record high. “Seventy per cent of the people here are one pay packet away from poverty,” says Mike, who works in the food bank.
Child poverty in Penzance, fifteen minutes from where I grew up, is 41%, against a national average of (are you ashamed yet?) 25%.
25%. Just let that sink in before you look again at 41%.
“They [the politicians and councillors] don’t care about the people who are from here. It pisses me off. They shouldn’t let anybody else into Cornwall until they’ve sorted all of us out. There aren’t any houses so I’m sorry, whatever you’re fleeing from, don’t come down here. But they still send foreigners and problem families and domestic abuse ones from up country. Our council gets paid to have them. If you can’t house your own, how do you expect to house anyone else?” [Guardian]
That is how badly austerity has failed the UK, and how much London has sat on a country that is struggling.
Except that second part is a lie, or at best a misunderstanding.
London itself has a child poverty rate of 37%, down a few percent from the late 90s, and given the size of the capital that is a brutal raw number. Penzance has a total population of 22000 or so, and Cornwall, 533000. The number of children living in poverty in London is 700,000. Tower Hamlets child poverty stands at 49%; Hackney and Newham have the same child poverty rate as Penzance at 41%. The three of them together have a population of 850,000.
Cornwall, inevitably, relies on a huge raft of EU funding to stay afloat, and is now scrabbling for assurances that the money will continue to flow after the EU is banished.
There are voices around the country that speak to express pain. They are right to do so. Their pain is real — but that does not make their analysis of the causes of their pain any more right. Suffering may give a person moral weight, and certainly any just, democratic, liberal society has to hear and respond to distress — something the Conservative government of these last six years has been woeful at doing. When even Iain Duncan Smith refuses to continue, you know a rubicon has been crossed. But that does not make the London Bubble wrong about the EU or about immigration, or tolerance. It does not make analysis, expertise, or reason wrong. It simply makes them unpopular. It does not mean that the Leave vote was right, or excuse the jingoistic, racist, nativist mood music that’s playing across this country right now. In fact, if the present political and cultural mood proves anything, it proves how important the effete liberal values of that out-of-touch London set actually are.
Because here’s the thing: that map at the top of this piece was produced by YouGov, and what it says is that the UK adults surveyed like white immigrants from English speaking countries and would prefer to limit the number of Muslims entering the UK. It says that Romanians are off the menu — well, of course: we’ve been warned over and over about the “shocking surge” of them coming in, just as we’ve heard so much about how it would be a disaster if Turkey were to join the EU and thereby secure access to the UK, and how it was imminent. (Everything else to one side: it was never going to happen. But facts are not important — the allegiance to facts and reasoned analysis is part of the London Bubble, full of experts and other people who just don’t understand the real world. Migrants were going to rape their way through Britain, and that was all.)
Earlier, I touched on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on Brexit and what it meant. Now let me offer you a counter-balance in the form of Eric Kaufmann’s piece for the LSE Blog on how the Brexit vote tracks “values”. (Whatever you do, don’t miss the map at the end, attributed by Kaufmann to Pat Dade at Cultural Dynamics, which is a kind of meteorological contour map of values and Euroscepticism.)
Disciplining children and whipping sex criminals (circled), keeping the nation safe, protecting social order and skepticism (‘few products live up to the claims of their advertisers…products don’t last as long as they used to’) correlate with Brexit sentiment.
The reality of the UK’s Leave vote is layered and complex — of course — and it means a lot of things. What it emphatically does not mean is that those of us who believe in Europe, tolerance and liberal values were wrong, or that we should pipe down and let the grown-ups take the wheel. Yes, of course: people were frightened in a time of government cuts. They were led, strategically and by degrees, to an understanding favoured by Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks, that the EU was, if not responsible for their ills, at least party to them and framed by the same forces that created them. In that, the EU itself was not guiltless. The spectre of its pummelling of Greece loomed large, and the allegiance to austerity policies was absurd — but came, infuriatingly, out of the same muscular obsesssions with deregulation and privatisation that are favoured by the policy arm of the Brexit group. The possible demise of TTIP is ironic as Britain’s government begins to reach out across the world for new trade arrangements likely — owing to our relative negotiating weakness in the absence of the EU as a shield and sword — to be more invasive and unpleasant than the much hated proposed treaty.
So by all means: tell me that the metropolitan elite needs to pay attention to the regions, that the nation needs to care for its far flung, its impoverished, its left behind. It’s not something I didn’t already know, but it’s good to be reminded. We need to get our economy back on its feet — however we do that now — and we need it to serve not only Holland Park but also Tower Hamlets, and not only London but also Penzance (not that anything ever really serves Penzance. I’ll say it again: you can tell how much the country as a whole cares about Cornwall by where the motorway stops. That was one of the virtues of the EU for the south west — its funding came with reference to a geography of need, not expedience.)
But don’t talk to me about the London Bubble and how it’s elitist and wrong. Don’t try to make me ashamed of it. London’s liberal understanding and its financial heft are crucial to tackling all those problems, and while suffering may create a debt of audience — a legitimate right to be heard — it does not sanitise racism or do away with simple illogic or misundersanding. There are many bubbles out there, and many of them contain assertions about the world that make no sense; claims that are untrue, unworkable, or simply toxic.
London’s bubble may be imperfect — though of course it is not homogeneous — but the bubble people mean when they criticise it is a good one, and one which speaks from compassion, practicality and respect. More than that, it’s a bubble which tries with more energy and integrity than any other to track the shifting models and find a useable truth in the noise of political discourse, butterfly media attention and conflicting claims.
You want to tell me the London Bubble is a metropolitan vice? I say you’re wrong. The London Bubble is not some foppish snot-nosed twat in a frock coat telling farmers and miners how to live. It’s London walking into a future where you don’t get booed for walking into a pub while black. It’s gay people kissing on whatever damn park bench they like. It’s women wearing burkinis, headphones, steampunk leather, pajamas or frickin’ alligator plushie onesies if that’s what they want to do. It’s what virtue looks like when a country is hating itself so hard it cannot tell friend from foe.