In January, the University of York was visited by Professor Danny Dorling of the University of Oxford. Professor Dorling gave a lecture discussing his new book- 'Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire’ which he wrote with co-author Sally Tomlinson. Although Dorling is reluctant to offer conclusive reasons why the country voted the way it did, he offered some interesting questions. For example, Why was it the UK - out of all the European states, who asked to leave? Why did the British population vote to leave? Why do so many people want so much change? Professor Dorling suggested that the reality of a post imperial and unequal Britain, whilst not necessarily causing Brexit, illustrates the nations state of mind when they voted.
Throwing aside all preconceptions about Brexit and the Leave vote, Dorling began his talk by stating his strong belief that it is the innate inequality in our society that has shaped the Britain that we see today. The UK has the poorest statistics of all the larger European states for factors such as infant mortality and rising poverty- but it has not always been this way. Dorling observes that 70 years ago things were looking far more promising (Prior to joining the EEC). It is perhaps because of the sudden turn for the worse that many have blamed the EU for these problems through scapegoating immigrants and criticising the 'far-removed' bureaucracy of Europe.
Before joining the EEC Britain was reaching full employment with lower inequality than it has today. Therefore, you might be forgiven for drawing connections between the joining of the EEC and an increase in inequality. However, it is not so simple. Professor Dorling believes that it’s not the EU which has shaped our country, it is in fact, the opposite, to the extent that he believes the UK to be the ‘Far Right Bastion’ of Europe, with Conservative MEPs joining far more right-leaning bodies.
Europe is home to some of the most happy, egalitarian peoples in the world- so if the EU really shaped the UK to be unequal and poverty ridden, then why do other EU countries diverge so spectacularly from our own circumstance? It is our country, though not ours alone, who are rewarding the rich and blaming natural market forces for worsening the society's situation.
Taking a less Hayekian, more ‘historically materialist’ account, Dorling believes that the British have missed a crucial realisation, namely that they are no longer the empire they once were. No longer ruling large parts of the world, heady on self-importance. It is not surprising this realisation has not occurred though. Britain never left a territory ‘willingly’ and its last colony was only lost around 20 years ago. It never had to ‘rewrite its history’, and never had to evolve past an empire mindset because for Britain at least, there was no ‘crushing’ defeat.
It was the South who voted for Brexit not the North which is so often blamed. However, what is retrospectively apparent on a more individual level wherever there has been a decline, or a perceived stagnation, the desire for change is greater. Older generations experienced the UK's fall from global importance. They've seen the changes the country has undergone and seen it ‘falling to pieces’. With previous imperial identity still fresh in the minds of many, ‘average is seen as unambitious’ and it is easier to scapegoat the EU than to realise we are no longer a world power.
Dorling believes the vote for Brexit was not truly a vote against the EU - instead it was a vote for change. He firmly believes, whatever the Brexit deal turns out to be, it will lead to negative consequences. Dorling cites the strange justice that, after we treated Ireland so poorly in the past, they now have a hold over the British Government and Brexit. Nevertheless, he is optimistic about Britain’s capacity for change. Our perception of acceptable behaviour as a nation has already begun to evolve. Some Conservatives have begun to move towards more centre ground, and ‘there is no question’ Labour is becoming more leftist. From a ‘pliant’ uncomplaining people, the British have begun to voice their beliefs, as other Europeans have been doing for decades.
This evolution is normal, ‘almost forgivable’ for all countries post-empire. But we have reached a time in which the UK must change its mindset. No longer one of scapegoating or imperialism , but one of toleration, productivity and with a clear understanding of its position in the world order.