Lodged in my mind is an image that grows in significance with each of this week’s Brexit headlines. Through leaks, briefings and Boris Johnson’s mercy dash to dinner in Brussels, the memory nags at me. Unpack it and you will find some of the seeds of this chaotic moment.
It is spring 2016 and I am in Newport, south Wales. A couple of months before the Brexit vote Westminster has all but called it for remain, yet what strikes me out here is the volume and the vehemence of support for leave. The sages, it seems, have got this badly wrong. And all the conversations I hold are against a backdrop of urban decline. That vape shop used to be a jeweller’s; the only jobs advertised in the temp agency windows are minimum-wage.
So far, so familiar. The same news media that for decades before the referendum barely acknowledged these people and places have spent the four years since vox-popping them into a journalistic puree of pint pots and discontent. But pan the camera across Newport’s Commercial Street to the hotel ballroom that is now a pound shop, and out front is a sight that I have never seen depicted in print or on screen.
Huddled around a table are four teenage boys proffering pamphlets, badges, slogans. At another time, in another place, I might mistake their wares for the Watchtower, or newspapers from some political sect. But no: this lot in their wax jackets are the ground troops of the official campaign to exit the EU. Shock and awe this ain’t. Most have yet to finish their A-levels, while one should be revising for his GCSEs. And yet there are almost no takers for their literature.
In charge is Callum Vaga, who’s been volunteering for Vote Leave for months and now ranks, at all of 19, among its senior staff in Wales. This is the busiest time of his life. Working 16-hour days and schlepping across the country, he has developed a keen eye for who will be most receptive to the Brexit message.
“I look out for men, especially from ethnic minorities and most of all if they appear less well off,” he says, with no condescension. And I meet plenty of locals furious at Brussels for reasons that are largely homegrown: hospital waiting lists, the dearth of decent jobs, racist tales about foreigners getting free cash. When I rang Vaga last weekend to compare notes on canvassing that spring he said: “There were a lot of people who voted Brexit who didn’t care about the EU; they wanted to stick up a finger at the establishment.” Or, failing that, David Cameron.
And cut – because in that scene is much that lies at the heart of this week’s crisis and plenty that undermines the retrofitted myths around the Brexiters. First, consider the setting: a place raring for a protest vote and with plenty to protest about. Now inspect the protagonist: a campaign that commands only schoolboy footsoldiers and superficial public support but is eager to channel palpable anger for its own ends, however ill-defined or unrealistic (the “easiest deal in human history”, indeed). Grievance meets megaphone, scuffed palm greets smooth Etonian cheek.
For all Vote Leave’s claims to represent the non-metropolitan masses, Vaga cannot remember much contact that either he or his managers had with the London headquarters. The campaign’s Westminster lobbyist boss, Matthew Elliott, hardly figured in Wales, while Dominic Cummings was happily ensconced among the “rich remainers” of north London, buying up ads on Facebook.
June 2016 marked the point at which every millionaire rightwing crackpot and Oxford-educated libertarian began arrogating the moral authority of the people for their own hucksterish schemes and quack policies. To do that, they have leaned on the votes for Brexit or Johnson cast by working people in places such as south Wales or north-east Derbyshire. The support of cruise-booking retirees in Hampshire plainly does not cast the same spell.
But from the EU to lockdown, the hard right’s self-presentation as the true, rebel spirit of Albion gets them taken seriously. It’s how the Economist winds up calling Jacob Rees-Mogg and his colleagues “the closest thing that Britain has produced to sans-culottes”. And when the real-estate mogul Richard Tice turns up on TV decrying the dangerous, anti-British behaviour of taking a knee, the only thing that stops him getting laughed off set are his credentials as a leading Brexiter.
Yet Brexit is a fake social movement. The demand for a referendum was granted by Cameron to his own Eurosceptic backbenchers. The campaign has always relied on the sponsorship of millionaires, from James Goldsmith to Arron Banks. Its focus was never on “levelling up” and other such lip service, but on the technicalities of trade and the European court of justice. And whenever in the past year Nigel Farage has tried to muster a decent crowd, from Merthyr to Sunderland, he has flopped. This is not grassroots, this is astroturf.
Where the Brexit campaign has succeeded is not from below but at the very top. It has ensured an elite takeover of the Tory party. And it has poleaxed progressives, who, scarred both by the referendum and the 2019 wipeout, don’t know how to respond. Many have defended the EU and so played into the hands of the right, who were only ever using it as a proxy for a million more discontents closer to home. Keir Starmer and his colleagues now debate the merits of voting through an EU deal, no matter how rubbish. Yet to do so for fear of annoying voters in the north of England would not only rob them of the right to criticise the fallout – it would do Labour serious damage in the Holyrood elections next May.
Farage and Rees-Mogg boast of Brexit as a moment of great democratic renewal. Never mind the job losses, taste the sovereignty! A new paper by researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge universities compares survey voters in former coalfields with those in other deprived areas. “People in mining communities … feel disenfranchised, ignored and sceptical about political processes to a greater extent than elsewhere,” it finds. And where 2016 gave such people a renewed interest in politics, that has now tailed off. How could it not? Brexit is now about meaningful votes and leadership contests and focus-grouped slogans. Meanwhile, the people it relies on for its legitimacy remain peripheral to the British economy and marginal to its politics.
Unlike other rightwing populisms, voters for leave supported not a person, nor a party, but a process – one that will take decades to work out and that will inevitably be decided by political, technocratic and business elites. Even as Brexit gains its kryptonite power from being deployed in the name of the people of Newport and Ashington and Bolsover, it will leave them out – just as it will the schoolboys who canvassed them. Speaking last weekend, Vaga tells me he has been far too bothered about Covid and Christmas shopping to think about the latest dramas with the EU. He went to Trafalgar Square for the big Brexit booze-up in January but hasn’t followed it much since. “I just assume it’s all going in the right direction – isn’t it?”
• Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist