But in the many dozens of focus groups across English towns over the last few years, I have never once heard voters from these areas complain that, for example, middle class politicians and commentators sneer at them. And neither have I heard them complain about some middle class voters’ hostility to them. The decency and patriotism of the latter aren’t questioned.
This is for two primary reasons: because the working class and lower middle class aren’t generally politically engaged, and not at all ideological; and because they have little experience of middle class Remainers. In a focus group I ran in Warrington last week, out of 16 people, only a tiny number had been to London in the last few years, and a few had never been at all.
In short, middle class hostility to the working class and lower middle class is extremely common, while working class and lower middle class hostility is practically non-existent. If populism were a real force, this probably wouldn’t and couldn’t be true. There would need to be a working class and lower middle class collective consciousness about how they differ in character and values from the middle class. They would need to be mobilised as a group against the middle class. The sort of narrative that you hear from working class voters in the US – where there’s a consciousness about how “Washington insiders” look down on them – doesn’t really exist here.
But what of the views of the provincial English more generally? In my experience, they simply don’t hold theviews that middle class Remainers think they hold. On immigration, for example, while undeniably true they think there’s too much immigration, this is almost never expressed in terms of race and culture. It’s always expressed through very narrow prisms – usually around welfare or pressure on public services.
In other words, they usually say it isn’t fair that the welfare state is accessed by those that haven’t “paid in”, or they complain about the difficulty of accessing GP services quickly. Some may still find such attitudes distasteful and hold those who hold them wrongheaded. Perhaps they’re right – but the fact remains that concerns about immigration aren’t derived from nationalism.
Similarly, it is often suggested that working class and lower middle class Leave voters are nostalgic and that they yearn for a time when England / Britain was a great power. In my experience, this is absolutely, emphatically not true. They never, ever talk about wanting a “strong” country or one that’s “respected in the world”.
On the contrary, most of these voters think Britain is a weak, incompetent country led by clowns – one that’s destined for at best a quiet future as a small country. When Remain-leaning commentators talk about how the country has been “humiliated” and it’s a “laughing stock”, they assume this will wound proud Leave voters. In truth, they couldn’t give a toss. Rather, it tends to be middle class Remainers that want British politicians and diplomats strutting around the world stage, exerting influence.
So what of their national pride? Patriotism for working class and lower middle class voters is something more complex than middle class Remainers think, but expressed in simpler ways. They are likely to talk about pride in the armed forces, the monarchy and times when Britain has stood up for what’s right (the Second World War and against tyrannical regimes).
They never, ever link Britishness or Englishness it to “whiteness”, and only rarely to birth. It’s more common to hear them talk about it in terms of common loyalty and shared memory. They don’t connect the dots in this way themselves, but in my experience, their view of nationalism / patriotism is that it is inclusive racially and culturally, but exclusive in terms of nationality. In other words, they view people as fellow English / British people if that’s what others think about themselves.
There are two areas where Remainers are on stronger ground. Firstly, it’s definitely true that working class and lower middle class provincial England are eye-wateringly tough on crime. They favour punishment over rehabilitation and have no interest in the difficult economic and social circumstances of those that commit crime.
Given the polls usually show general public concern about crime across all groups, it’s really more accurate to say that working class and lower middle class audiences are tougher, as opposed to different. It’s also true that they favour strong leaders. This, however, derives from their tendency to want serious change – and the belief that only strong leaders deliver it.
But we should put all this into context. When you ask working class and lower middle class voters what they’re mostly concerned about, they’re as likely to talk about the NHS, schools and social care as they are about Brexit (when it dominates the news) or immigration. Their deep concern about these issues explains why the Conservatives failed to secure a majority last time around; promises on Brexit and immigration were not enough to secure victory. They are not identity or values voters.
What does all this mean for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party? Firstly, it means that his campaigns have not created a populist surge in this country. The provincial English working class and lower middle class retain their essential lack of ideological and political interest and they lack self-identity as outsiders. Anti-politician campaigns will not shape a Trumpian grassroots in the way Remainers fear (although, I think it’s reasonable for everyone to be aware that, in times like this, respectful discourse is crucial).
Secondly, it means that any such populist appeals would fall flat. To be clear, a full-throttled populist campaign to appeal to these voters would fail and would see the Conservatives vulnerable to a campaign for radical domestic change led even by Jeremy Corbyn.
Dominic Cummings recently told a group of journalists to get out London and stop speaking to rich Remain voters. It was useful advice. These journalists would find that most Leave voters will be primarily interested in talking to them about their kids and about their holidays. If they bothered to talk about politics at all, they’d primarily moan about the difficulty of seeing their doctor. And then they’d be back talking about their kids again. They would be shocked at these voters’ lack of interest in politics, but encouraged that they’re all perfectly decent people.