Forever, it seems, Britain has been a divided nation. At least that is what the last two centuries of political discourse in this country tell us, before you accuse me of going all Karl Marx. One of my earliest political memories is reading ‘Sybil’, the Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s novel analysing inequality in nineteenth century Britain.
Then, Disraeli wrote, we were “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”.
He was talking from an economic perspective, about “the rich and the poor”. But at various points in this country’s history since then, those same words could have been used to describe other divides: North and South, Left and Right, church and state, England and Scotland. Going into the 2015 general election, however, Britain finds itself divided like never before.
Last week, Labour shadow minister Emily Thornberry resigned for what critics claimed – and her party leader Ed Miliband agreed – was a tweet sneering at the working class. Thornberry, MP for Islington South, a metropolitan part of London (though not without its own poverty), seemed as if she was on safari when she visited Strood, a less well-to-do town in Kent.
There, she posted a photo of a small, terraced house emblazoned with England flags, with a white van parked out front. (For non-British readers, both public displays of the national flag and white vans are stereotypically synonymous with this country’s blue-collar workers.) Almost everyone agreed Thornberry was snobbishly looking down her nose at people whose votes Labour rely on. She lost her job later that evening.
Thornberry, atop her barricade waving the Flag of the Republic of Islington, was shot down by a volley of musket fire from insurgents advancing the rebel banner of the cross of St. George. Increasingly, irreversibly, and across the political spectrum, London seems detached from the rest of the country. Most obviously this is happening in the Labour Party.
Miliband, who lives in an expensive house in another well-off part of North London, is an Oxford-educated son of an academic who has spent his entire working life within a few miles’ radius of Westminster. He is a socialist who wants to use the vehicle of the state to redistribute wealth in favour of the less well-off.
Yet, with Labour polling around 30 percent, those whom Miliband claims to represent are not voting for him. Instead, they see a man who supports immigration, who opposes regaining British sovereignty from the European Union, a man who does not visit the Doncaster working men’s club two hundred yards from his constituency office.
There are profound differences between Ed Miliband’s Labour Party and the people whose values his party was founded on, and whose votes it needs to win.
A poll published in the Sunday Times showed that Labour is considerably more popular with middle-class voters in London than it is with working-class voters across the region. Despite Miliband claiming over the weekend that Labour is still “the party of working people”, despite all the promises of financial aid for the less well-off, outside of London an ever larger number of Labour’s traditional supporters do not see Miliband as their natural leader.
It is easy to scoff at UKIP’s claim to be the “People’s Army”. But Nigel Farage is the only party leader you could imagine sitting in a pub with Dan Ware, the man whose home Thornberry insulted, without it being excruciatingly awkward. UKIP is full of rich, white, establishment figures, but it doesn’t matter. It is anti-metropolitan, anti-immigration, anti-corporate, patriotic, nationalist, socially conservative, culturally traditional and – for better or worse – more in touch with the values of many British people outside of London than any of the other parties.
The main parties’ respective leaderships do not understand UKIP, yet they try to mimic them. They do not understand so many of those living outside the capital, yet they pretend they do, trying in vain to win their votes.
In truth, between London and the rest of Britain there is no intercourse, there is no sympathy. As Thornberry proved, they are deeply ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings. Quite literally, in the case of the departed Labour MP, she is a dweller in a different zone, almost an inhabitant of a different planet.
This is Britain’s new divide: ugly, ignorant, without obvious conclusion. It is why UKIP is doing so well, and why the old parties will all suffer in six months’ time. The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of Islington.