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Europe: The Final Countdown

Why 2016 Is the Year of the Hard-Done-By British Bloke

They have been largely ignored for half a decade, but during the lead up to the EU referendum they've finally threatened to seize control.

Illustration by Josh Hanton

June, 1948, and the attentions of the United Kingdom were focused on the Thames as the MV Empire Windrush, a passenger cruise-liner, arrived in London from the Caribbean carrying 492 immigrants. It was by no means an actual watershed moment for the British population – the country already had a sizeable post-war black population – but it held significant value in the public imagination. The boat was a symbol of oncoming change, representing for many the threat of unfettered immigration that looked set to change the face of the country. It was in this fragile moment that a uniquely British character was born.


Sixty-eight years later, give or take a couple of weeks, and the nation is once again watching a boat bobbing on the grey waters of the Thames. Only, this time it's carrying Nigel Farage. Brexit poster boy and wobble-chinned patron of all things Blighty, he stands at the bow of the luxury river cruiser in a double-breasted sports jacket. His message is simple, and it's the same one he's been peddling his entire political life – the same one that filled newspapers and living rooms in 1948: take back control.

Since the end of World War II, as the UK's colonies first began claiming independence, there's been a contingent of armchair ideologists floundering in a sea of change. Victims of everything from immigration to feminism, as distrusting of "fat cats in the city" as they are trade unionists, they have peddled a fantasy about a long lost Britain that never was. Yet, they've largely been ignored. They've been the slightly racist uncle, the quietly disgraced television host, the frothing LBC phone-in or the badly worded patriotic meme shared by your mum on Facebook.

Until now. Because what's unique about the EU referendum is that, for the first time in his history, the hard-done-by British bloke has threatened to seize control.

John Harris recently described Britain as in the midst of a working class revolt, because of the high-proportion of lower-income families that support Leave. That may be true, but it has also found itself becoming the site of a middle-aged rebellion. The little-Englanders and ale-swilling, put-the-world-to-rights politicos have risen up from their Facebook groups and barely audible fringe parties, and staked an influential position in the political mainstream. They don't speak for working class communities hit hard by economic recession and austerity politics, nor do they represent far-right extremists bent on exacting explicitly confrontational racist ideologies. No, the nominal Brexiteer is a different species: economically comfortable, stuffed to the gills with buzz-phrases like "faceless bureaucrats" and driven by an insatiable desire to Make Britain Great Again.


The little-Englanders and ale-swilling put-the-world-to-rights politicos have risen up from their Facebook groups and barely audible fringe parties, and staked an influential position in the political mainstream.

They have been building in strength since the turn of the century, buoyed by the failure of New Labour and the galvanisation of a deeply conservative print press. They were there when political correctness went mad, when the Muslims cancelled Christmas and school-children had to start singing "baa baa multi-coloured sheep". They were there in the studio for Noel's HQ, marching on Downing Street to save Clarkson, Help for Heroes stickers plastered in their rear-view windows. Yet they've been around far longer than that.

All through the 20th century these frustrated men, from Alf Garnett to Enoch Powell, have been shouting from a distance. Previously, however, progress has prevailed – whether left or right, Clement Attlee or Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or David Cameron, modernisation has drowned them out. Not in 2016, though. For 2016 is the year when looking back became the new looking forward. The year when power was ceded from the young to the old, from the globally-minded to locally-concerned.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about this situation and not pay tribute to Nigel Farage. Nigel Farage: the spirit animal of men called Ken. Nigel Farage: the man who sucked the sex out of smoking cigarettes. Nigel Farage: the man who, if he wasn't a total shit, you'd probably call a legend. Do you remember when Nigel Farage was, sort of, funny? When people threw fruit at him? It seemed like every week he was defending another UKIP gaffe – everyone was a "slut" or a "chinky", and the world still felt new. Those days are past. The cult of Farage – and it is a cult; you only need look to the very presence of the "You Can't Barrage the Farage" meme to realise Nigel's Drake-like levels of internet adulation – has built in strength and numbers.


What we've seen from the Vote Leave campaign is what happens when the school of thought previously resigned to the one shouty fella on Question Time is given funding and a national platform. The cloak of a democratic referendum and a feigned support for the NHS have allowed narrow-mindedness to dress up as something forward-thinking. Look at the dystopian threats of their campaign videos or the 1930s echoes of UKIP's recent "breaking point" poster, and you'll see exactly what happens when entitled, self-serving principles are allowed to dominate the conversation.

That isn't to say any criticism of the EU is arrogant, thinly veiled xenophobia. Of course there is an actual conversation to be had about immigration, about who we want to make our laws, what we want Britain's relationship with the world to be. But it's important to interrogate exactly what's behind the passion, the fever, driving the Leave campaign. A lot of young people have watched as older family members who – despite previously never expressing an interest in the EU – have been gripped by a sudden Euroscepticism. This is not due to overnight concerns with the Common Agricultural Policy. Instead, they have fallen for an age-old fantasy, peddled by the nation's nearly-men. What could have been a debate about European community has instead been hijacked by the battered British bloke.

And it's right to refer to this little-Englander as a bloke. There are, of course, plenty of women who are anti-EU, but Brexit is blokey. It's been wrung out of a desire to return to a status quo: a dream of little England where dad goes out to work, sups a nut-brown ale or two after clocking out and returns to his loving wife. Even the word Brexit rolls around in your head with the gravelly growl of a fag-smoking middle-aged dad. The British Empire was a masculine domain, and since it ended the blokes who previously ran the show have been in crisis.


Every cry to "take back control" is imbued with the same emasculated anxieties that typified fears of incoming immigrants in 1948. It happened to be the European Union that finally bought this bloke his soapbox, but it could have just as easily been Caribbean migrants in the 1950s or the omnipotent PC-brigade throughout the last few decades. The Leave campaign – at its core – is little more than the strangled yelps of men who still can't quite work out why they didn't inherit the earth.

However, there is hope. These blokes – these blokes who are currently in the process of trying to drag our nation kicking and screaming back to 1900 – can't win in the long run. For theirs is an ideology of "never being listened to". A political system built on "what I'd do if I only had the chance". They present negative politics at its worst, hypothetical chancers playing chicken with the impressionistic and the vulnerable. So let's hope, whatever happens tomorrow, that we look back on this, their loudest hour, and realise it was their swansong.

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