The Outsiders

Regional hatred: Did Brexit ignite the flames or was it already there?

Up next in his series, The Outsiders, comedian Dan Antopolski explores the roots of xenophobia in Britain’s ongoing bid to leave the EU

Thursday 23 May 2019 15:26
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Illustration by Tom Ford
Illustration by Tom Ford

A local acquaintance works for the Civil Service – he’s a wonk of some sort. I bumped into him in early 2017 and he was very frustrated. He had been asked by government to model the effect of Brexit on different sectors of the economy. He ran the numbers and handed in the reports, all showing impacts ranging from negative to strongly negative. The policymakers were annoyed. “This report reads like a Remain manifesto,” they objected. “Yes, doesn’t it?” he might have replied, but for politeness.

Could these have been the very impact assessments of which David Davis, then Minister for Exiting the European Union, denied all knowledge later that year, with a baffling smirk? It didn’t seem funny at the time, but perhaps he smirked because he knew then what we all know now, that his colleague Liam Fox would achieve trade deals not only with The Faroe Islands but with Papua New Guinea itself – securing Britain’s future exports and silencing the doubters and their querulous obsession with detail.

The Brits are going with the Brits, in the name of the cultural continuity that stops at Dover – but the truth is that the Brits hate each other

Leaving the EU is a bad idea but we are doing it anyway – respecting the will of the people, or more specifically the will of parts of the country shafted by austerity and decades of low regional redistribution, their jingoism stimulated like stomach acid by a Leave campaign that would not have got past the Advertising Standards Authority if it had been selling soap powder – and unimpeded by a Remain campaign as eerily silent as dinner at the Cameron household every night since.

Rather than a faceless horde of 500 million citizens, representing a fifth of the global economy, we have chosen our cosy village of 60 million, representing a fiftieth. But what a fiftieth! A special fiftieth, its imperial charisma still hanging about it like a nicotine-stained cloak, the gin on its stale breath inhaled deferentially as it Britsplains the world to its inferiors...

The final awakening from our ongoing denial at the end of empire will be brutal, perhaps salutary in the long term, but brutal. I’m gloomy anyway – my best mate is buoyant about the whole thing: he reckons that the best operating size for a polity is small, that the UK will do better – we’ll certainly be a bit smaller once Scotland calves off like the Larsen ice shelf.

The Brits are going with the Brits, in the name of the cultural continuity that stops at Dover. But the truth is that the Brits hate each other. The rich and the poor hate each other, the north and the south hate each other. The Scots hate the English. The Irish hate the English. The Cornish hate the English. What the Welsh think about anything is ancient and unknowable and they ain’t saying. In any case, they are the English, or rather the Britons, pushed west by Anglo-Saxon invasion.

We hate across borders, we hate within borders. During sport and Eurovision, drunken brotherhood stretches presumptuously to anywhere that can be reached by plane, but at all other times, the closer to us our enemies scuttle and drip, the more powerful our revulsion.

The Leave vote was hugely xenophobic. The map of peak support for Ukip in 2016 – areas where people vocalised the greatest fear of immigration – overlays identically with the map of least real immigration

As a teen I had an Alas Smith and Jones book – a merchandising spin-off from their TV series. There was a puzzle page with a Spot The Difference depicting two similar British high streets – but with the BHS, C&A and Woolworths all swapped around left to right. The caption read “Find 10 differences that justify travelling between these two towns”.

This satire came back to me years later when I took up standup and spent the next years zipping between the lively pubs, stately theatres, vibrant arts centres and helpfully repurposed corn exchanges of Britain’s otherwise completely and depressingly homogeneous town centres. Chain store capitalism has eaten away all personality that might give rise to friction – why do our towns still love to hate each other so much?

It is a staple of standup, when a road comic rocks up at the venue in an unfamiliar place, to ask the gig promoter who their rivals are – usually a nearby town of similar size and standing, often indistinguishable by accent and subculture to the outsider: Hull and Scunthorpe, Glasgow and Edinburgh, Newcastle and Sunderland.

Not all these hatreds are equal and mutual though: plucky Leeds has chosen London to loathe and deride, like a mouse playing dominatrix to an oblivious elephant, its little Bee Gee voice trilling jubilantly about the delay to Crossrail in between its implacable sexy instructions; the elephant’s thoughts are elsewhere. Rugby disdains Coventry – although where it can send Coventry to express this is unclear. Coventry meanwhile resents Birmingham, who are alarmed by Manchester, who scowl at Liverpool, who scowl right back.

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So the comic needs this info – who are those idiots who live less than an hour away by car but several evolutionary rungs away by genealogy? Wearily the gig promoter provides this information and wearily the comic plugs this variable into a 1970’s Irish joke to ingratiate themselves with the crowd’s localism. And how the people respond, how they slap their thighs! Of course they credit only for a second that the comic should share their partisan zeal but they are flattered out of all proportion that this inquiring and respectful research has been done into this most precious and defining aspect of their identity: their xenophobic hatred.

Say what you like, the Leave vote was hugely xenophobic. The map of peak support for UKIP in 2016 – areas where people vocalised the greatest fear of immigration – overlays identically with the map of least real immigration. Farage summoned the Bogeyman. What a shame not everyone got to meet my nice Albanian builder with his two arms and legs, who likes a drink, shares his food and hates paedophiles. If another vote is announced, I will drive him on a float around the country and he can answer your questions, if he’s not too busy paying tax. Maybe it’s not too late.

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