Since June 23rd of last year, people have gone to town arguing for their version of why people who voted Leave did so. Some are sure it was all about immigration; at the other end of the spectrum, it was just a chance to give Cameron and Osborne a kicking. Of course, reality is more complicated than any of these explanations, but one thing that pops up again and again in all theories is that there was a desire to return to some sort of past version of England (and I do mean England here) and that leaving the European Union would summon this forth.
I could spend time examining whether or not there really was a time when everyone in England knew who their neighbour was, and there was a real sense of community and all that malarkey, but I won’t bother. Because whether such a period like that existed or not makes no material difference to the really important fact: such a world is no longer available. And the reason this is so has nothing to do with immigration.
At an event I spoke at recently, there was a young man from Dorset who said he had voted Leave because he felt that English culture was deteriorating – he cited pubs closing alongside working men’s clubs shutting as examples of this. I asked him how many immigrants lived in his village – he had to admit that it was none. Yet he still felt that somehow, someway, immigration and just the idea of being in the EU had watered down Englishness and hollowed out the cultural life of where he lives.
I didn’t get into it with him, but had I the time to spend on a longer conversation on his point I would have said that pubs are closing and people no longer go to working men’s clubs because they would rather do something else, not because immigrants have conspired to close them down. Or to put it another way, the Xbox and the iPhone are about 1,000 times more culpable for people not socialising in a way they once did than all of the immigrants in the country lumped together.
This phenomenon points to one of the main problems Brexit will bring that no one is talking about: for a very long time now, everyone has blamed the EU for a lot of stuff that it had little or nothing to do with. The deterioration of certain aspects of English culture, for instance – who will people blame once we’ve left the EU? Will we have to have a real conversation about how the country has changed, and it isn’t the immigrants that changed the place but rather the English who changed England by changing themselves? That could be a painful process.
Life goes on and people evolve. There can sometimes be a tendency to think of England in sepia tones, as if this isle is frozen forever in aspic on VE Day, or when Bobby Moore held aloft Jules Rimet in ’66. But this isn’t the way reality works. England is different in 2017 than it was in 1987, or 1967, or 1947, because English people changed over those periods of time – no other reason.