One of the deep psychological impacts of Brexit on those who voted to remain is that they now have to accept a rather old-fashioned version of their country. They are compelled to regress to the Britain when their parents and grand parents were young, an era that is something like the Fifties in its isolation and smallness, but which is tainted by intolerance and displays of excruciating nationalist self-love.
This isn’t going to work at many levels, but it is likely to have a serious effect on Britain’s creative industries, which are, by their nature, open, optimistic, forward looking, often unconventional and in touch with what their counterparts are doing across Europe.
Britain’s creatives, those who work in tech, fashion, music, media, design, advertising, theatre, the art world, publishing, crafts, film, TV, and gaming, are worth £84.1 billion a year to the economy. That’s about £10 million an hour, money that relies, to a very large extent, on an atmosphere that is conducive to creativity.
It’s difficult to say exactly what makes a country creative, but few will deny that obstacles to contact and exchange with our neighbours in Europe – which will be erected by Brexit – will detract from the circumstances that currently make Britain such an inventive place. But there is something else that may be far more harmful, and that is the estrangement that many creatives will feel from Britain’s new condition and, other among the things, the reappearance of uninhibited racism and xenophobia.
Let me make it clear that I am not saying all creative people voted to remain in the EU – not by any means – but I am saying that Brexit will erode feelings of confidence and possibility that are essential to creativity and competition in a globalised world. These people will begin to feel that a conservative putsch has been carried out against modernity and the young by a minority of the country’s voters who are older and way less inventive.
While there is no breakdown that says how people in particular occupations voted on June 23, information about location, age, education and income suggest that creatives who live or work in the metropolitan centres voted in large numbers to remain in the EU.
Firstly, the cities in Britain where young and creative people work in the majority voted remain. In Edinburgh, 74 % in favour of the EU, Belfast 74.1%, Cambridge 73.8%, Oxford 70.3%, Glasgow 66.6%, Bristol 61.7 %, Manchester 60.4 %, Cardiff 60%, Liverpool 58.2% and Leeds 50.3%. Many smaller creative hubs also voted remain. Brighton was 61 % in favour, York 58%, Bath 57.9%, Cheltenham 56.2% and Harrogate 51%. The only major city that voted leave was Birmingham with 50.5% majority, not a convincing vote for Brexit by any means. In general, the figures give the lie to Leave propaganda that the vote was about the rest of Britain sticking it to London.
Remain attracted a large proportion of ABC1 social grade and a lot of people with higher education and high incomes. Those not born in the UK were also likely to vote to stay with the EU. The older a voter was the more likely he or she would be to opt for Leave. It is a chillingly clear picture of a country that is not so much divided as sliced into pieces. There are divisions between the north and south of England, between the English and Scottish, between town and country, between generations, classes, income groups and occupations.
Some of these divisions existed before the referendum, but many have either been exacerbated or entirely created by the vote. The binary nature of the referendum allowed no nuance of opinion – you were either for or against Europe – and that crudeness of choice separated friends, families and neighbours. The mood is very far from the feeling of liberation that was predicted by the Leave campaigners, some of which claimed Brexit to be a new VE Day or the equivalent of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. The actual mood, even among some Leave voters now, is one of anxiety, regret and sourness. And I don’t have to tell you that this is hardly the confident, carefree atmosphere people need to have ideas and generate that vast income for Britain, which has hitherto been one of the most creative countries in the world.
Creativity won’t suddenly dry up, and all the bright young people who are working in the creative industries won’t suddenly move abroad, but if the Brexit vote is realised to its full destructive potential, then I believe the country will gradually enter a period of depression and listlessness equivalent to the long cultural stagnation experienced by France, one of the most creative nations in the history of western civilisation.
The vital point is that we are no longer a nation that is at ease with itself. We are confronted with questions that were unimaginable a year ago. What do these divisions in our society add up to? Will the UK break up? Where are we going as a people? And where on earth are we going to find the new markets the Leave campaign promised would come, almost unbidden, to a newly autonomous nation? There are pressing practical considerations and ones that concern the very psyche of the nation.
It goes without saying that few answers are to be found in our political class, which is singularly lacking in the talent and largeness of character that a crisis like this requires. Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are among the most mediocre and uninspiring individuals ever to lead or contest the leadership of Britain’s major parties, a fact that in the end may prove a stimulus for the creatives to throw their weight behind a new centre party. What is certain is that creatives, so crucial to Britain’s future, will be the first to experience the diminished spirit of Britain at home and the damage to the country’s reputation abroad
For the present, however, the estrangement that different parts of our society feel for each other is the really pressing problem. And it is important to realise that some of this has been around for a long time. The alienation that is newly experienced by the creatives is familiar to the people of, for example, the North East, who voted to Leave in large numbers. At some point after the banking crisis, they were deserted by the political classes and expected to get on with industrial and community decline as best they could. We are paying the price of that neglect, and there has to be some kind of recognition in the while country of this earlier estrangement, as well of the inequalities that have been allowed to grow, if Britain has any chance of recovering its creative spirit.