Sun, Jan 15, 2017 - Page 15 News List

The quiet revolution: Fed up middle class supporting Brexit

By Robin Millard  /  AFP, MILTON KEYNES, England

The Union Flag, left, and the flag of the EU fly outside a hotel in Milton Keynes, England, on Tuesday last week.

Photo: AFP

It has got money, jobs and it voted Brexit: The town of Milton Keynes near London represents a slice of middle-class voters fed up with a political elite ignoring their concerns.

Just as in the US, it was not just struggling blue-collar workers fed up with the flip side of globalization who rebelled last year.

“We continually underestimate the silent majority,” said Richard Heffernan, an expert in government at the Open University, which was set up in Milton Keynes shortly after the town was established in 1967.

Three days after the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president on Friday next week, the town is to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Enjoying some of the best employment and growth rates in Britain, Milton Keynes could have been fertile ground for those backing the status quo in last year’s vote on whether to stay in the EU.

However, the 250,000-strong town voted by 51 percent for Britain to leave the bloc, closely mirroring the 52-48 vote split across the country.

Alongside the state of the economy, Britons who voted to leave the EU said their two other motivating factors were the influx of East European immigrants and the importance of national sovereignty.

In Milton Keynes, the latter seemed to dominate.

“It was not so much immigration as sovereignty and accountability,” 69-year-old retired nurse Diana Miller said of her “Leave” vote as she toured an exhibition to mark the town’s anniversary.

In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s entry into what was then the European Economic Community, “we voted for the common market, not a loss of sovereignty,” she said. “We are a powerful country, we value our independence.”

The townsfolk put their concerns over the EU directly to then-British prime minister David Cameron in a television special four days before the June 23, last year, referendum.

Voters quizzed Cameron on immigration, the possibility of Turkish accession to the bloc and the idea of spending more money on the National Health Service (NHS) instead of the EU budget.

The Brexit result exposed a gulf between “Remain”-voting metropolitan types and the Leave-backing post-industrial north, just as the US vote revealed divisions between city liberals and rural conservatives.

Yet in both countries, it was quiet support in those places in between that made the difference.

“As the nation goes, so goes Milton Keynes,” Heffernan said. “It’s moderate, centrist, and since 1997 it has been an electoral bellwether, in the same way as Ohio in the United States. In terms of Brexit, it was bang on the money.”

However, the depth of its euroskepticism did not set alarm bells ringing for the establishment, despite political parties spending years doing focus groups in Milton Keynes, seen it as a microcosm of public opinion.

“A lot of people who study politics and analyze it are part of a metropolitan elite,” Heffernan said. “The liberal elite’s inability to represent many people was held against them.”

Following the Brexit and Trump votes there are a plethora of anti-establishment movements in Europe seeking to rise up against urban and political elites, as well as against Brussels, and “return” their countries to the struggling middle classes.

The 50-year story of Milton Keynes is being told in an exhibition, entitled “A New City Comes to Life,” which is located in the main shopping center.

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