Britain’s class system is more obscure than ever, with the national economy of the twenty-first century catering for globalisation, technology and accessible information. As a result, New Labour labelled those at the bottom of the system as an ‘underclass’ that represented a minority compared to the majority of those in employment and stability. The unemployment rate of just 3.8 per cent between March and May 2019 would correlate with such a philosophy, but ultimately this approach to class reflects the dangerous mindset British political elites held when the EU membership referendum was called.
Years of hurt
Indeed, it has been widely documented that the political elites had got it wrong and neglected lower-income citizens over the last 25 years. First was Major’s signing of the Maastricht Treaty, that committed Britain to further European integration, without the consultation of those who would be most affected by new regulations and procedures. Then it was Blair’s fallen promise of social justice in the form of bolstering the educational system of the UK to give everyone a chance to rise as an individual and attain their goals, while big businesses and corporations were the biggest beneficiaries from market-based incentives, de-regulation and the booming European single market. And then it was the global financial crisis of 2008 which shrunk the British economy for five financial quarters in a row (a year and three months) and impacted those already struggling the hardest. And, of course, the subsequent austerity policies adopted by both Brown and the nine years of Conservative Government up until now that have squeezed public services, local communities and ignored those who greatly needed a strong social net to support them.
The EU has its enemies
To argue that the referendum result was simply a protest against the past governments, as some political commentators have, is somewhat compelling but ignores how the EU has also acted and been framed in that time. The European project has been painted as a utopian goal of peace, harmony and mutual economic prosperity but it is easy to see why the working classes in Britain felt more inclined to vote Leave — feeling neglected also by the European camp. In fact, European policies in certain cases have directly hindered the manufacturing and agricultural industries operated by lower income groups in the UK. According to scientific research carried out in 2010, the adverse impacts of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has led to British catches declining by 94 per cent in the last 118 years. In contrast, the tertiary and quaternary sectors operated by higher income groups have benefited from European trade — with London becoming a centre for financial services (one of Britain’s most valuable exports). Not to mention the open borders policy — which has seen an influx of cheap and plentiful labour to Britain — driving down wage rates to the detriment of those working in lower-skilled jobs. Furthermore, prominent Brexiteers have been able to characterise the EU as a tyrannical superstate, playing on the long-running scepticism.
Like a bulldog in a china shop
With the result upheaving the British political system, Boris Johnson has emerged as the figure most likely to be tasked with both delivering Brexit and alleviating such widening class differences. Yet, it looks most likely to end in disaster on both fronts. On Brexit, Johnson continues to reiterate that he will get the UK out of the European Union, ‘do or die’ by October 31st. Whether his talk of a no deal Brexit proves simply to be a negotiating tactic remains to be seen, but such an attempt would be met with strong legal and parliamentary challenges, while various reports by the Office for National Statistics and Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest that the British economy would enter another recession as a result. This is particularly worrying for lower-income groups that firstly, are less likely to have stable jobs that will last through a new recession and secondly, do not have the wealth to protect their money in ‘recession-proof’ ventures such as property. Indeed, Johnson has also platformed tax cuts valued at £20bn as part of his Tory leadership campaign. In detail, the plan is dangerous in that it only favours high earners by moving higher tax brackets which leaves the Government taking less in income tax. Such a result would likely reduce funding to services, potentially ruining any financial responsibility amassed from the years of cuts and the chance to end austerity as the current administration has said would happen.
Despite many within the Conservative membership viewing Johnson as a more ‘liberal’ Conservative, his plans are not compatible with any progression of the British economy or society. If they were, he would lead an agenda of government spending to mark both the end of austerity and the beginning of a new age where Britain, outside of the European Union, needs a boost in growth and long-lasting reform to allow the economy to cope with losing a market that Britain exports 44 per cent of its goods to (ONS, 2015). Furthermore, he should strive for the same meritocracy that Blair envisioned by investing in education to create a more even playing field. With the UK flagging behind nations such as Sweden and Norway when it comes to educational attainment, Johnson could use educational investment ring-fenced to poorer communities as a starting point to finally tackle class problems in a suitable way. In conjunction, he should ensure that the social net persists or is bolstered in preparation for post-Brexit trauma on the economy regardless of the type of deal.
Equality of opportunity should be a basic right in a country such as the United Kingdom, and the lack of social mobility that presently persists needs to be tackled if the social divisions of Brexit are to be mended. With an elitist upbringing and history, combined with a reckless approach to policies, it would seem that Boris Johnson is going to aggravate, rather than ameliorate, class divisions.