The woke book of Brexit
Save yourself from ‘Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire’ by Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson
So much time has passed since the referendum in 2016, and so little achieved, that Remainer polemics are being reissued in new editions. Reviewing them at their peak in 2018, I found them comically bad.
In 2020, they appear comically woke. They avoid the facts while accusing everyone else of ignorance. They retreat into echo chambers. They see bigotry everywhere. They love all things foreign. They long for supranationalism and miscategorise authoritarianism as “liberalism.”
Amongst the three worst Remainer polemics of 2018, one book unwittingly chronicled the EU’s failings, while blaming Brexiteers for drawing attention to them. Another re-hashed Blairism, while blaming Brexit on racism and poverty.
The authors incorrectly describe Corbyn’s position as always ‘remain and reform’
The latter book was written by Will Hutton and Lord Adonis (journalists turned academic-politician hybrids). In summer 2018, I reported on a farcical debate at a history festival in which Lord Adonis and Afua Hirsch (a commentator at The Guardian) kept raising racism as the explanation for Brexit. They claimed that their immigrant heritage was necessary to this insight. They had no response to the other side except prejudice and accusations of prejudice.
The wokest book of Brexit was completed in November 2018. For a long time it languished as an e-book, but now a paperback edition is available. It gains a chapter, whose latest date is April 2020, in the context of Boris Johnson’s survival of Covid-19 while “thousands didn’t”.
The rest of the content hasn’t been updated. Consequently, it frets about Britain’s separation from the EU in March 2019. It expects leaving to strengthen the opposition, led by Jeremy Corbyn. The authors incorrectly describe his position as always “remain and reform,” and criticise the media for reporting his opposition to the EU.
The authors gush that Corbyn is “an unusually kind man, one not predisposed to be greedy”. He “has often got into trouble for his honesty,” although this honesty “has also won him friends in unusual places”, including at The Financial Times. Politically, the authors position Corbyn as a Clement Attlee – as a campaigner for “real change” and against “warmongering”.
Most of the text is woke assassination of Britain
They expect Corbyn to form the next government given Labour’s better-than-expected showing in the general election of June 2017 and the local elections of May 2018, the growing non-white population, student debt, ill health, and regret about Brexit. (Instead, in December 2019, Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit administration will win a landslide, and Corbyn will resign.)
The authors look forward to the nationalisation of Britain’s banks, the expropriation of “under-occupied privately-owned property”, a “humane” version of Britain, the end of “a significant military power,” and “the end of empire”.
The book is titled “Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire.” The authors wanted to add “hope” to the subtitle, given their expectation of elected Marxism and a U-turn on Brexit. (They treat the referendum as “advisory” and bemoan Parliament’s interpretation as “binding”.) However, the publisher overruled the word “as it did not describe most” of the text. Most of the text is woke assassination of Britain.
The authors’ biographies are beyond parody. Danny Dorling is a professor of geography, but the bio doesn’t mention this. It begins: “grew up in Oxford during the years when most boys still went to work in the car factory. Two of his three brothers are mixed race.” Sally Tomlinson is a professor of education, also at Oxford, but her bio begins with her birth in Stockport, “where her grandfather was a foreman in a textile mill.” She went to university in Liverpool, which was “a major slave trading port.” She taught in Wolverhampton when “Enoch Powell was making his anti-immigrant speeches.”
For Danny and Sally, everything reduces to racism
While Danny and Sally claim to be working class, and admit to being white, they oppose the term “white working class (as if black people are not so often working class)”. At one point, they apologize for being “white, and English,” before a non-sequitur: “so it is easier for us to make these points in a country that is still so racist and so extremely sensitive to any criticism of its jingoistic stupidities.” They add: “We have had to be told these truths most clearly by those who are so often said to never quite fit in.” Then they quote Afua Hirsch.
For Danny and Sally, everything reduces to racism: Britain has nuclear weapons because Britons “believe the lives of foreigners don’t count because they are an inferior race.” There is no “sane” reason to commit to “holocaust” (deterrence isn’t mentioned).
The authors don’t care for Britain: “there never was a British nation or a ‘Great Britain’ before empire; it was a cold, damp, backward, unimportant archipelago.” They review the facile argument that “Anglo-Saxon” doesn’t accurately capture the diversity of the first Britons. They complain that Britain is the only member of the UN with “Great” in its title. They contrast China, whose ambitions are supposedly limited to the South China Sea. “The British don’t have to fail, but they do need to stop claiming they are so ‘Great’.”
Danny and Sally were already in favour of toppling statues and banning “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia”; “The British were never happy and glorious: they were ruthless despots.”
The authors conflate ordinary Britons with an English elite
The authors hate the British because they are mostly English. After “decades of English abuse … many … especially the Scots, are now learning that they are not part of something that is especially ‘Great’.” “Fortunately, we can see that over time the English are learning to move away from seeing themselves as so very great”. The authors feel “lucky … that what actually holds Britain together, especially in its London heart, are the immigrants.” Again later, “people only learn to hate immigrants in areas without immigrants”.
Danny and Sally conflate ordinary Britons with an English elite (except they call it “the British elite”). Impossibly, this elite is omnipotent but incompetent. “Being simultaneously ‘ever so clever’ and at the same time ‘extremely stupid’ is a trait the British elite came to excel in.”
Supposedly, this elite is racist by breeding and education. “The British, and especially the English, are not good at thinking about themselves except as being in competition with other peoples and countries”. “What is it about the British today that makes so many so unwelcoming and so unfriendly?” They are, apparently, “very good and very well practised at being nasty to immigrants.”
Danny and Sally claim that the British are “scoundrels, spivs, or slavers” pretending to be “good at banking” and “buying and selling things”. The British “habit of condescension” supposedly leads to “undervaluing skilled workers by viewing many as second rate.” The authors admit a British reputation for espionage: “But how good are they at understanding what they are listening to?”
Then, poor readers must get their heads around the following circularity: “A very large part of what Britain is good at was established during the time of empire and would not now be here were it not for that empire”.
Unwittingly, Danny and Sally repeatedly disprove their myth of imperialist education
Danny and Sally are terrible historians posing as enlightened. “Most older white English people, including the supposedly well educated, know little about the reality of the Empire.” For the authors, “reality” includes “ethnic cleansing” of the Falklands in 1833. This has nothing to do with Brexit, except that “the British, or more particularly a few of the English, kept on taking away other people’s homes and rights, right up to the present day.”
The education system is key to the authors’ claim that Britons are still imperialists. They claim Britons are educated with “nineteenth-century ideas about race and the class system”; they spend several chapters sampling nineteenth century British “racists” (including Rudyard Kipling and Charles Darwin), without proving any relevance to 2016.
Danny and Sally claim that most Leavers came of age in the 1960s. The decade’s schooling is judged racist given one inconclusive quote about Africa from a geography textbook. Without further evidence, they condemn the subsequent “half a century” of education (and “tabloids”) for making Brexit.
So, if all Britons received the same education throughout that period, how could 67 per cent of Britons vote to join the EEC in 1975? And how could 48 per cent vote to Remain in 2016? They don’t admit these screamingly obvious counterpoints (even though they admit the 48 per cent, while trying to delegitimise the referendum as too close to call).
The authors claim that 43 per cent of Britons in 2016 were “imperialists,” given agreement with a single survey item (“the British empire was a good thing”). They assume all 43 per cent are Leavers. What they don’t explain is how a minority of survey respondents equals a majority of referendum voters.
Another refutation of their argument is that the higher educated were more likely to vote Remain. They try to parry by noting that the higher educated in poor areas were likelier to vote Leave. The authors admit such people “often saw more clearly that all was not good in Britain in 2016.” However, the authors don’t admit that this disproves their claim that a British education is necessary to voting Leave.
In any case, having admitted an interaction effect between education and deprivation, the authors retreat from the interaction effect: they observe that deprivation hardly correlates with Leave voting. This observation is a bivariate fallacy. They commit this while making fun of another (obese areas correlate with Leave votes).
Unwittingly, Danny and Sally repeatedly disprove their myth of imperialist education. They admit that higher education expanded most rapidly from 2000, under a Labour government. They speculate that votes for Remain in the largest cities were skewed by students “being taught a little more about the truth of England’s colonial history”.
The authors want to cancel older racist voters
They forget the education system every time they claim that Brexiteers were manipulated. The authors categorize every politician outside Corbyn’s circle as the “British elite” – explicitly from Margaret Thatcher through Tony Blair to Theresa May. This multi-partisan monster, they claim, deliberately enriched itself, caused the “highest income inequality of any country in Europe” (not true, even in 2016), and blamed this on the EU. In later years, this same elite manipulated voters to hate immigrants.
Somehow, an education system that was at its most bigoted in 2016 disappeared by 2018: “Few people today believe that Brexit is a marvellous opportunity to renew our imperial contacts.” Yet the authors can’t keep this myth straight with their prejudices: “Britain is a deeply divided country that is currently torn apart by fear, hate, and ignorance.”
Danny and Sally want to cancel older racist voters by enfranchising millions of non-British EU citizens, emigrants to the EU, prisoners, and 16-year-olds. They even ponder “weight[ing] people’s votes by the number of years they could still expect to live”.
Older age groups were more likely to vote Leave. The authors interpret this as evidence for the stronger effect of our imperialist education system on older voters. But the same data shows that the proportion voting Remain hardly changes across age group (and declines under the age of 35 years). The true lesson is that younger people were disproportionately unmotivated to vote either way. The authors admit that “the young were not enthusiastic enough to outweigh the rest”, without admitting this is damning for the EU.
The authors complain also that if more Scots, Irish, and Londoners had voted, Brexit would have failed. The authors miss the significance of their own statement: “Abstentions were highest [in areas] most strongly Remain.” In other words, these areas didn’t love the EU: at best, Remainers were over-represented amongst low turnout.
The book admits no Brexiteer’s real motivations. The authors claim a “myth of Britain” since the Dark Ages that delegitimizes any Briton’s aspiration to self-government. They claim that the will to join the economic community in the 1970s disproves the sincerity of those who wanted to leave the political union by the 2010s.
As asides, they write that campaign spending “changed the minds of millions of people”, the “’will of the people’ appears to have been manipulated”, and Britons were “easily fooled into voting”. The people who did the fooling “were driven by their own self-interest … nostalgia … British rac[ism] … [and] an opportunity to become Prime Minister.”
The fall in salaries, permanent jobs, and living standards are blamed on conservative policies
The authors admit that immigration was a necessary issue in Brexit but dismiss the issue as racist. “In recent years, hostility to immigrants has become as bad as the examples we gave from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”. They mischaracterise Tony Blair’s administration, which opened free movement to all EU members, as “cruel and mean-spirited to immigrants”. These immigrants are misdescribed as “highly skilled”. The jump in the cost of housing is blamed on the selfishness of “private landlords”. The fall in salaries, permanent jobs, and living standards are blamed on conservative policies.
Danny and Sally call Brexiteers “stupid,” “ignorant,” and “bigoted.” Yet their main sources are themselves, their fellow commentators at The Guardian, and a Dutch journalist. They cite “the Governor of the Bank of England,” but only the departed pro-EU Canadian, rather than his pro-Brexit British predecessor and successor. They quote from The New York Times and approve Michael Bloomberg’s view that Brexit is the “stupidest”, while scolding Britons for looking to “a country [America] whose rulers have largely hated immigrants”.
The authors use “many” until it’s a catchphrase. They never quantify it. Usually, they’re speculating. “Many people chose not to register to vote for a wide variety of reasons”; “Many racist attacks and more killings followed the vote”; “Many of those bigoted men today” were in the National Front in the 1970s.
The book’s first graph charts the top 50 political donors in 2018. This does not prove that Britain was “stolen … by the rich,” or anything about 2016. The authors unintentionally betray their pretentions when they promise “many snippets that make up a jigsaw, such as the table [graph] above.”
One of their “snippets” is a map of where Oxford’s undergraduates come from. If Oxford weren’t prejudiced, they claim, “the dots would be far less clustered.” In fact, they cluster in urban areas, and these areas are widely distributed.
Some of their “figures” turn out to be cartoons. One caricature, from 1901, is explicitly critical of John Bull closing the door on “destitute alien immigrants,” but the authors misinterpret it as “xenophobia, stoking fear of those from Eastern Europe.”
Another “figure” is a photograph of Theresa May’s cabinet in late 2016, which the authors describe as “the worst ever,” without admitting that most members were Remainers. Similarly, Richard Branson is made an example of the wider elite, for his “tax havens” and “exorbitant” railway service, without admission that he is a Remainer.
This book reveals the oxymoron of the woke intellectual
The authors have all the pretentiousness of the social scientist, but none of the skills. The authors repeatedly conflate racism with imperialism, masculinity, capitalism, inequality of outcomes, and (most unrealistically) education. They restate their claims in different ways, without defining anything. They keep posing questions they never answer. The prose is turgid, angry, irrelevant, and repetitive. Coupled with a new final chapter, which is a long defence of Corbyn and a hatchet-job on Johnson’s government, this paperback edition reaches 445 tightly printed pages.
Nevertheless, about two-thirds in the authors laughably write: “So how did the Brexit vote happen and what are the consequences? This is too big a question for just one book to answer”.
Inadvertently, this book reveals the oxymoron of the woke intellectual. You might comfort yourself that the oxymorons lost the Brexit battle. However, more than four years from the referendum, we still don’t know whether Britain will leave the EU de facto, when de jure comes around in 2021.
Even if you are comfortable with what leaving eventually looks like, try take comfort in the fact that Danny and Sally will still be at the top of British academia, telling students and The Guardian readers what to think.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe