I don’t always agree with Fintan O’Toole – OK, let me rephrase – I rarely agree with Fintan O’Toole. But he has an article in The Irish Times which makes a lot of sense. Not complete sense, but a lot.
It’s titled ‘It is not just the economy, stupid – Brexit is about belonging’. It does what it says: it argues that a lot of people pushing for Brexit are doing so for their notion of Englishness and control over things English, not solely by economic considerations. The accepted wisdom since Bill Clinton and before has been that people’s votes follow their wallets: if something or someone promises a better pay packet, they get the vote.
He’s right, and it bears repetition, even though a short period of thought shows you that history contradicts the ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ notion. When soldiers enlisted for World Wars I and II, they may indeed have done so because it was a job, but they also did it in many instances for ‘higher’ motives – because they thought their country was under attack, because they thought it’d result in Irish Home Rule, because they felt superior to Johnny Foreigner. Tim Martin, the head honcho of Wetherspoons, has been touring his chain of pubs and preaching the gospel of Brexit, and his followers have flocked to hear his words and to shout their demand for a no-more-pussyfooting exit from the EU.
And of course we know that unionists like Gregory Campbell are on record as saying that they didn’t want to unite with the south of Ireland when the Celtic Tiger was roaring, they didn’t want to unite with the south when the Celtic Tiger broke wind and collapsed, and they don’t want to unite with the south now that the Celtic Tiger is once again sitting up and grooming itself.
So top of the class, Fintan. Except…
There’s one factor that Fintan has left out: people change. Things that they espouse at one time can, with time and experience, no longer make sense. That’s the basis on which a lot of people are calling for a second Brexit referendum – they maintain people know now what they didn’t know when they voted Leave several years ago.
And never underestimate the power of economics. Think of some long-term strikes – the Miners’ Strike in Britain, for example, in the 1980s. In the first week, the second week, the third week- a strong sense of solidarity and a determination to defy Thatcher helped miners’ cope with the economic pain that comes with striking. But as time went on, patches and sections and then major portions of the striking miners went back to work. Why? Because doing without one weekly pay-packet can be sustained by ideals. Ditto the second and third. But check when it comes to the thirteenth or thirtieth or one-hundred-and-thirtieth.
And that is the lesson the English people appear determined to have visited on them. They are full of demands that the good ship Britannia sail out of harbour as quickly as possible, and to hell with EU security. But a year from now, two, three years – when the provisions on board dwindle, when scurvy breaks out, when there’s water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink?
Experience is a stern teacher. In fact it’s a dictator. And when your ability to keep body and soul together become fraught with problems, you begin to see what ol’ Bill was getting at: in the end, it really is the economy, stupid. No, Fintan, I don’t mean you. Of course not.