Brexit, Trump — and disconnection in a connected age

It’s five months now since the European Union referendum sent shock waves through Britain, bringing with it tears of joy on the one side, despair on the other, and unsettlement across the whole of the economic, media and political establishment. In the months since, we’ve experienced further deep shocks to the system — with the most divisive US election in memory yielding the uncertainty and separation of a new world disorder.

The rise of Donald Trump to the Oval Office has astounded and confounded in equal measure. For many, it’s déjà vu all over again, as the sounds of shock first heard after Brexit echo through chambers from Westminster to Washington.

Time and again in those familiar but fading places, variations of the same questions are being asked. In the age of the internet, this most enlightened of times in which information is everywhere, how can so few seemingly unqualified caricatures have convinced so many of so little? Why are so many tens of millions of people, confronted with apparently simple choices, opting for the path less travelled — and who are they (many were apparently non-voters until now)? And amid the unpredictability, how do we now fix the broken institutions that through their disrepair have allowed this to happen?

In Britain, those questions are being played out in the discourse of established apparatus, from media rumination on the credibility of our political parties to high court determination on the legitimacy of our expression.

But meanwhile, in many of our communities, where real life is actually experienced rather than interpreted, little seems to have surprised or altered because little was truly revealed by these shocks to our political norms. Rather, in those places — not Westminster and Washington, but Wolverhampton and Wigan — economic, cultural and social divergence from the centre has for decades already been the reality.

So while the orderly succession from one Prime Minister to another may be reassuring — and indeed a key tenet of our democracy — and while the talking heads will always deal in the currency of the abstract, surely this moment offers the chance, perhaps the imperative, for an altogether more meaningful distribution of power and opportunity, and the creation of new initiatives that help people to feel more control over their lives, more pride in their unique individual and collective identities, more understanding of views different from their own, and more relatable institutions and leaders that can authentically represent their interests.


Seventeen months ago, after the 2015 general election, I wrote for Demos on the social and cultural divides in Britain and the pockets of power and powerlessness that run through them. Then, big cities were getting geographically closer to their satellite towns as post-recessionary economic development and inward investment took root — but attitudinally those places were further apart than ever as growth ghettoised and inequalities of income, health and control ravaged unattended.

Generations were too distant from one another, with government policies and housing pressures repeatedly favouring older people who vote over younger people less likely to. In a globalised world, traditional bonds of community were being frayed as existing power structures did what existing power structures do in the face of challenge — double down, rather than open up.

Bureaucracies were becoming ever more remote, business and government more distant. Trust in those former ‘pillars’ of society had dissipated over decades. And it wasn’t just the politicians: doctors, teachers, police officers, journalists, trade unions, civil servants, charities — all of these once vital threads in our civil society were less trusted than they’d been even ten years before.

As institutions and debate turned inward, so too did ordinary people begin to seek the familiar, looking to existing networks for their sense of identity and connection as the ‘mainstream’ moved on with too little regard for those who did not share their worldview. Now, at home and abroad, these socially conservative strains — anti-liberal, anti-political correctness, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism — which for so long have been quieted, have found potent expression.

In the EU referendum on these shores, yes, a binary question invited a binary debate — negative, post-fact, nuance free and dangerously confrontational. But is wasn’t just the top-down, segment-and-rule electoral strategy — which paradoxically helped David Cameron to maintain the union in 2014, to form a government in 2015 and to have confidence that he could keep Britain in the EU in 2016 — that split communities. In truth, the seeds of division had been sewn over decades.

Now, as Theresa May seeks to pick up the pieces in the context of that summer of seizure, she has more profound questions to answer than merely negotiating a legal Brexit.

Yes, we need to know how immigration will continue to serve the needs of a fluid economy whilst also ensuring communities do not feel left behind by globalisation. We need to know how our big cities and smaller mill and market towns alike will share the proceeds of growth through a pro-active industrial strategy. And the Prime Minister absolutely needs to find a way to advance equality at a time when homes in one part of the country are worth five times those in another.

But equally importantly, in a time when class and identity are more complex and more stratified than ever, and with a deeply political, campaigning, incendiary press widening our divisions, she needs to pursue an agenda that builds connection and understanding between people, and indeed a sense of belonging for all, and which ensures that we continue to have “more in common than that which divides us”.

Departing the European Union alone will not answer that final, key question because it will not in itself redress the imbalance of power in this country which is about much more than economics, borders or even national sovereignty. Instead, we need a fundamental shift in our media, political and civic culture that allows people, on their own terms, to deal with the greatest challenge of our time: disconnection in a connected age.


When I wrote last year of the possibility of creating a ‘Connecting State’, it was specifically with our welfare system in mind. That essay was about how government can help people to have power over their lives — the power to earn a good wage, to get easy access to public services, to feel invited into the system rather than locked out. The key, I wrote then, was for public institutions to become more relatable, smaller, more agile to the changing demands of local communities as they transform.

Post-Brexit that accessibility is doubly important. Over and again during the referendum campaign we heard the argument that sovereignty was paramount. In a poll for Ipsos Mori published in May 2016, our ‘ability to make our own laws’ was shown to be the second most important issue to voters behind the economy. 50% of people, a strikingly similar number to the proportion who voted to leave the EU, stated the key importance of power over our own destiny.

That’s why the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control”, and indeed Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, slogans were so effective: in the context of people feeling completely out of control and craving — deserving — more power, those pro-active do-something-about-it verbs implied action in a way that passive adjectives of “Stronger Together” or “Stronger In” never could.

And it’s why Remain supporters, too, now feel so powerless. In the weeks after the referendum, it was striking how many people who voted to stay in the EU reported feeling ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘disillusioned’ by a decision they had not made and that they could not relate to.

One friend told me he’d lose 10% of his salary because he now lived abroad and the fall in the value of the pound would hit his income. He would also effectively lose 10% of his savings, he said. The same friend had, two years earlier, written — on Facebook of all places — that he couldn’t believe UKIP would amass four million votes because he’d never met a single supporter.

The irony of those comments never struck my friend. For forty years, millions of people had felt too few of the benefits of globalisation and growth, and too many of its pains. They had been voiceless, powerless to the transformation. Now the shoe was on the other foot. Disconnection, it seems, runs both ways.

Clearly, then, sovereignty cannot be achieved purely through the location of our democratic functions or a technocratic Brexit alone; it needs to be found at the individual, day-to-day, civic level too, with whole communities ‘taking back control’.

That should be instructive to government. People want their services to feel close and to make sense, to have the power to send their children to a good local school, and for someone (not a robot) to be on the end of a phone when things go wrong. And when it comes to our relationships with the private sector, we need to feel confident that our banks are not ripping us off, that our labour is respected and protected even if it’s insecure, and that untouchable bosses are not going to run off with our pensions.


Of course, in a fluid economy shaped by inescapable trends, shocks at an individual level — a lost job, a real terms fall in or long term stagnation of earnings, whole industries moving abroad — may be common. But while many businesses have adapted to this new reality, often for their own benefit, government, political parties and the movements that sustain them are still far from catching up.

Trade union membership has halved since 1979, leaving post-industrial communities feeling under-represented and under-connected. Tory income continues to be dominated by hedge fund donations which most ordinary people can’t relate to. Our politics is still mediated by money and a media that do not represent the nature, instincts or interests of our communities.

It’s a problem across our society. Investment banks, with their high risk and high rewards, are removed from the retail, high street banks that so often gave people a sense of security. The big beasts of the charity ‘sector’, with their language of ‘synergy’ and ‘co-production’ do not reflect — and often compete with — the communities they seek to empower.

Tesco Express has replaced the old grocery stores where people used to know one another. Local government administration is still bloated and expensive, while community-facing services have slimmed. The result is that too much of our civic life, even where it really occurs, is in the abstract — not rooted in the lives or the values of ordinary people.

This is important because statistical success and real experience are entirely different beasts. The economy may well have been notionally growing in the years leading up to the referendum — by between 0.5% and 0.8% nationally after 2013 — but with so many people in communities not feeling the benefits of that growth it remained hypothetical to many. As one Brexit-supporting relative (whose income had not increased for years, while prices had) said to me in the midst of a not-so-friendly chat about investment and job rates after the referendum, “it’s all economics: who cares?”

Nigel Farage, of course, cannily understood and exploited this. In a comment in the weeks leading up to the referendum, the then UKIP leader stunned commentators who for so long had been seduced by numbers rather than people, by glibly responding to a question about the likelihood of a ‘Leave’ vote hitting the value of the pound with a sharp, “so what?” As on so many occasions, Farage may have been derided in the London media bubble — but his directness appealed to so many. Because millions of people in this country — and indeed in America — have not benefited from the last forty years’ status quo.

John Harris’ film ‘Welcome to the divided, angry Kingdom’ laid that bare: if you’ve got money, if you’ve got control over your life, you’re ‘in’; if you feel you’ve got neither, you’re ‘out’. That spoke to more than simple a decision-making rationale in the referendum; it also spoke to a sense of disconnection more broadly — from power, from wealth, from one another.


Nowhere more divisively, of course, was that sense of disconnection from one another, of ‘us’ and ‘them’, more potent and more exploited for political purpose than on the issue of immigration.

In a textbook execution of the long-preferred playbook of divisionists, Farage trained an astute political radar on deepening a fear and loathing towards immigrants that had long been entrenched by sections of the media. His poster of migrants supposedly arriving to Britain in droves was shocking to many, but captured a sense of chaos and powerlessness which was motivating for others. The Trump Card, on both sides of the Atlantic, was to argue that connection was for everyone except you; or, in a world where some, whatever the circumstances, can take power into their own hands and find a better life, why can’t I find one for myself?

The Remain campaign, gestated as it was in the depths of the Treasury rather than in communities, hopelessly underestimated this powerful ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric, and the nothing-to-lose instinct it fanned. Its anaemic strategy focused too narrowly on the presumed economic catastrophe that would hit the UK in the event of Brexit — and never countenanced what would always be the Leave campaign’s strongest suit: the deep anger and sense of powerlessness about decades of largely unchosen accelerated immigration and culture change. So when, a month before the vote, reports showed that net migration to the UK had risen to 333,000 in 2015 — the second highest on record, the Leave campaign had its visceral rallying cry and its momentum.

The Remain campaign, meanwhile, failed to understand an argument that my old boss, Ed Miliband, had been making years before — that for some who were fortunate, immigration meant access to more affordable childcare, cheap support at home, and a vibrant urban culture drawing on talent from all over the world. But for others it meant undercut wages, more competition in lower skilled job markets, and a genuinely perceived threat to long-standing traditions, cultures and connection that gave meaning to identity. The ‘statistical reality’ of growth built on inward migration and an NHS staffed by 55,000 EU citizens felt meaningless to people who in spite of a UK unemployment rate falling to an 11-year low, could not see future job prospects for their kids.

Even in our cities, which for so long have thrived on immigration, that sense of impotence is rife. Urban liberals, emboldened by the fact that their metropolises largely voted to stay in the EU, and to remain ‘open’, should not lose sight of the fact that some 40% of their neighbours did not see a positive future with the status quo.

And it’s no wonder that, in the end, young people did not turn out to stay in the EU in the numbers expected, or in those delivered by older people, when the current system means they are at least twice as likely to be unemployed. The recruitment practices of Pret A Manger, which is predominantly staffed by people from around the world, has long been high profile. But equally, as many pubs and retail stores — which for so long provided jobs for young people — have shut down or moved online, and newer businesses exploit their workers through zero-hours contracts, poor conditions and low pay, what purpose was there in voting for more of the same, even if it might ideologically align with many young people’s views?


Ultimately, as Harris’ film articulated so powerfully, our divisions still centre not purely on whether we chose to leave the European Union or to remain, but — more fundamentally — on class, and specifically on the connection or otherwise to the rapidly changing world that our position affords us.

In 2013 a new model of British class structures created by the BBC put forward a newly updated diagnostic for our social setup. Instead of the traditional triumvirate of upper, middle and working class layers, it offered a more nuanced set: the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, the traditional working class, emergent service workers and the ‘precariat’.

Four of the seven of those layers were defined either by their low economic — or social — capital. And while according to these definitions 25% of people self-identified as members of the established, connected middle class, a higher proportion, 29%, felt they had low levels of connection.


Over decades, our discordant political and media culture has exacerbated those differences between us. 35% electoral strategies that focus on the base and capitalise on the apathy of non-voters appeal to the extremes but leave too many voiceless. In the referendum campaign, objectively the most consequential in our history, the most prominent voices were politicians and big business people — two of the most under-trusted groups in the country.

Meanwhile, ever-more strident newspapers have long sought to stem dwindling readerships with an ardent, incendiary titillation of a cynically segmented, self-selecting readership. At it’s not just The Sun, The Mail and The Express that appeal only to their own: The Guardian’s obsession with kale and quinoa surely shows that it no longer aspires for a readership beyond its own stratum.

The result is that, in our media and our politics of all stripes, we are pitted against one another: older people against younger, rich against poor, men against women, ‘strivers’ against ‘shirkers’, ‘immigrants’ against ‘Brits’, ‘predatory’ businesses against ‘productive’ ones, ‘Brexiteers’ against ‘Remoaners’, ‘traitors’ against ‘heroes’. It’s a tendency that categorises people in the most simplistic terms.


And it’s not just in the political arena that we are asked to self-identify in ill-fitting ways, or to think in binary. Some charities and local Councils, too, who work with many of the most isolated people in the country, apply the clumsiest, coldest, most confining data categorisations and segmentations to people who in reality contain multitudes, in order to meet anachronistic funding requirements or lofty academic measures that seldom understand the real world.

Standard issue monitoring surveys ask ‘beneficiaries’, but rarely the ‘altruists’, to complete tick-box after tick-box along lines of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, reassignment, disability, age, housing tenure, living arrangements and more. Yet there are no questions on class or the size of people’s families or where grew up or spend most of their lives; no questions on digital connection or association with local groups.

Meanwhile, received wisdom amongst evaluators is that questions such as “Do you often feel rejected?” should be front and centre in assessing organisations’ impact. If people weren’t feeling isolated or misunderstood before, they certainly are by the time they answer.

The intention to ensure everyone is seen is a valuable one and charities, of course, have to be accountable. But the fetishisation of data in community work, and the bluntness and saturation of sampling by so many agencies, means that some organisations are forced to deviate from their community-building priorities in order to tick boxes to get funding, and that people can feel visible only as an anonymous part of a dataset — stripped of their true identity and their relationships to people and places, and therefore themselves marginalised.

It’s a top-down, one-size-fits-no-one approach that makes so many feel under-acknowledged by power — and it’s common across health, social care, council, and welfare culture. It’s no wonder that since the US election, in which polling and sampling once again failed to explain how or why people behave as they do, long discredited data infatuation has come under such renewed criticism.


So in the face of these multiple, associated crises of connection and relatability — in our politics and media, in business, charity and culture, between classes and those with such different backgrounds — how can we begin to fix our divisions and bring people together again?

As so often, the clue is in the question. It hinges on people sharing time, power, experience and space — across social, attitudinal, generational and cultural divides — and creating new, community-led institutions and public services fit for the age of connection. And those new institutions should centre on interactions that help people to see the power in their mutual relationships and resilience.

First, and simply, we need a new group that highlights the success of authentic community connections, and the bonds that that bind us. Good national organisations like British Future already do some of this. But in addition to a think tank, which produces and disseminates research, we need multiple people-centred, community-based, storytelling groups to lift hearts and minds and help people feel visible.

In the saddest of moments, the ‘More In Common’ response achieved this. Some of its work is being continued by Hope not Hate. It should now be spun out, expanded, embedded in and led by communities and supported across the political and media spectrum, including with investments from the public and private sectors, to build trust across neighbourhoods.

Second, we need a renewed conversation about national identity — collective identity rather than individual identity. In 2009, perhaps in his prescience, Gordon Brown attempted this. But, typically Brownite, it was too political in its nature, too narrow in its definition and too technocratic in its delivery to truly succeed.

Nearly eight years on, with so much challenge to our constitution and chasm in our communities and across the four nations, a new dialogue should include ordinary voices and respected leaders from across classes, ages, ethnicities, geographies and faith backgrounds — debating how we make our communities feel like a ‘home, rather than a hotel’.

Third, we need to place more belief in what people want from their local public services — and how they want to deliver it. Some forward-thinking organisations are leading the way. Nesta is working with Stockport and other councils and health agencies to establish ways for people to have power over their own mental and physical health through better dialogue with patients, connections to community and more accessible commissioning. Their “People Helping People” and “Realising the Value” work should be enlarged to take in additional communities, starting with those most disconnected from the centre.

But these national organisations must allow local communities to lead the way according to their own needs, rather than seeking to apply models form the centre to community-differentiated issues. Teach First and National Citizen Service are wonderful models that help schools find talented teachers and young people to grow in connection. But not every local challenge can be met with a single, top-down model that starts with a post-it workshop.

So we need newer, local models, too, to meet the challenge of disconnection in our connected age. Charities will need to show leadership, adapting to and innovating in an ever-changing environment across both the sector and their communities, and applying resources differently to face the future. Demos’ own research shows that where people feel a lower sense of community they also feel lonelier — so each new model should place the instincts, interests, interactions and idiosyncrasies of community at its heart.

With men’s mental health a priority, many young people lacking male role models, and primary schools still reporting under 20% of their teaching staff are male, we should build a campaign to inspire more working class men to become primary school teachers.

In the big centres of privilege, at Oxford and Cambridge and universities everywhere, societies should open up their cultures to build interactions and relationships between their student bubbles and the real world — to transcend the ‘town and gown’ division, not just in those places but in our society at large. And with the generation gap widening, we need to do more to highlight the similarities between older and younger people, rather than the differences.

Finally, the established centre — politicians, government, funders, thinkers and others — should drop the obsession with raw social mobility and focus instead on helping people to make their own lifestyle choices. Of course it’s tragic that Britain remains one of the most socially immobile countries in the world. Everybody, regardless of background, should be supported by society to meet the absolute fullness of their potential. But there is value and pride in being a construction worker, a plumber, a white van man, a nurse — and not just in being a doctor or a lawyer or a management consultant.


And government in all its forms, far beyond the tinkering and negotiating of a technocratic Brexit, also has a role to play. There is already a strong social cohesion initiative in London’s City Hall. Sadiq Khan has appointed a Deputy Mayor for Social Integration and has led a conference focusing on bringing people together from across their many different life experiences for the benefit of the city as a whole. As new city region mayors are elected in 2017, they should follow that lead.

Downing Street should, too. It already has a social integration plank running through its early policy work under Theresa May. But it should go further, and appoint a permanent, full time social cohesion champion to work with the Treasury and across the Departments for Work and Pensions, Health, Education, Communities and others to bring the connection agenda to every nook of public life.

And it should re-commit strongly to the Osborne devolution agenda, pledging even more powers and resources to communities to make their own choices on health, tax, planning, transport, culture and welfare. Because unless our new leaders really seek to engage with, understand, reflect and empower the communities they represent, anger and division will continue to perpetuate.


If those initiatives themselves feel too abstract, we can all start the process of reconnection right away, by listening to other people outside of our established networks, by seeking out and respecting alternative views, by taking notice of our surroundings, and by stepping outside of our cultural and political comfort zones from time to time.

Because the irony of that powerful “Take Back Control” slogan, which so defined a frenzied and false referendum campaign those five months ago, was that people do not need the validation of big business, big government or big charity to change how we interact with one another.

And if this moment of crisis in connection is to teach us anything, it’s simply that ordinary people wish to be valued, visible and vocal about their own futures. Now, for government and for all of us, it’s time for an altogether more civic response.

Alex Smith is the founder of North London Cares and South London Cares, sister charities which bring younger and older neighbours together to improve connection. He is on Twitter @alexsmith1982.

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.