Inequality is an ever-present danger in our society. This important book addresses the crucial nexus between the lived experience of inequality and how it shapes political responses.
With contributors from the UK and Continental Europe, the book compiles case studies with theoretically informed discussions of the relationship between affective polarisation, social inequality and the fall-out from Brexit and COVID-19. Using a broad concept of social inequality, the book incorporates aspects of economy and society, language and emotion culture as well as interviews and film in historical and transnational perspective.
The contributors offer a powerful examination of the ways in which the politics of the UK and the lived experiences of its residents have been reframed in the first decades of the 21st century.
The films I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019) by director Ken Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty make for a viable case study to investigate social, economic and political divisions in contemporary Great Britain, not least because social realist cinema is strongly interrelated with the contexts from which it emerges. While the films do not address Brexit or the COVID-19 pandemic on their story levels, they highlight social divisions and problems that have resulted from a decade of austerity politics. Creating vignette narratives of the everyday realities among the White working classes in northern England, the films show characters struggling to survive in a society shaped by neoliberalism and global capitalism. What keeps the protagonists going is a dissatisfaction with their ways of life, their anger at the status quo and a sense of injustice.
This chapter examines how intensifying inequality in the UK plays out at a local level, in order to bring out the varied ways polarisation takes place ‘on the ground’. It brings a community analysis buttressed by quantitative framing to the study of economic, spatial and relational polarisation in four towns in the UK. We distinguish differing dynamics of ‘elite-based’ polarisation (in Oxford and Tunbridge Wells) and ‘poverty-based’ polarisation (in Margate and Oldham). Yet there are also common features. Across the towns, marginalised communities express a sense of local belonging. But tensions between social groups also remain strong and all towns are marked by a weak or ‘squeezed middle’. We argue that the weakness of intermediary institutions, including but not limited to the ‘missing middle’, and capable of bridging gaps between various social groups, provides a major insight into both the obstacles to, and potential solutions for, re-politicising inequality today.
This chapter examines the 2014 Scottish independence referendum through the lens of affective polarisation. The apparent homogeneity within the ‘YES’ for independence opinion-based identity combined a multiplicity of differentiating and contradictory affective ‘in-group’ polarisations which themselves related to more traditional structural-based identities. The chapter demonstrates that the structural identities of class, poverty and inequality were predominant within the affective polarisations visible within the Scottish independence movement.
The chapter further examines the extent to which these affective polarisations are associated with longer-term changes in the electoral base for the Scottish National Party after 2014. The chapter concludes that support for a second independence referendum, Indyref 2, is inextricably linked to the extent to which the independence movement continues to provide an affective polarisation which centres on an optimistic vision of a radically different independent Scotland.
Europe and in particular the UK are living through the political crisis of Brexit concurrent with ten years of austerity, and the fallout from COVID-19 lockdowns and a cost-of-living crisis with crippling energy prices at the centre.
Drawing on almost 20 years of research this chapter will pull together the arguments, voices and data collected from working-class communities through ethnographic research and question why, in such difficult times when working-class people are bearing the brunt, there been so little ‘organised’ resistance? The chapter asks why centre-left politics and politicians fared so badly in the British political arena and why the language of class has disappeared from the vernacular of academic, political and media discourse.
Some argue there has been an apathy among working-class communities in relation to organised politics, but the chapter argues there is no ‘apathy’, and instead there is a bubbling and raging anger, a distrust and dislike for mainstream politicians, media outlets, and at the same time a purposeful ‘cloaking’ and misrepresenting of those rages by an unstable political, economic and academic system built on class inequality.
The aim of this chapter is to analyse the conceptualisation of current social and political change in the UK by identifying and specifying selected patterns of language use. Provided that language can be viewed as a collective repository of memory chunks, linked to units of conceptual knowledge such as schemas, categories and conceptual metaphors and metonymies or blends, two selected lexical concepts, that is, ‘the people’ and ‘country’, used in two different speeches will be seen as exponents of discursively constructed ideas and values. This study will highlight how the use of two selected lexical concepts, in the hands of two former top agents of British politics, can be a powerful conceptual and discourse strategy to frame economic, political and social issues and to serve emotional and ideological purposes. Through concomitant linguistic expressions, the strongly mediatised political, economic and ideological debate about sovereignty, identity, immigration or economics becomes effectively persuasive and manipulative. Theoretical assumptions and methodological tools are provided by different fields such as cognitive linguistics and corpus linguistics.
The Conclusion draws the different strands of the book together and focuses on the most recent political developments in Britain and its turn away from ‘levelling up’. This move leaves vulnerable parts of society open to further crises which hit working-class and poorer or otherwise disadvantaged people harder than the middle classes. It dissects the type of discourse that is currently prevalent: a dystopian debate of a crumbling Britain on the one hand, whose key tenets are borne out by statistics, and a discourse cut off from the lives of many Britons in the UK in 2022 and 2023 which continues to claim that ‘global Britain’ and ‘Brexit opportunities’ are the future, in the face of a harsh lived experience playing out in hospitals, in the transport industry, on British borders, in schools and care homes.
The chapter surveys the current weakness and division of the British left on the basis of a descriptive analysis of the official results of the 2019 general election and of the survey data of the British Election Study. First, it finds that, while left-leaning parties and political attitudes tend to be supported by a majority of British voters, this support is weak on cultural issues and soft among centrist and moderate individuals. Second, it shows that the left’s position is undermined by deep and long-standing partisan, ideological, sociological and national divisions, leading to a structural electoral disadvantage against the smaller but more cohesive Conservative Party. Third, it demonstrates that, despite Corbyn and Brexit, measures of ideological and affective polarisation among the electorate did not significantly increase between 2015 and 2019. These findings help to explain Labour’s 2019 election defeat and subsequent strategic quandary.
This chapter uses the lens of affective polarisation to analyse the precarious position of Romanian migrant workers in the UK, particularly as it was highlighted during the first COVID-19 lockdown. It explores their marginalised positions in British society, on account of their occupational, economic and educational status, their nationality, and their contested Whiteness.
The chapter argues that Romanian workers are discursively identified as one of the groups responsible for the consequences of both austerity and the neoliberal policies in the UK: shrinking social security, lower benefits, lower pay, the loss of employment opportunities. It argues that this blame shifting is possible because Eastern European workers generally, and Romanian workers in particular, are subjected to two kinds of detrimental discourses. On the one hand, there is the elitist discourse that generally casts the working classes as ‘benefit scroungers’. On the other, their Whiteness and racial identity are contested, thus opening them up to discrimination and exploitation under racial capitalism.
Finally, the chapter also analyses the effect of EU neoliberal policies in Romania and the role these have played in pushing migration towards the West, thus positioning the narrative within a European scale.
The Introduction explains the extended concept of affective polarisation as developed by Sara Hobolt and colleagues adopted in this book as well as setting out our understanding of emotion as a socially acquired, historically contingent aspect of collective human experience and behaviour, heavily dependent on a given social context. For the case of the UK, this context is governed by social inequality, exacerbated by austerity politics, the fallout of Brexit, COVID-19, the cost-of-living crisis as well as geographical and regional inequality and issues of ethnicity. The Introduction also explains how the different chapters discuss cultural and historical dimensions of the specific topic that each chapter treats, and explains why a four nations perspective was adopted.