In 1865, at the end of one of the most brutal wars in history, the United States Congress voted to free slaves. In theory emancipation brought freedom to more than 3 million black men and women in America. In reality it was at least another 100 years before black people enjoyed anything like equality with whites and many would argue that equality still has not been achieved.
Although tragic, this long delay is not so surprising. Those who held the reins of power did not relinquish them easily – they had to be made to let go. Equally, centuries of prejudice against and contempt for black people stayed stubbornly in the minds of many whites, leading them to cling on to their notions of superiority until compelled to face the fact of emancipation.
There was an initial burst of optimism by both blacks and liberal-minded whites and promising early successes. Black people ran for political office, published books, became teachers, started businesses. But it wasn’t long before the forces of reaction gathered, emancipation ran out of steam, and many of the early gains turned to setbacks. The Jim Crow laws, segregation, and a “back of the bus” mentality had a stifling effect on realizing the early promise of emancipation. Many people, both black and white questioned whether the emancipation proclamation of 1865 really meant anything at all or whether it was just for show.
Successive United States governments and statesmen wrote in self-congratulatory terms about liberty and equality while in reality the doors of equal opportunity remained closed for most of those “liberated”. A few black people – the brightest and best – made it through the glass ceiling but the majority were no better off in 1965 than their grandparents had been a century earlier.
Looking at the results of the Brexit referendum, and at the election of Donald Trump, it occurs to me that something very similar to this dismal historical process has taken place for the whole working class – regardless of colour – in both Britain and America.
In the UK, as recently as the 1901 general election, less than 10% of the population voted (3.5 million out of a population of 38 million). Almost incredibly, it wasn’t until 1969 that full universal suffrage of men and women over the age of 18 was achieved.
But despite the eventual democratic enfranchisement of the whole adult population, very little changed in terms of who actually governed Britain. At the beginning of the twentieth century, government was in the hands of a tiny elite of wealthy people (mainly aristocrats) who had been educated at Eton or Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge.
These men (they were men) were not evil-minded or inhuman. Some of them championed liberal causes such as women’s rights and workers’ rights. But when it came to passing legislation that arranged for the running of society, they naturally tended to arrange matters so that it continued to run as it had in the past, and so that it did not inconvenience them too much.
With successive election reforms, democracy widened, the Labour (socialist) party grew and new kinds of people were elected. Working class men and women ran for political office, published books, became teachers, started businesses. But it wasn’t long before – just as with emancipation of slaves – the forces of reaction gathered, democracy ran out of steam, and many of the early gains were lost or turned to setbacks. A “know your place” attitude settled over class-ridden British society and even in supposedly-classless America, the Great Democracy.
For instance in the 1935 general election a promising 72 per cent of Labour MPs came from a working class background. But by the 1945 election, working class MPs were down to only 38 per cent – the old elite were firmly back in control and real democracy was watered down.
Today it makes little sense to try to identify MPs by social class, because almost all MPs – of all parties – are drawn from a very narrow background of university-educated people, many (if not most of whom) are professional politicians who have never worked in a factory or shop or had to stand on a bus or train.
In the United States, it took widespread campaigns of civil disobedience such as at Little Rock to compel any real change in racial attitudes. And I believe this is how we should view the Brexit vote and the Trump election vote. They are acts of civil disobedience by an electorate who have finally had enough of being ruled over in a sham democracy by the same old elite.
They are not votes for or against this or that politician, this or that policy, this or that party. They are a cry from the heart of people who have been told for 100 years that they live in a democracy but have finally tired of being told how lucky they are while at the same time being ignored.