Perhaps there have been trade-union banners on anti-Brexit marches, but I have never seen any. Faced with the greatest threat to jobs and prosperity the UK has faced since the Great Depression, organised labour refuses to be excited. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has a position: in order to maintain workers’ rights and preserve tariff-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe, it wants the UK to stay in the single market and customs union. But union members themselves are noticeably shy about endorsing that line, even in industries such as car-making that are otherwise heading for extinction.
Some go against it completely. Reports suggest that most shop-floor workers at the Nissan plant in Sunderland want to leave the EU regardless of the consequences. A worker at the Jaguar plant at Solihull told the Guardian that he hadn’t bothered to vote, but he would have voted leave. Even at the risk to his job? “Yes, because it’s not about jobs. It’s about immigration.”
The history of industrial conflict has had some noble moments, in which workers acted against their own interests. A famous example occurred during the American civil war, when workers in Lancashire mills refused to handle supplies of raw cotton from the Confederacy that had managed to evade the Union’s blockade. The cotton shortage already meant that many mill hands faced destitution and starvation; to add to this by shunning the cotton that was there for the spinning seemed almost perverse. But despite the instruction of the mill owners (and of the Manchester Guardian, it should be said), the mill hands refused to drop their embargo against cotton from the slave-owning states. Abraham Lincoln described it as an act of “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country”.
To see today’s Brexit-voting industrial worker in a similar light is admittedly difficult, though not impossible. Many say they are prepared to be poorer in return for reduced immigration and restored sovereignty. “Why can’t we just leave … that’s what we voted for,” is the constant question from sizeable sections of the BBC’s Question Time audience, sometimes in cities such as Derby where the remnants of Britain’s manufacturing industry – in Derby’s case Rolls-Royce, Bombardier, Alstom and Toyota – remind us of how the country once was.
The mood of heedless, though not yet actual, sacrifice may not rank with Lincoln’s “sublime Christian heroism” but it probably consoles one of our leading Christian politicians, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who thinks it doesn’t matter too much if it takes the British economy half a century to recover from exiting the EU. “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory”, as the wartime posters used to say, with an unintended implication of us-and-them that anticipated Rees-Mogg in his country seat in Somerset telling his constituents in his wise and lordly way, as I have heard him do: “You don’t make the poor rich by making the rich poor.”
We are nearing the end of a long process of betrayal. “Never get a job where you get your hands dirty,” our fathers said – or sometimes, “Never get a job where you have to take off your jacket.” What they meant was, “Don’t do as I’ve done, don’t go to work in overalls and clock on at 7.30am and clock off again at 4.45pm. Don’t stand at a lathe all day, don’t come home to tea to fall asleep in your chair at 7.30pm.” Why? Because there were easier jobs; because the skilled workers of British industry attracted little admiration or interest; and because at some point during the postwar decades they sensed the game was up. So many factories were clapped out. My own father, working in a linen mill in the early 1950s, noted that the mill’s newest engine dated from 1912 and its steam hammer from 1851. By 1980, its weaving sheds had been demolished and its grand Victorian offices turned into flats.
Popular opinion held the obstinacy of the trade unions and the capricious behaviour of their members to blame. There was some truth in it. When a group of retired Clyde shipyard workers were interviewed in 1997 – 30 years after the launch of the Clyde’s last great liner, the QE2 – a former shop steward remembered how pig-headed they had been in the face of new working practices abroad: “We held on right to the end. No flexibility. We allowed very little. We held up progress. We were the same as Luddites.”
But the mood of us-and-them prevailed here, too. Ships had been launched in the Clyde since the early 19th century, but only at the QE2’s launch in 1967 was a representative of the workers who had built the ship invited to the launch platform – an invitation so revolutionary that the shop stewards’ committee needed to debate the pros and cons of accepting it.
In any case, such gestures towards the cooperative spirit came too late. British industrial capitalism was in terminal decline. The closure of shipyards and textile mills could be explained in terms of their obsolescence, but now 20th-century names went too: GEC, Courtauld, Ferranti, Rootes, ICI, British Leyland. Motor vehicle manufacturing was saved and revived by foreign investment and management – no volume carmaker is now British-owned – and tax revenues from North Sea oil and the City of London propped up state spending on welfare. But the results of deindustrialisation have been profound, and are unlikely to be changed by Theresa May’s scheme to spend £1.6bn over the next seven years on the most depressed and Europhobic towns in the Midlands and the north.
Some places seem to have no point to them. We remember their public libraries, cinemas and shops, their pubs, dance halls, Methodist chapels and Workers’ Educational Association evening classes. Not least, we remember how busy the streets became at clocking-off time when people went home from work. Is it too much to speak of betrayal when this kind of town (industrial, with a Woolworths and a gothic town hall) and this class of person (industrious, locally patriotic, manually skilled) have more or less died of neglect? Has any other European country ignored or expunged them to the same extent?
The EU didn’t cause any of this. But the absence of trade unionists from the anti-Brexit cause owes a lot to the feeling of working-class alienation that began to grow then: that politicians are all the same, that nothing can be done, and that you might as well not bother.
• Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist