December 4, 2020

Back in May, a political scientist called Ben Ansell did some loose but revealing work using Googles “community mobility reports”, which record anonymised pings from mobile phones as users move around. The Remain/Leave ratio of an area, Ansell found, could accurately predict its level of lockdown adherence, even when you adjusted for socio-economic advantage, or geography. The results felt intuitively spot on: Remainers remained at home. Leavers left.

In the months since, that trend many of us have sensed in our waters has only become more entrenched. Britain’s two tribes have become increasingly visible, and nowhere more so than along the same city/town fault line that drove Brexit.

More and more, my 45-minute train ride from Southend-on-Sea (58% Leave) to West Ham seems like a journey into another country. The Tube fritzes with announcements demanding mask fealty. Popping out at Canary Wharf, in the underground mall, where face coverings are once again de rigeur, the shops are a crazy-paving of floor markings in yellows and reds. Outside, someone has painted white circles on the lawns to measure precisely how much space should be left between social bubbles. The place is half-empty. The mephitic air of desolation, of 28 Days Later, is pitch-perfect.

Londoners are often disbelieving when I tell them that, pre-Lockdown 2, the pubs of Southend were full. Down at The Last Post, the cavernous JD Wetherspoon by the station, the queues were often not worth bothering with. Up at The Cliffs Pavilion, the touring home of We Will Rock You and Roy “Chubby” Brown, the 50-seater café was full all day, every day in October. The day Lockdown 2 ended, the canteen at the doomed Debenhams was the busiest I’ve ever seen it.

Further from the capital, the story is even more striking. Hiding out in Portsmouth (58% Leave) where his parents live, a friend mentioned that the high street is much busier than in his real life, in London. There on the south coast, people seemed to be getting on with things, working around the pandemic, not exactly indifferent, but noticeably less awed. Even further out, a friend who now finds herself working for a London company while living in Rutland reports that life in Britain’s smallest county is almost free of Covid signifiers. The farmers pay it scant heed; the village shops trundle on as they always did.

We all take our cues from those around us. In places where public transport is unnecessary and social distance is natural, conditions can feel very different. As our capacity for inter-city travel has shrunk, these different worlds can come as a surprise. The Remain/Leave axis is still the one we reach for, but in a sense it’s just a proxy for a deeper feeling: one that’s almost pre-political, to do with our attitude to risk itself, and how we respond to notions of the common good and the “community” around us.

American psychologist Jonathan Haidt modelled many of these concepts in his moral foundations theory. You could argue that, as things have evolved, Covid has become chiefly a problem along the moral axis Haidt called care/harm. People who respond most to the care/harm axis, Haidt finds, are almost definitionally those on the Left. These are the people most likely to claim that even one single life lost is a tragedy.

In 2020, all political compasses point to the fact that a natural sifting process has meant that our major cities contain more of this kind of person. Revealingly, in Ansell’s survey, the only city with a greater lockdown adherence than London was Edinburgh (Remain vote: 74.4%).

But perhaps it was Rudyard Kipling who got the inherent tensions of the English psyche best when he cleaved them into the Saxon and the Norman. Where the Saxon is a freewheeling lover of liberty, the Norman is more phlegmatic, rule-bound: “The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite. But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.” Either way, it seems significant that the mytho-poetic Saxon king, Nigel Farage — the pinstripe Falstaff himself — has chosen the dawn of the second lockdown to relaunch his political career.

In Southend, in 2019, the Brexit Party secured 39% of the European Elections vote. The place is a safe Tory seat, but hardly shires posh. These are Saxon lands — in the literal sense too, “East Saxon” being contracted to form the word “Essex”. In Prittlewell, next to a pub called The Saxon King, lies the recently-discovered tomb of a real ancient Saxon King. These are also Wat Tyler’s homelands. By temperament as much as economy, a place of small business; of the transit van, of the vape store and the beauty salon. These are the people most likely to fall through the cracks of complex bailout scheme, or to have their micro-enterprises felled in the slo-mo agony of inertia.

“The grants are welcome, but they don’t cover everything,” says Charlie Coppolo, owner of Low Tide Tattoos. “We have to pay bills too. Everyone was very sympathetic with the first lockdown: Don’t worry, we’ll put your account on pause. But this time round, not so much…” Coppolo supported that first freeze, but he just doesn’t see much compliance around town this time. “And there’s just no point if no one’s going to follow the rules… Southend’s always had that sort of rebellious attitude. Kicking back. Like how the punk scene was big in here in the Eighties.” In short, these are the Poujadist class any populist of Nigel’s talents should be targeting.

Farage’s Reform Party has been born from the ashes (and more importantly, the contacts database) of the Brexit Party. They want a few things. Brexit. House Of Lords reform. Lower taxes. But above all, they are anti-lockdown, arguing that the policy has turned into a ghastly mistake. Now, they’re fighting for “freedom” at a moment when no major party is. So far, the commentariat still seem to treat him as an eccentric who got lucky, as though lightning can’t strike twice. Yet Farage has proved his instincts time and again: has he spotted a second fulcrum on which he can prise apart the voters from the political classes? Even as the vaccine’s approval brings the end of the coronavirus within reach, the economic fall-out from the disease and its treatment are with us for some time.

People are fed up, that’s for sure. “My wife works in a school,” complains Michael Sheern, owner of Southend’s Kink Salon. “So, I can’t work with people one-on-one, in full PPE, but she can work in a school of a thousand kids, even though they’ve had one in five kids off school because of coronavirus… This second lockdown has not really done its purpose.”

It’s the kind of unfairness that moves ordinary people to the ballot box, in the same way as Ukip-era refrains of they get a council house when they come over and we have to wait. Yet Sheern too was pro the March lockdown, and he’s still charitable towards the government (“hindsight is always 20/20”). It’s because of this often-heard view that Farage has kept his powder dry. In April, only 5% of the public opposed the new measures; even now, only 20% think the second lockdown was a bad idea. Of those, 14% were for Remain, and 24% for Leave. But when YouGov combined that segment with those who also had a positive opinion of Nigel, they came up with a very narrow landing strip indeed for his new party: some 7% of the electorate.

“I’m not sure how many people would be affected this time,” Sheern says. “It’s actually very specific. The factory workers are still working. The police are still working. For myself, I only know five people who’ve stopped work.”

In those terms, the picture is messy. Most still don’t fall cleanly on either side. “I wouldn’t say I’m anti-lockdown,” says Amanda Sutton, owner of Beauty Basement. “The most important thing is saving lives. But at the moment, the trains are really busy, and places like The Range and Wilkinsons have stayed open — they’re full of people! It’s unfair, I think, the way that big businesses can still stay open.” Amanda was furloughed in the second lockdown, and losing money, but counting her blessings. “I’m lucky. If I owned a small shop, I’d be furious.”

So for now, the Reform Party feels like a flimsy proposition. But hold the line: we forget now that in 2003 the Tories voted with New Labour over the Iraq War. We forget, too, that the polls in 2003 also had the public at 54% in favour of the invasion. It took another two years for the gradual dawning realisation we had been cheated to sweep Charlie Kennedy’s anti-war Lib Dems to 62 seats, their highest-ever tally, in 2005.

Today, we have a Parliament composed almost exclusively of lockdown fans. Out in the real world, the first stirrings of bitterness are taking root. The narrative could give way quickly once the full consequences bloom. Indeed, the whole thing might even turn on a single dodgy dossier at the forthcoming “mother of all Royal Commissions”.

Johnson has built for himself a machine that seems custom-designed to boost that geographic fault line: the tier system, the provincial lumped mindlessly in with the urban. Now, the tales of village pubs being shuttered because of an outbreak 20 miles away can be easily incubated, and traced back to the dead hand of power. Already, there’s a rumour that London was put into Tier 2, despite contradicting data, because Johnson judged it too important to chuck into Tier 3.

In terms of staking out your political real estate early, Reform’s lone voice in the wilderness may end up more like buying the island of Manhattan for the proverbial glass beads. If it does, Britain’s towns and metropolises will once again feel like a tale of two cities.