June 11, 2008
Is the debate on the Lisbon Treaty coming down to class? Is the overwhelming bourgeois accent of the ‘Yes’ vote an election issue? In an era when many considered class politics to be more or less over, the social breakdown in the polls is fascinating.
The trend that has emerged is that the middle-class is considerably more pro-European than the working class.
According to the latest polls, the ‘Yes’ campaign is only ahead among the better off ABC1 voters. So the posh are pro-Europe while the majority of the working class is planning a ‘No’ vote.
It seems that the older poshies are more European as last weekend’s polls indicate that — in demographic terms — there was only a majority of ‘Yes’ supporters among the over-50s. So there is a generation gap as well as an income gap emerging.
Interestingly, this social and demographic breakdown is a pattern which has been repeated in most European countries.
For example, three years ago, on Wednesday June 1, 2005, days after the French people rejected the European constitution, the French conservative paper ‘Le Figaro’ broke down the vote geographically and socially. The vote in Paris was extraordinary. Even though 55pc of French voters voted against the EU, not one district of Paris did. Every single arrondissement voted ‘Yes’.
Tellingly, the richest ones voted ‘Yes’ in the greatest numbers.
The slightly shabbier districts voted ‘Yes’ by 52pc and 53pc, whereas the ritzy 16th — the epicentre of expensive, cosmopolitan France — voted ‘Yes’ by a staggering Ceausescu-esque 80pc.
The treaty was beaten overwhelmingly in the poorer, more rural areas of the South and the North. The French country voted ‘No’, the French city voted ‘Yes’. A similar, but not so stark, pattern was seen in Holland when it rejected the treaty.
The message here and on the continent is that the privileged are pro-European and the average bloke feels alienated from this elite.
If we look at developments in Ireland we see that the entire establishment is gunning for Europe and yet the people are not with them. So why is the establishment so out of step with the people and what does it tell us about the state of politics in the country at the moment?
One way of looking at this is via the prism of a social contract. Now that the credit binge of the past few years is over, the social contract that underpinned Bertie Ahern’s Ireland is beginning to unravel in front of Brian Cowen’s eyes.
Bertie’s contract was based on the conveyor belt of higher house prices. His promise was to inflate the housing market and our response was to suspend our critical faculties. As long as a healthy majority were seeing their “wealth” increase every month, most were prepared to go along with the establishment’s line that “we’d never had it so good”.
Now that house prices are going the other way, people are beginning to question the Government’s bona fides.
Last year’s opportunities are now looking like threats and the very remoteness of the EU is seen as a problem. The foreign is now suspect and the local is elevated. The economic insecurity of the downturn is now setting the tone and anything which vaguely appears to alter the status quo is one change too many. We are now a nation of burned gamblers who have — temporarily — lost our appetite for risk.
With job losses and the realisation that bills will have to be paid, people are much more questioning, much less likely to accept the party line. For some, more Europe means more foreign, more globalisation and arguably more risk. When people feel threatened, the last thing they want to do is give away more power.
We should see these referenda as an opportunity to assess the state of the nation, and at the moment the polls are telling us that the posh feel less threatened, while the hoi polloi are not so sure.
This split is entirely understandable from an economic perspective. In the past five years, Ireland has digested more change than possibly any other country in the EU. We have received in more immigrants, borrowed more, travelled more and opened up our lives to so many new influences.
On a daily basis, the reality of living and working in one of the most globalised economies in the world, has changed us. When things were motoring along, all this was digestible, now that the economy has stalled all bets are off.
There is another fascinating dynamic in this European treaty to do with how people position themselves vis-a-vis Brussels.
In the past, when Ireland was poor, being seen as pro-European was seen as being sophisticated and cosmopolitan. To be otherwise was a sign of backwardness, nationalism and having a narrow world view.
The bourgeoisie were pro-European, pro-divorce and anti-clerical. They knew their asparagus tips from their balsamic vinegar. As far as they were concerned, Europe was our beacon of civilisation. These people holidayed in the Dordogne, ate smorgasbords and fully expected Ireland to turn into Denmark under the guiding hand of some reformed 1968, bi-lingual, student radical.
It was interesting to hear Danny Cohen Bendit — the utterly cosmopolitan leader of the 1968 rebellion – say yesterday that Ireland should leave the EU if we vote ‘No’. This was a man who once called for tolerance and respect for diversity of opinion.
Today, he seems to think that one size fits all.
Sometimes the irascibility of this pro-EU elite is evident as they regard any questioning of the project as treason.
It is a tone that really grates. It’s as if only they understand the complexity of the issues and that comprehending the machinations of the EU is only open to the hyper-educated.
Knowing your Commission from your Council is up there with knowing your Sartre from your de Beauvoir and your Camus from your Kierkegaard. This type of insight is beyond the hoi polloi and they should not even attempt with their limited frontal lobes to opine on such subjects.
Tomorrow’s vote is too close to call and most of us will vote on the basis of a variety of concerns — some economic, some cultural and social — but one thing is clear: the establishment is at odds with the population and this tells us more about Ireland today than it does about Europe tomorrow.