A hell of a shock

19 Sep 2018
Richard Lofthouse

Cover of forthcoming book co-authored by Professor Dorling

While it has risen in recent years, immigration to the UK remains small in absoute terms, argues Dorling

Speaking to a capacity audience at the Alumni Weekend on Saturday, September 15th, the larger than life Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Human Geography, shared a blizzard of graphs and maps and insights, many of which will appear in a major book due out early in 2019.

His main argument? ‘A hell of a shock’ awaits us, he said.

For over two centuries Great Britain had the cushion of empire, in a financial sense, and did not have to live within her means. Now that this privileged but unusual situation is ending, we’re all a bit angry. It’s too easy to blame immigrants, yet doing so has little justification, and in fact the number of immigrants to the UK, while rising, remains small. 

Since the 1970s, Britain has suffered from yawning inequality, placing it by 2018 at level peggings with Russia and Israel. The past decade has seen the median wages of British workers fall by 10.4%, the same as Greece over the same period.

‘We think we’re normal but we’re not,’ Danny says.

Britain is significantly less equal than any other OECD country, he reminded the audience.


BREXIT was in part an expression of this pain, as was a 9.6% swing of public support towards Jeremy Corbyn during the run up to the last General Election in 2017. While a tiny bit short of the swing behind Attlee in 1945, following a world war, the swing to Corbyn happened over just two months and exceeded the swing to Tony Blair's New Labour before the 1997 election. In short, argues Dorling, it was completely extraordinary.

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The big line that arcs right is the soaring support for Jeremy Corbyn in the months preceding the 2017 election.

But above all, says Dorling, the pain has been expressed as an anti-immigration crusade fanned into existence by UKIP plus others, and can be read, argues Dorling, as an ugly epilogue to having previously possessed the largest empire ever seen in the history of the world.  

Dorling argues that the British political debate about public spending is utterly parochial, when compared to international comparisons. Britain is aligned to US spending and misaligned to virtually everyone else. Is that what we want?

Pausing in his self-deprecating and jovial delivery, Dorling sought the view of the audience on different cover designs for his forthcoming book on this subject, co-authored with Sally Tomlinson and due out on Jan 15, 2019. It’s called Rule Britannia: BREXIT and the End of Empire.

Returning to the BREXIT vote, Dorling noted that it had made an almost total mockery of experts, academics included. And that was as much to do with mis-reading the result as failing to predict the result. He notes that we told ourselves that poor northerners had voted leave and swung the Referendum. That became a broad narrative. Yet the biggest vote for Leave, by county, was Essex, closely followed by the rest of the Home Counties. There was a direct correlation between obesity and voting leave, although that can bear many different interpretations. The most important point is that most of the population voting Leave lived in places - often rural villages, and often wealthy, in places like Hampshire - where there are no immigrants. Conversely London, the most multi-cultural city in the world, was by a heavy margin Remain. This led Dorling to conclude that immigration is a largely ‘imagined fear’.

The talk was by no means negative. He recalled the national humiliation of Suez in 1957, likening a bad BREXIT to ‘Suez times 10!. 

Yet After Suez came the 1960s, the Beatles, and a new direction for the country. Perhaps the same could happen again, although we won’t be able to predict how.


Pictures by Danny Dorling; lead image, Opening of the Suez Canal on Nov 17 1869, by Shutterstock.

Rule Britannia: BREXIT and the End of Empire by Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson will be published by Biteback on Jan 15, 2019.


Ken Wells
Thanks Danny for these new insights. A quick note on Hampshire — described as “rural and often wealthy”. Its perhaps worth remembering that in addition to the rural areas and Winchester, there are a number of other population centres in the county, including Aldershot, Basingstoke, Andover, Eastleigh, Southampton, Waterlooville, Gosport and Portsmouth. To understand how Hampshire voted, it may also be worth looking in more detail at the urban vote in these centres.
Jeffrey Hobbs
I did not attend the lecture, but if the article has summarised its content accurately, it sounds as if it could have been written by a columnist for The Guardian. I would have thought that the authors could have taken a broader view of Britains relationship with Europe, and our historic desire to avoid continental systems of centralisation. Personally, I think that the requirement to cede portions of national sovereignty by treaty to European institutions had a lot to do with the uneasiness of many British people towards the EU, and fed into the Brexit vote.
Agree with Jeffrey Hobbs. The review of Dorling’s book (topically of interest initially in terms of the dynamic elements of a changing international role for GB) appears, notwithstanding the multiple graphs and supportive statistics, to be quite narrow and presumptive of individual perspectives - we tend as frail humans to rely on information provided rather than delving into what is complex and diverse, to find what we seek. Although the relationship between “empire” and the decision to leave the European Economic Community may be at first an interesting question... I think it’s far more interesting to ask what elements of national identity, both historical and contemporary, do individuals find impossible to retain by staying in the EEC? Perhaps those elements could then be considered alongside the assumed attributes of “empire”. I don’t think that aspects of individual identity transpose easily by projecting them onto issues of group identity - the relationship of the two must be more carefully drawn. I think information needed to vote a more nuanced result was instead manipulated by political interests. The result of the vote showed only how divided on the question of what constitutes a national identity we actually are. As for “empire” and immigrants, there are interesting areas for further research but trying to collapse them into 1 question makes the same mistake - not enough information to provide support for the argument. Not asking the deeper questions. Perhaps the book itself is founded on a wider perspective than indicated. The idea that a lost “empire” and its privileged disappointments characterizes those who voted to leave leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Alistair MacKichan
The comment by Jeffrey Hobbs above is accurate. This feature from the book is not penetrating or insightful. Nation state identity on the edge of an emerging federal Europe causes disquiet. The nascent awareness of the population is of the inability of our government institutions to serve, or minister to, felt needs of C21st citizens. Having awoken an era of human rights, democracies everywhere are failing to placate the clamour of diverse electorates. Our challenges are not post-Imperial, or continentally defined, they are an urgent revulsion for insensitive and authoritarian governments. The quest for best practice in this squeeze is not to geopolitics at all, but to the changed nature of contemporary experience. The Danes are doing quite well, within their own goldfish bowl, but a broader inquiry into cries for liberation calls out for new parameters of human geography, cultural dignity and celebration and inter-cultural respect wholly lacking in Western materialism. These Professors are not earning their pay-cheque.

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