In the 900 years or so since Peter the Hermit incited thousands of paupers from across Europe to join the First Crusade to ‘take back control’ of Jerusalem, historians have speculated about what provoked so many poor men and women to risk everything on the back of rousing religious rhetoric which promised so much (although notably not the death and destitution which was to become the fate of so many who ‘took up the cross’).
Now, as the day dawns on the next stage of our inexorable march towards the promised land of Brexit, I’ve been reflecting on why the people of Wales, and the North East and other economically marginalised areas of the country voted for political proselytisers whose promises are as spectral as those of Peter the Hermit. The only possible conclusion is that the status quo offers so little hope to so many that, like their medieval brothers and sisters before them, these voters are willing to risk whatever they currently have to gamble on the promise of something better; however unknown and unknowable a future outside the EU might be.
Like the First Crusade, led by the knights and noblemen of the age and adopted with enthusiasm by the peasants, the Brexit cause is championed by elites and followed by the poor & disenfranchised, for whom the vote offers a way to express both frustration and hope that something will change. And something surely must change. Inequality is the greatest shame of our age – the rich are getting richer and the poor are staying poor. The post-war era of social mobility has gone and economic inequality is now structurally entrenched in our society. The 2018 Joseph Rowntree Foundation(JRF) report on poverty cites that ‘ the UK approaches Brexit, with half a million more children trapped in poverty, following a relentless rise in the number of working families struggling to make ends meet over the last five years.” Yes, that’s 500,000 more: child poverty has been on the rise since 2011 and 4.1 million children now live in poverty. The vast majority of this increase has taken place in working families – people who are working all hours for wages or zero-hours rates that simple do not provide enough to meet the cost of living. Housing is one of the key factors with poverty being greatest amongst those who live in rented accommodation or who are homeless. Ultimately, gross inequality affects everyone: even those who live in the relatively wealthy cities. One resident of central London recently told me he had sold his high-performance sports car because “once it dawned on me that it cost the same as an average family home, I found it repugnant”.
If the medieval lords and barons had improved the conditions for the workers on their estates, instead of blaming the Seljuk Turks for taking what they held to be rightfully theirs, it’s hard to imagine the poor would have set off to Jerusalem in such numbers (slaughtering Jews along the way, and being slaughtered by an array of enemies in turn). If we want to stop the rise of populism we need to spell out what is going to change to make our society fairer and more equal at home rather than allowing the problem to be defined by our fear of foreigners in a far-off land.