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Book Reviews

Nation in Transit: A Manifesto for Post-Brexit Britain

3rd April 2017

Nation in Transit: A Manifesto for Post-Brexit Britain

Phil Anderson’s book Nation in Transit opens, almost humorously, with the observation that his hometown in Essex recently came bottom of the list for life satisfaction. “My neighbours are the most miserable people in Britain… You don’t just have to take my word for it; it has been proved by scientific research.” More alarmingly, he also points out that Thurrock in Essex led the way for Britain’s unexpected exit of the EU, with one of the highest ‘Leave’ votes in the country. This sets the question for the book: just what would it take for the people of Thurrock – and, by extension, other dissatisfied pockets of the country – to be genuinely happy?

He delivers an analysis through the proverbial ‘white van man’. Anderson goes as far as to use this man’s life-satisfaction as an indicator of a genuinely content society (hence, Nation in ‘Transit’). Anderson writes “White Van Man is the salt of the earth and the soul of the nation”, and “When he thrives, Britain thrives, and when he doesn’t it is a warning sign that the nation had better sit up and take notice.” This is a book not about criticising, but taking notice.

It takes some time for you to be truly convinced that this man’s happiness really is the linchpin of a thriving Britain. But as Anderson’s ideas unfold, you grow to believe that he really has gotten to the bottom of what it takes for Britain to respond to Brexit constructively. For Anderson, Brexit is not primarily about rejigging our national sovereignty, or escaping the EU bureaucracy, but is much more self-revealing. People in our country are unhappy. That unhappiness won’t be resolved by dealing with either of those two issues, but rather by reflecting on deeper factors that were concealed by them.

The fact that Thurrock, with its 10,000 council houses, had one of the highest ‘Leave’ percentages in the country is certainly indicative, Anderson claims. These voters, he argues, “were not driven by slightly abstract debates about sovereignty and EU bureaucracy.” Private polling in the run up to the 2015 general election showed that membership of the EU was only the sixth most important issue for likely UKIP voters. Number one was immigration, followed by a range of issues which the ‘Leave’ campaign successfully managed to tie together under the guise of anti-immigration: jobs, housing, public services, and the economy. 

Brexit, for these people, was a targeted response to factors directly affecting their life satisfaction. If we want to make constructive change in light of our exit of the EU, then we must learn how every factor above contributes to a base level of human contentment – which the stats from Thurrock so clearly demonstrate.

So exactly what is getting the white van man down?

Anderson answer is conservative and communitarian. Socially, misaligned incentives see the state rewarding the breakdown of relationships by pushing the single mother further up the council housing list. Economically, young and less skilled workers find themselves unemployed even as the economy demands high levels of consumption, and asset ownership (which is linked directly to wellbeing) becomes an unattainable dream for many. Anderson paints a picture of Thurrock as a place where welfare dependency and the poverty traps of long-term unemployment and social housing are rife, and there are few routes out.

More controversially, Anderson claims it is no wonder people harbour hostility towards immigrants when the state enforces kindness through political correctness. Generosity and hospitality, he says, can only be genuinely present when they are offered organically, which defies the top-down role of the state. And we have lost the role of the community in facilitating this. “We need to release a new set of old values, bringing concepts like unity, reciprocity, responsibility, and hospitality back to the centre of the debate.”

What should be changed?

Anderson takes the view that politics is basically anthropologically mistaken, and we need a renewed focus on wellbeing. That might sound like old news, but Anderson points out that wellbeing is not easy to define, and politicians have often gotten it wrong (concentrating simply on an economic definitions, for example). We are “rich beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, but it still looks and feels like poverty.”

White van man, being made up of the same spiritual and relational DNA as every other human, is made up of many different desires and needs. His wellbeing cannot be reduced to wealth, asset ownership, job-satisfaction or even healthy relationships, but they all play a key part. Equally, it takes a sensible balancing of different various players in society – the market, the state and the community – to ensure these are all contributing to his happiness, and contributing in the right way. And whilst balance is achievable, he makes clear that it is not easy – getting the right relationship between the three actors takes thoughtful reflection.

Admirably, he is not engaging in a virtue-signalling exercise here, but provides reflective and well thought-through solutions which he presents in reasonable detail. Underpinning them is a call for the reimagining of the roles and relationships of the market, the state and the community to best facilitate at least a base level of human satisfaction.

Addressing unemployment, he claims that the market has gotten to a point where community is breaking down. In Thurrock, for example, “there is a very real issue of skilled jobs going to migrant workers.” His suggests that businesses’ tax rates should be cut in order to free them up to take less-skilled workers on minimum wage trainees. But he recognises the challenges and nuances that come with this, and the need for other ‘actors’ to step in. If workers do not possess even the most rudimentary life skills, for example, their value is to an employer is zero. But this, like many of the problems he discusses, is not unsolvable – it just requires cooperation from different actors. In the instance of people lacking basic life skills, for example, it is the community that has the greatest ability to tackle these more holistic and personal challenges by stepping in here.

If you’re looking for a book about how a moving nation can negotiate its sovereignty and escape fiddly European bureaucracies, don’t read this book. This book is more about what it was that made us push our foot on the gas to drive out of Europe, and accordingly, how these problems can be resolved. If there can be solutions to the factors that led to our exit of the EU, then maybe this is enough to shape our newly moving nation to be better positioned. Anderson’s Nation in Transit is strikingly person-centred and reflective, both inspiring and realistic.

And perhaps, you are even left thinking: Brexit isn’t primarily about our relationship with the EU after all. “When people are unhappy”, he writes, “they start looking for someone to blame.” “The list has been steadily growing for a decade. Politicians, bankers, bureaucrats, fat cats, and especially immigrants.” As Anderson’s neighbours in Thurrock will struggle to be at peace with immigrants until they themselves have reached a base level of life-satisfaction, so we will struggle to be at peace with other nations until we have made a plan to reach genuine contentment within our own.

Nation in Transit: A Manifesto for Post-Brexit Britain by Phil Anderson is published by Muddy Pearl (2016).


Rachel Fidler is Research Assistant at Theos


Image from flickr, available in the public domain