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The many cleavages in the United Kingdom

Brexit was not a complete surprise to alumna Titia Ketelaar, former correspondent for the daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad (NRC). Nor were the recent UK election results. ‘You hear different stories if you leave your bubble.’

‘The day before the Brexit referendum, I was out reporting. I met only one person that day who planned not to vote in favour of Brexit. On the train back to London, I was talking to my mother on the phone, and I remember saying to her: I think they are really going to do this. I think this is really going to happen.’

In retrospect, she thinks that she would never have been able to predict it, had she remained in her London bubble. But when she was working on a report on a different subject, she found herself seated next to a man who was arduously explaining why he would vote for Brexit. To follow his train of thought, she confronted him with some of the ‘Remain’ arguments, including, for example, how much easier it would be for the British to travel if they remained part of the European Union. ‘He looked at me and said: Miss, you talk about travelling. I don’t even have a passport.’ So these arguments would never convince him.

Ketelaar wanted to give these people a voice, so that we wouldn’t be taken by surprise if the majority of voters opted for a Brexit. That is why she prefers interviewing the man in the street. ‘Radio programmes such as (a Dutch radio show on current affairs) only share the opinions of their callers. On Twitter and Facebook, you can read the opinions of people who enjoy sharing their opinion. But I find it interesting to listen to the considerations of people who don't give their opinions everywhere. They do have regular voting rights, after all, and they are regular citizens of a country. I think it is the task of a reporter to find those people.’

Titia Ketelaar
Titia Ketelaar

Working class

And that was exactly what Ketelaar frequently did during her time as the London correspondent for the newspaper NRC , although she never eschewed writing a substantial economic report or a cultural reflection. It was this diversity that made her job so appealing. She recounts how the new wing of the Tate Modern museum was opened amidst the Brexit turmoil. She had already promised the newspaper that she would go and have a look once the new wing was completed and write a report for the culture pages. ‘The timing was very bad. I remember thinking: now I am forced to waste time on that. But a promise is a promise, so I went.’ At the museum she ran into some colleagues from Die Welt and Le Monde, who all felt that it was great to be away from Brexit for a while, and to be doing something completely different for a change.

Ketelaar reports on her experience of being a correspondent in the UK in a book entitled Mind the Gap, referring not only to the famous warning in the London Underground, but also to the many cleavages that make the United Kingdom what it is. Take England versus Scotland, for example, where a large part of the population would rather leave the Union. Or the gap between the North of England and the South, between city and countryside, and between social classes. ‘People sometimes claim that the United Kingdom is no longer a class society. That is nonsense. People from the working class who have made it into the elite will continue to stress their working class identity. That won't change. And British people always know how to label one another.’

Dividing lines

She even perceives a slight widening of the gap in this respect. ‘Downton Abbey is fiction, of course, but it shows the upper class and working class meeting – the characters live in the same house and run a household together. The television series is set a century ago. Today these different social groups no longer really meet. In the Netherlands children from aristocratic families can easily attend the same schools as children of doctors and children whose parents are on welfare. In England that would be unthinkable.’

As a foreigner, Ketelaar was able to circumvent these divides fairly easily. ‘My British friends are from various backgrounds. Some are rich; others are from the traditional working class. Islington, where I used to live, is a very diverse neighbourhood. That’s a bonus, because I want to be able to hear all these different stories.’

These divides were also reflected in how people felt about and voted on Brexit. Since the different groups hardly knew each other, people wanting to remain in the EU had no idea how to approach those who wanted to leave. The ‘Remain’ camp ran a very poor campaign.

Taciturn attitude / Elections

Although Ketelaar’s term as a correspondent had already ended, she stayed on to cover the referendum. She was back in the Netherlands during the parliamentary elections on 8 June, but she can still explain the complex situation across the Channel effortlessly. The Scottish National Party lost because it had already – prematurely – included a new Scottish referendum in its programme, while many Scots preferred to postpone taking a standpoint on that issue until the Brexit conditions had become clear. The Eurosceptic UK Independence Party was completely wiped off the map because there was no longer a clear story to tell after the Brexit victory. And Theresa May largely has herself to blame for her loss, Ketelaar believes: May was put forward as Prime Minister because she had kept quiet during the referendum issue. Because of this taciturn attitude, she was one of the few Conservatives with very few enemies in her own party. She followed the same silent strategy in the recent election campaign, not even showing up for the large debates. Ketelaar: ‘That was a really unwise move. Allowing for a situation to arise in which others can talk about you never does your popularity any good.’

Political editor

May’s decision to call early elections actually made a lot of sense to Ketelaar. She needed a mandate for the major decisions she would be forced to make during the Brexit negotiations, also within her own party, which is divided on many issues. At the time she announced the elections, main competitor Labour was doing very poorly, according to the polls, so this was a good opportunity for May to cash in on that predicted victory. In theory.

While May’s Conservatives remained the largest party, they had to surrender a substantial number of seats. The winner was thus also a loser, just like in the recent Dutch elections. Ketelaar, now an editor for Dutch politics at NRC, reported on this as well. ‘I am still looking for my exact role in The Hague. Fortunately I’ve been granted the time to do so. I hope to, once again, find a way to make the opinions heard of people who do not like to share their points of view.’

Titia Ketelaar (1975) studied History and Journalism in Groningen. She has held several positions at the daily newspaper NRC since 1999, including that of deputy editor-in-chief of NRC Handelsblad, editor-in-chief of NRC*Next and correspondent in London. Her book, Mind the Gap, het Engelse eilandgevoel en de vele tegenstellingen in één land was published by Spectrum earlier this year.

Text: Franka Hummels

Last modified:19 March 2020 10.19 a.m.
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