"The truth is really this was a chance for them to kick the establishment"Richard Hayward

“For the first time in my life I thought ‘Jesus I really do operate in a bubble’.”

For Robert Peston, the referendum for Britain to leave the European Union in June 2016 led to significant shift in his self-image. “The thing I was most depressed about in the aftermath of the Brexit vote is that literally out of everyone I know, nobody that I would regard myself as close to either in family or friendship groups voted for Brexit.”

“It’s not my self-image because I went to a state school and I do the sort of journalism which is about trying to understand everybody. And to find myself so amazingly trapped on one side of this particular divide was quite depressing.”

The image of Robert Peston we do have, comes from his slightly manic yet affable presenting style – his famously floppy haircut has garnered several Twitter accounts tracking its evolution. He was the BBC’s business editor and broke the Northern Rock story in 2007. In 2016, he switched to ITV to become their political editor and hosts a weekly discussion show, Peston on Sunday.

Peston’s new book, WTF: What have we done? Why did it happen? How do we take back control?, is in part an attempt at coming to terms with how the reality of the United Kingdom could be so different to the one he knew. In the book Peston notes, “It turns out I have not really been living in the United Kingdom but in a privileged metropolitan bubble”.

“The book is filled with ideas which are about trying to fix the way we run this place. So it is more obviously in everyone’s interests rather than just those of a highly educated few at the top, who happen to have the sort of skills that make them mobile between jobs and countries.”

“The most extraordinary thing is that people put up with stagnating and declining living standards for so long”

Robert Peston

It is not just Robert Peston who has undergone an identity shift, but rather the entire nation. It was a revolt that was a long time coming, however. “The most extraordinary thing is that people put up with stagnating and declining living standards for so long. Some of these people, their stagnating living standards and the erosion of their way of life, massively predated the crash.”

The response of successive British governments to the financial crash of 2008 was just a “sticking plaster… it should have been the wake up call when we realised we had to reorganise but we didn’t”.

It is in this context of “the sort of world where job security has been more eroded over the past 20 to 30 years” that Peston has a great deal of sympathy for those who voted for Brexit.

“The truth is really this was a chance for them to kick the establishment. To basically turn to the Blairs and Camerons and say ‘look, you’ve ignored us for too long’, so when I say they were on the right side of history what I mean is this was their opportunity to to say ‘enough is enough’.”

Another profound shift that Brexit has caused is in our understanding of the traditional Right/Left split in politics. After the 2008 crash, a lot of commentators expected a left-wing revolt in response to the mistakes of Bankers, fat cat bonuses and tax avoidance scandals which characterised that period. However, that form of revolt only came with the rise of Corbyn, nearly 10 years after the crash.

“We’ve got the most left-wing Labour party that any of us have lived through, arguably the most in over 100 years or so, incredibly close to power, with roughly 40% of the vote in the last election. That is indeed a sort of left-wing revolt that you would have perhaps expected.”

“The radical thing to have done, which a lot of poorer people did, was vote for Brexit because it was precisely the opposite of the centrist ruling class wanted”

Robert Peston

However, for Peston, it would be a mistake to view Brexit through the same lense. “What I would say however, I don’t think you can see Brexit in a traditional Left/Right split. Arguably, the radical thing to have done, which a lot of poorer people did, was vote for Brexit because it was precisely the opposite of the centrist ruling class wanted. I don’t think it’s possible to see that as either Left or Right.”

Peston’s economic analysis of Brexit stops, however, when it comes to young people. “Younger people tend to think of themselves as part of a global, especially young, university educated people, you tend to see yourselves more as part of a global educated community. I don’t think you think of yourselves in such narrow, nationalistic terms”

“The differences in how you vote on these occasions inevitably come down to different circumstances inevitably, partly to do with that ability to empathise with people all over the world and recognise that you are citizens of the world.”

Despite this optimism about how younger generations few their place in the world, Peston has some reservations about the implications of social media on democracy.

“In the EU referendum the Brexit side was infinitely more sophisticated using data collection from the internet, finding out about the preferences of voters in a way that the Remain side didn’t attempt or didn’t have the imagination to do. It made a huge difference to the final outcome because they were able to target messages in a clever way.”

“The bits of this of course that are worrying is Russia for example, hacking the system, creating fake news, fake stories which undoubtedly have an influence.”


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“And secondly the way that very sophisticated, very wealthy people like Robert Mercer in the US are putting money into the development of algorithms which can influence political outcomes. This may not be wholly democratic if the other side is not deploying the same techniques.”

The current government is not doing enough either to fix the underlying issues in this country. He wishes he could say to Theresa May: “Do what you said you would do on the steps of Downing Street when you took office, govern for those people who have less money and are at the bottom of the pile. She hasn’t done it so far.”

Peston’s frustration is palpable as his voice breaks into an exasperated, falsetto laugh. “Our leaders have to take steps to reform the economy and how we run this place to make people more optimistic about their own future, to make people better off. Otherwise, I slightly fear they will turn to a form of extremism that none of us like.”

Throughout our interview, there is the impression of a man who is anxious to see actual change occur and cannot understand the reluctance or incompetence of others to do so

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