Referenda tend to cause division – that’s the point – particularly when they’re close. They force us to take sides. But that should end at the vote. This time however we’ve seen one side display vocal derision, anger and vitriol towards the other – and it’s not been the Leavers at fault. The tolerant, open society much espoused by angry Remainers has not been much on show the last week. What can we do to arrest this slide to acrimony? First, let’s try to understand one-another.
We are the 48%! We love EU! Never going to give EU up! These are just some of the banners and placards held aloft by the 30,000 or so protesters taking part on the anti-Brexit march in parliament square this weekend. No matter your view on Brexit, we Brits like a witty banner.
The mood of the protest was summed up by Lord Cashman from the podium:
“No more lies, no more hate. We need to uphold the values of democracy and inclusiveness which are at the heart of the EU and this country”
The manifold ironies of this statement was apparently lost on the right honourable Lord, but should be obvious.
Firstly, it’s questionable that the EU upholds the values of democracy and inclusiveness given its history of ignoring popular referenda in Denmark, France, Greece etc. Secondly, how can it be said to be democratic to attempt to pressure parliament to defy the settled will of the people? Especially when espoused by an unelected member of the House of Lords.
There are other ironies too. Young protesters lamenting that the old betrayed them when only 36% turned up to vote for institutions overseeing 50% youth unemployment in Southern Europe.
I could go on.
These ironies are not what I want to focus on here however. Of interest to me is the irony behind an appeal to inclusiveness from a section of the population attempting to exert their will against the majority without compromise or discussion, while at the same time smearing them.
The intimation that those who voted Leave did so on the basis of “lies or hate” displays similar prejudice as that against which they march. This isn’t a rare view. A glance at Facebook in recent days would highlight a propensity for the words “stupid”, “ignorant”, “xenophobic” and “racist”. The Guardian called those who voted Leave “arsonists” and even published an incredible article attempting to persuade us that the issue with Brexit was voting itself as well as saying its now ok to be racist in Britain. The Independent lamented that “some things are too important to be decided by the people”. Richard Dawkins weighed in by announcing that people are “too stupid”.
Victorian opponents of the reform act 1867 would be proud of this nonsensical, lazy posturing.
By defining the motives for voting leave in such black and white, lazy terms there is a very real risk of reinforcing the divisions in society made so apparent over the last week. Furthermore, it risks alienating those people who voted leave for very real, informed reasons.
How are they to react when they’re called racist or xenophobic by those clearly rushing to simple minded generalisations?
If the Remain camp want to democratically defend their views and interests, they would do well to build bridges and try to build a coalition for the retention of access to the single market and free movement of people – rather than burn any remaining to the ground leaving two thoroughly irreconcilable factions.
To start with, they could try harder to see past the labels and find out what exactly leave voters thought.
Hint, it’s not just immigration.
It’s about sovereignty, stupid!
Britain is and has never been a racist country. Buried deep in the news cycle last week, the British Attitudes Survey 2016 was released. This survey has shown that over the last 30 years, our views on racism have barely changed – although it may shock many to hear 30% of people profess they have “some level of prejudice”. While this number may seem high, it has not changed materially for 15 years and is lower than it was in the 80s. Overall, those stating they have racist views is falling and it was found in a 2013 report that 70% of Britons believed multiculturalism a good thing – higher than many western countries.
Racism has never been successful at the ballot box in Britain. The BNP, a racist organisation, has never received more than 6% of the vote in any country wide election. While Ukip have recently flourished, there is no evidence to suggest racism as a primary factor in their success.
Hate crime has spiked post Brexit and this is a sad outcome. There is no defence for these thugs, but all the evidence suggests these are the actions of an emboldened minority and in no way a reflection of society has a whole, nor the 17 million people voting leave.
In an enlightening study into the motives of different voters, Lord Ashcroft has found that rather than immigration, half of leave voters stated that the primary reason to vote leave was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Only a third stated immigration as the primary motive.
The motives of the two camps. One values sovereignty, one economics Source: Lord Ashcroft polling
When seen through this lens, it is easy to understand why older voters voted Leave by such a majority – 60% of those over 65. They voted in 1975 for a common market, nothing more. Since then they have watched the EU take more and more decision making powers and they feel lied to and betrayed.
When going further into the numbers, it is clearer still that the issue of control, rather than immigration was a central factor. Support for Leave was stronger in areas which have no other local representative body. The three areas of the country where Remain won were Scotland, Northern Ireland and London – all with their own devolved administrations. Although Wales voted narrowly to Leave, the vote was carried overwhelmingly by the English. Lord Ashcroft’s analysis backs this up further.
Of the English, those identifying themselves as more English than British voted to leave by a large majority – over 66%. All those identifying themselves as more British than English voted to remain.
Before resorting to the label of nationalism as a way of deriding these voters, it is worth noting the delicious irony that the darling of Remain voters, Nicola Sturgeon, is the leader of an avowed nationalist party.
The analysis is fairly conclusive. Those wishing to “get their country back” are those who have watched other nationalities in the UK do exactly that in the last decade without any parallel changes in our democratic system. This is a fact, not lies nor hatred.
Ignorance is not bliss
The other most common refrain is that those who voted leave are ignorant and did not fully understand the consequences of the outcome. Again, any cursory analysis shows this to be a lazy fallacy. Firstly, we should accept the fact that some members of the public will always vote without knowing the detailed facts. This is a central problem of democracy and I doubt we’d be focusing on this if the vote had been 52-48 the other way.
The engagement of the voters – little difference in engagement Source: Lord Ashcroft polling
In fact, Leave voters are virtually identical in engagement to Remain voters. 50% of those who are fully engaged with the political process voted Leave. While it is true to say that the proportion of Leave voters who pay little or no attention to politics generally is greater, the margin is narrow and it could be just as fair to say that many Remain voters are as clueless of everyday politics.
So it is not fair to say that Leave voters are ignorant of the detailed arguments of the campaign. It is also not fair to suggest they didn’t understand the consequences. In fact, again, the consequences were understood.
What the voters knew – we knew the economy would suffer Source: Lord Ashcroft polling
The above graphic is illuminating. Voters were aware that investment in the UK by international companies would be better in the EU, and that inflation would increase the cost of living if we left. They knew the economy as a whole would be better off in the EU.
The difference comes in the degree to which they believed the impact would hit home. Those voting remain fully bought into the fearful rhetoric, 77% agreed voting to leave would be a “disaster”, whereas 66% of those voting leave thought there would be “little difference”. This may seem ridiculous until you combine this with the fact that those voting leave are precisely those who have not felt the benefit of the EU in the past 20 years.
The incomes of economic classes C2 or below – manual workers or low skilled workers – have stagnated in the UK since 1997, barely increasing at all. This group voted overwhelmingly to leave, by 64% to 36%. So those who thought they has little to lose voted leave.
On the NHS, they believed the money that could be restored to the NHS through redirecting the money we contribute to the EU outweighed the benefit of the labour received from the EU – but not by a huge margin. It is impossible to tell at this point whether leavers believed the extra inflow of cash would be the infamous £350m a week promised by the Leave campaign. It is also impossible however to tell whether Remainers believed that we risk armed conflict or that western civilisation will shortly come to an end now we have voted to leave.
Again, the analysis is pretty clear. The voters were not ignorant. They didn’t believe a bunch of rose tinted lies. They knew the economy may suffer and voted to leave anyway.
Stopping the “lies and hate”
So when delving into an initial analysis it seems that far from being 17 million ignorant racists, the public just felt that on balance the gain in control and local sovereignty outweighed the possible risks to the economy. They felt that on balance the quality of life in the UK would be slightly better outside the EU and the rights of people in the UK better protected.
You may disagree with this but they came to this conclusion with no worse grasp of the facts than in any other election and show similar ignorance to Remain voters.
So given the intolerance shown towards Leavers is unfounded, what can we do to build bridges between the two factions?
Firstly, calm down a bit. Our democracy is a wonderful thing. A 52% majority does not give a mandate for total change. The views of Remainers and fear of economic consequences will be catered for.
Instead of challenging the outcome on the basis of conspiracy and prejudice however, better to engage in the debate constructively. If you value the single market and free movement of people, don’t moan over the result that’s past, make sure it your view is made clear during the negotiation.
Secondly, build a coalition. If you want to change things you need to convince Leave voters to change their mind – they are the majority after all. Simply calling them racists or ignorant isn’t going to do much to convince them. In any case, doing this only makes you sound intolerant and ignorant yourself.
Finally, and most importantly, try to see the positives. Leave voters are not economic and political arsonists. They voted leave for real reasons, as we have seen.
They just may have a point. Trade deals with other nations are now available, with 11 nations already approaching the UK government. You do now have much more control over law making. If you think immigration is a good thing, vote for it. If you think the steel workers deserve protection, vote for it (for we now can protect them). If you value openness, vote to extend it further than just Europe.
As Lord Cashman said, no more lies, no more hate. We need to uphold the values of democracy and inclusiveness which are at the heart of the EU and this country – and now we have the freedom to do so.