The wave of emotional outrage and hatred triggered by the vote to leave the EU reveals that there is an issue of identity at play. The referendum was not just a matter of economic rationalism versus nationalist myopia. It was also a matter of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
Many of those deeply upset by the outcome, including myself, did not necessarily, or even remotely, think the EU was entirely progressive. But, nevertheless, we felt European and we wanted to work together with other Europeans to improve it. The 'EU' is not 'Europe' but on a certain level there is an important connection. This is why it hurts that we are out, and our frustration with those who voted to put us out.
On the other hand, those who voted leave did not identify with the EU. Perhaps they failed to notice the benefits it brought them, perhaps it was solely a protest about other issues, but this, ultimately, did not matter. If nothing else, the result has revealed this profound lack of identification. There is a feeling (perhaps shared across Europe) that the EU wields power in people’s everyday lives, but with no accountability.
The leave voters were not all old, stupid, racist. To portray them as such is an easy way to avoid engaging with their concerns. But nor were they necessarily voting against the EU because of its policies. They were voting against the EU for many different reasons, but in part because they felt they did not belong. Many in the UK feel totally disenfranchised by the entire political establishment. By not noticing this, the ‘remain’ camp went horribly wrong. The door was left wide open for right-wing populists to construct the division between ‘the people’ versus ‘the elites’.
It is crucial to take this opportunity to formulate a new, progressive inclusive ‘us’. It is also crucial not to portray this referendum as old versus young or racist versus liberal or ignorant versus enlightened. To do so would be to reaffirm the reactionary divisions that certain politicians hope to gain from.
In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.
Get our weekly email