Image: Stop Brexit March, 25/3/17. Credit: Ik Aldama/DPA/PA Images, all rights reserved.
I want to lay a claim: Brexit was a fantastic moment for popular sovereignty. The vote came after years of technocratic rule in which managerialism had replaced political principles and ideology. Years in which people had been ‘done to’ as passive recipients of condescension, told how to live by their betters (yes, some of those ‘infamous’ experts who always know what’s best for us).
The Brexit vote was a turning point when people rediscovered their agency. This vote, we were told, was a once in a lifetime chance, where every vote would count. People seized the moment to assert themselves as active citizens.
But instead of celebrating this boost to democracy, we have seen acrimonious divisions. This fracturing has intensified since 23 June 2016 – due not to the vote itself, but the ‘fear and loathing’-style response to this fantastic democratic moment, a visceral and mean-spirited contempt aimed at the majority of voters. The demonising of the Brexit demos as ‘deplorables’ continues to do a huge amount of damage.
Even before the vote, respectable broadsheet columnists thought nothing of using bestial analogies to describe those attracted to voting Leave. Nick Cohen talked of “a know-nothing movement of loud mouths and closed minds…It is as if the sewers have burst”. The day after the vote Laurie Penny despaired that “the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain voted out, out, out”. It’s been a prejudice presented by many ever since.
Consider Vince Cable, who like many arch-Remainers, dismisses Brexit voters as pro-colonial racists.
Cable recently told the Lib Dem Spring conference that “too many” Brexit voters were driven by the “white nostalgia of the elderly” who longed for “a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink”.
But writing people off as backward-looking, xenophobic reactionaries is not just an insulting smear. It forgets estimates that around a third of ethnic minorities voted Brexit. That the discriminatory freedom of movement rules imposed by the EU strictly polices immigration from non-EU countries. That the EU regularly metes out almost colonial diktats to Eurozone’s counties.
In fact, in a post-vote poll, only 34 per cent of Leave voters cited concern about immigration as their main reason for voting out (and we should not assume that concern about immigration equates to racism). A majority, 53 per cent, said they rejected the EU because they believe that Britain should make its own laws. Rather than presuming good-faith by voters, we’ve witnessed an active campaign of defaming voters and impugning their motives. While many Remain voters have accepted the vote with good grace, high profile self-styled Remainiacs continue pushing this society-fracturing discourse.
The insults continue. Another fracturing prejudice is the notion that those who voted Brexit lacked comprehension of the facts and were easily duped. That voters were stupid, poorly informed and gullible, conned by spurious stunts. Think how often people refer to lies on the Leave battle bus as a key deciding factor, or the argument that fake news emanating from Russian geeks swung the vote.
The latest explanation comes in the form of the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook story. This important piece of investigative journalism raises vital issues about privacy and the use and abuse of data without consent. However, the furore has been driven by a refusal to accept that 17.4 million people made their own minds up to vote against the advice, even instructions, of a powerful alliance of politicians, corporate CEOs, all the mainstream political parties and an endless array of experts, from economists to scientists. Supposedly, profiles harvested from Facebook allowed the official Leave campaign to influence the referendum outcome by psychographic profiling. Both sides in this sorry tale seem to assume that data-mining our Facebook likes, networks, and our shopping histories, reveals enough about our personalities to zap us with micro-targeted memes that influenced our vote. The main evidence seems to be the secretly filmed, self-serving boasts of snake-oil data salesmen and the faith put in them by those who spent a fortune buying their services.
Both parties seem to imagine that ordinary people are incapable of common sense, of nous, of rationally assessing what to vote for without being nudged and manipulated. Behind this imagining is an incomprehension about what happened at the EU referendum - and a grasping for facile explanations.
Another false prejudice and fracture is an educational divide that has been interpreted as meaning those with more formal qualifications are inevitably more enlightened. It is true that a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed data indicating it was “educational inequality that was the strongest driver” of the Brexit vote. But regardless of whether factually accurate, the education gap has been discussed in such a sneering way that it has sewn acrimonious divisions. According to Professor David Runciman, “the education gap is tearing politics apart”. Runciman notes “the less-educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences”, while the “educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works”.
There are some serious dangers here. Too many are keen to gleefully note that that Brexiteers are less well educated as though this is a telling explanation of the vote (they’re thick, geddit?). This can lead to casually writing off those who do not perform well academically, with the assumption that their views can be side-lined. Forgetting that the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes all made major contributions to the emergence of popular democracy in Britain despite being denied access to higher education, too often the debate assumes that a lack of formal qualifications is interchangeable with stupidity.
When I debated with Professor A.C. Grayling last year, I seem to remember him asking if anyone had met a Brexit voter with more than two brain-cells to rub together, and going on to declare that the people of Sunderland would be unlikely to be able to spell the word sovereignty, let alone understand it, although he disputes this (see his comment below). Ignoble intellectual snobbery is reminiscent of those ‘philosopher kings’ who once argued against the franchise on the basis of the ignorance of the dumb masses.
Can we really assume that five years of study between 16 and 21 create more informed, broadminded decision-makers? Does a university degree course – often of a highly specialised character – increase knowledge of public affairs? Particularly when we live in an era in which many of today’s students demand safe spaces at universities, set up to keep out difficult or discomfiting views, silos that are immune to open debate. These echo chambers are the antithesis of open-mindedness and critical thinking. So why conclude that it is those Brexit voters without sufficient GCSEs who are most easily manipulated?
Flattering young educated voters for their enlightened views and setting them in opposition to older, less educated older voters has become a regular ruse in the hard-core Remain camp and brings me to the final fracture I want to look at: the generational divide. It has become fashionable to complain that Brexit is proof of a generational betrayal. To be clear, it is often older Remainers who cultivate this narrative. Gary Lineker tweeted on 24 June: “I feel ashamed of my generation – we’ve let down our children and their children!” TV presenter James Corden tweeted: “I can’t get my head around what’s happening in Britain. I’m so sorry to the youth of Britain. I fear you’ve been let down today.” More recently, Vince Cable accused pensioners of having “comprehensively shafted the young”.
Such comments dangerously incite the young to enter into generational conflict with their hateful grandparents and have generated vitriolic and bigoted levels of abuse. It has become acceptable to openly vilify and scapegoat older voters. One GQ columnist declared, only half tongue-in-cheek: “We should ban old people from voting”. Giles Coren wrote in The Times:
“The wrinkly bastards stitched us young ’uns up good and proper on Thursday. From their stairlifts and their zimmer frames, their electric recliner beds and their walk-in baths, they reached out with their wizened old writing hands to make their wobbly crosses and screwed their children and their children’s children for a thousand generations”.
One infamous chart listing voters alongside the average numbers of years they have to “live with the decision” went viral on social media. Should we see anyone with a terminal illness as less worthy of a vote as well?
Novelist Ian McEwan declared at an anti-Brexit convention that “A gang of angry old men, irritable even in victory, are shaping the future of the country against the inclinations of its youth”. Anticipating a second referendum, he went on: “By 2019 the country could be in a receptive mood: 2.5 million over-18-year-olds, freshly franchised and mostly remainers; 1.5 million oldsters, mostly Brexiters, freshly in their graves”. This theme has been adopted by a newly formed youth campaign, Our Future Our Choice (OFOC), which aims to put young people at the forefront of stopping Brexit. The campaign argues that the UK population will soon consist of remain voters, given that the older – more leave-voting – generation will die off. “What is the point of going ahead with something that will take decades to complete, when it is only likely to be reversed?” But endorsing democracy by demographics and the anticipated deaths of one’s political opponents hardly seems a way of encouraging social cohesion.
Those ‘grown-ups’ who continue to politicise inter-generational relations almost two years post-referendum, need to end this destructive pursuit. Encouraging the young to play the blame game invites them to view themselves as victims, to contextualise social problems in a personalised, narcissistic way as all about Me Me Me. When one 18-year old complained “My generation will never get its moment in the sun”, it is no doubt sincerely felt, but it hints at a passive attitude to social change, forever mapped out.
I fear that the young are being encouraged to see themselves as entitled to get what they want, without taking responsibility, fatalistically assuming the future is someone else’s fault. Femi Oluwole, a co-founder of OFOC, appears to suggest his campaign is less about young people taking the reins, and more about emotional blackmail: “The strongest emotional argument is that your kids don’t want what’s being forced on them… join us in persuading our parents and grandparents to choose a constructive, not destructive, legacy”. Placing the problems of the world squarely on the old in this way, betrays a static view of history in which younger generations are simply waiting to be saved.
The fractures in society are not inevitable. But healing them does require that all citizens, whatever age, whatever educational background, whatever way they voted in the referendum, stop caricaturing their fellow voters and instead seize the moment and take on the challenges of Brexit as a positive opportunity to build a new society. If we can overcome these fractures, the future is ours to shape.
This is an edited version of a presentation given on 24 March at “Our Fractured Society” at the Oxford Literary Festival, alongside Anthony Barnett, chaired by Stephen Law.