- Leavers (in multiple camps of baffled and regretful, or optimistic for an anti-austerity revolution, or licensed to express hate. And living outside London in England and Wales)
- Remainers (most are unanimously shocked, sad and fearful and mobilising to stop or slow the Brexit. And living in London, Scotland or Northern Ireland)
- The disenfranchised young people and migrant workers (furious, anxious about their futures. And living everywhere).
When the media reports the results, they trumpet that ‘the British people have voted to leave the EU’, and are already inviting personal finance or immigration law experts to explain how this will affect our pensions and passports. But the Leave vote was just a shade over a quarter of the population (excluding minors). 65% of 18-24 year olds eligible to vote didn’t, and they have more future in which to live with this decision. Those who did vote (and many who didn’t) were overwhelmingly pro-Remain. Here some of their voices here.
I’ve never known a time the UK was so divided, at a time in general when we so need to focus on our common humanity. Social media is buzzing with attack and defence, analysis and emotion, expression and counter-repression. Up to this weekend, we’ve seen patterns of narrative, where anchor concepts have been pushed out by campaigners and media, repeated without much thought. The Leave camp assumed theirs was the powerless position, that their aggressive tactics were justifiable because they were unlikely to win. Their anchor concept was ‘getting our country back, take back control’ without ever specifying how. The Remain voices were conservative and measured, hosing us down with facts about the risks of leaving and benefits of staying. But those risks were expressed in terms so abstract, about trade and the economy, that they made no connection with people who do not work with that material, or do not work at all. It was dubbed as Project Fear, alarmist nonsense, and Michael Gove (Leave) said we were all fed up with experts.
The announcement of the result has been like a ticking grenade thrown into our country. There is no control, only chaos. Sterling has plummeted so fast, we’re now in Negative credit rating, which has lost us more money than the claimed costs of our payments to the EU altogether since we joined. China has frozen its investments and warned of global recession. People in my (pro-Remain) network are open-mouthed and wittering with shock that a minor neo-fascist party could gather enough support, that their leader Farage could say this victory was won ‘without a single shot being fired’ only days after Jo Cox MP was shot and stabbed to death for Farage’s broader cause.
Nobody expected the grenade. The Leavers are still firing defensive shots, but don’t have a plan beyond that fighting stance. The Remainers assumed that because Brexit is madness, a disaster, common sense would surely win. We don’t know when this Brexit thing will go off. Some of us want to defuse it, others want it to explode. Some of these latter are Left Brexiteers who see the explosion as a big chance for change. They say ‘this was democracy, accept it and move on, let’s work together’. This grenade has had a very marked effect on the national conversation. Suddenly some people are problem-solving, thinking laterally and asking questions nobody thought to ask before, while others are thinking ‘bloody hell, why did I vote for that?’
In times of chaos you have to hope. I am hoping to see a progressive coalition, a General Election soon, fought with electoral pacts between Labour and all the other parties that are not Tory, UKIP (or DUP). If they win, they do not have to trigger Article 50. Corbyn is not strongly pro-Remain so I’m not keen to see him as leader of this Coalition – I would prefer Nicola Sturgeon or Caroline Lucas. To work with Lib Dem and Greens, Labour would also finally need to concede to proportional representation. I know this is fantasy but I’m not alone in dreaming of it.
If the demos of ordinary people really do want to have more voice and control, they may start to see that the key to this is working towards a more functional and fair democracy. The referendum was not proper democracy because people believed lies – that have now been confessed to by Leave leaders – that they were either voting to save the NHS or to control immigration. The referendum was not proper democracy because due to decades of erosion of civic community, people were not taking their responsibility seriously to vote with care and consideration. It was not proper democracy because of the right wing, xenophobic and Eurosceptic ownership of mainstream news media.
The influence of media is not acknowledged enough, and I’d like to investigate this more myself. There are many comment pieces (and social media comments) reminding us that the metropolitan elites are out of touch with ordinary people, that working class people outside London are not being heard, that their fears of being swamped by migrants have roots in values they hold as virtuous. We hear that they have been infantilised by handouts and their purpose diminished by shrinking of local industries, that this vote has given them a sense of agency at last. Remainers are being ticked off for sneering at people less educated than themselves, and tarring all Leavers with the same brush.
I agree with these moderating voices in many ways. I agree that politeness is essential in debate, that looking for common ground works better than blame, that austerity has inflicted deprivation and anxiety, that conversations should be open and not agonistic, and that the political elite have failed to converse in a responsive way. But I also wonder if it’s true that the narratives of ‘we’ve been left behind, we’ve been sold down the river’ come genuinely from material suffering in the Leave voters en masse. 59% of Leave voters were in middle classes and only 24% were in the lowest two socio-economic classes. The U.K. is one of the most materially affluent countries, fourth in the world for wealth per person. Of course, this is not equally distributed, which creates a real sense of deprivation. But despite horrendously unfair cuts, we do still have strong safety nets comparative to other similarly wealthy nations. It seems to me that these narratives have been whipped up in a tangle of threads of media, political messages and public service workers hearing voices, reflecting them back and projecting them until they hardboil into bitter resentment. I’m not denying that material suffering is absent, and data shows that the strongest Leave areas have some of the lowest median incomes, but many Remain areas have equivalent median incomes too.
The divide seems to be less about income, more about education. The strongest demographic indicator of all is that Remain voters hold degrees. Quite simply, the more literate and numerate you are, the more able to weigh up evidence and make a valid decision. But to say this would get me accused of patronising sneering. This vote has thrown light on a growing divide between younger people who are well educated, entrepreneurial and co-operative but also frustrated by tuition fees and housing costs, and older people less able to see alternatives to problems and to be resilient or ‘positively deviant’ in the face of change, yet also relatively secure with their own homes. The age tendency of Leavers is 55+, and living in areas with the least immigration, so one wonders how much they truly feel their futures and jobs are threatened by migrants. More likely is that their motivation to exit the EU is a combination of social conservatism, being steeped in post-war nationalism, a lack of tertiary education, time to read the tabloids, growing apathy and fear of loss of control that comes with age.
This older group want things to change, but only in a way that will take them back to a status quo when things felt better. Others who are not old, or not conservative, who still backed Leave, want things to change in way that will fast forward them to utopia without thinking. Neither of these Leave groups is thinking enough. Neither is respecting science, education, expertise, cultural diversity or the value of peaceful co-operation enough. Neither is thinking enough that we exert our democratic rights only for the sake of others, for young people, for the vulnerable, for non-human species, for everyone with whom we share this land in common.
The BBC is barely reporting what I see on social media, talk about a second referendum or about a progressive coalition in a General Election. Ironically, just as we hear over and over again that the metropolitan elites have not listened to the Leave demographic groups, we who are trying to expose and explore the ideas and data around this situation, and seeking solutions that mitigate damage, are also not heard. That includes younger people. That repression of thought is why we are in this mess. As Umair Haque says “The list of voices that is being heard…does desperately need to change”.