The Brexit vote on 23rd June is momentous. We need to make sense of what has happened urgently. Our response to it will define us.
There is a profound level of shock, fear and, sometimes, anger from those who voted passionately for Remain. Many Remain voters voted for tolerance, economic security and progressive politics.
Why do Remain voters think that Brexit won?
- People outside cosmopolitan London, especially the working-class, have reacted to immigration in a backward way. They are racists and bigots.
- The Leave campaigners lied – the £350 million, supporting the NHS – and people believed it
- The Leave campaigners scared people – mass immigration, Turkey’s accession, an EU superstate – and people believed it
- People voted to rock the establishment, but didn’t really want to leave the EU
What do Remain voters fear are the consequences of a Brexit vote?
- The country will become inward looking and anti-European
- Britain will become more divided
- Right-wing ideologues will now dominate government policy
- Intolerance, xenophobia and racism will become more explicit
- The UK economy, and future prosperity, will suffer
The response from many Remain voters to the referendum result is simply disbelief.
There is a heart-felt and profound sense of loss and shock. They see the Brexit vote as one against Europe, against open-mindedness and rationality itself.
Remain voters have called for a second referendum or for the result be simply ignored. They argue that many Leave voters underestimated, or did not understand, the consequences of their vote, because they didn’t think about it carefully enough, or because the issue is too complex for them to grasp. Some of the more virulent responses have been to decry the old, the working class, the northerners and Welsh as bigoted, un-educated and stupid.
The response from many on the Remain side has been to reject democracy.
This is a response from people who consider themselves open-minded, progressive and outward-looking.
Why did the majority of people vote for Brexit?
It is clear people voted for a variety of reasons. However, most people understood that this was a vote about how we are governed, in particular who governs us, and what politics we want.
The Brexit vote was also a declaration of how we see ourselves, who we are and what kind of future we all want.
The Wakefield Poll
I live in the West Yorkshire city of Wakefield. 64% of the Wakefield population defied the ‘experts’, ‘uncertainty’ and their local Labour MP, Mary Creagh, to vote for Brexit.
Throughout the campaign I ran informal polls to gauge people’s views. On polling day itself I asked people if they had made their minds up, which way they were voting, and why. Most people said that they were voting to leave the EU.
The most frequent reasons can be summarised as:
“It’s not about the money, £350 million, £160 million, that’s not the issue. This is about us running things for ourselves”
“I’ve listened to all the big bosses. They say how dangerous it’ll be to leave and I don’t believe them”
“We should never have joined [the EU]. They tell us what to do and who are they?”
“They think we can’t run our own country, we bloody well can.”
“I’m sick of the so-called experts telling us how we should think”
“Cameron talks about an economic recovery, it’s all minimum wage round here. What’s the EU done for us?”
“I work with the Polish, I like them, we’re not sending them back you know. But we should decide how many people come into the country. It’s out of control.”
“All the new jobs round here are low wage and they fill them with East Europeans on the cheap. We used to have decent jobs. I fear for the kids.”
Of the people I spoke to immigration was not the main reason why they voted Brexit. Even where immigration was raised as an issue, it was not fuelled by 1970s-style racism.
I remember a time when there were only white faces in the centre of Wakefield on a Saturday night and racist ideas were common-place. We live in a different era. The city is more culturally diverse and open-minded.
The vast majority of people see racism as old-fashioned and ignorant.
Nowadays, when people talk about the problem of immigration, it is a complaint about limited resources, a strain on services and a squeezing of the job market. This northern city that has seen its industries replaced by distribution centres. Decent wages and job market confidence has been replaced by minimum wages and precarious agency work. This is a living reality for people.
Furthermore, immigration has become a lightning rod for people’s sense that the world is changing around them. People feel ignored and un-consulted. They live with the consequences of decisions made in secret committee rooms. The mushrooming of Polski skleps and the increasing Central and East European co-workers is a visible reflection of change happening to them, not initiated by them.
When people complain about their concerns they are insulted and described as ‘bigots’ and ‘little Englanders’. Their feelings of marginalisation are compounded by insult. But, crucially, despite people’s frustration there is no hostility displayed towards Poles and Lithuanians living in the city. Interestingly, every Asian person who responded to my polling day questions said that they were voting to leave. Why? “Because the immigration isn’t fair”.
How should those that voted Remain respond to the Brexit result?
- Democracy is crucial
It should be self-apparent but it needs to be reiterated that the democratic decision of the majority should be up-held. If this democratic decision is not honoured, the implications are potentially catastrophic. Accepting the outcome of all future election and referendum results will be seen as optional. Democracy itself will be dead.
Every person has the right to be heard. Each individual must be able to vote for who or what they see as advancing and representing their own interests. They must be free to vote in a way that reflects their world-view.
In a democracy, we are all equal.
- Debate, don’t scream
The country is truly divided.
There is less mingling of different classes and age groups. People have an increasing tendency to mix with like-minded people who broadly share their world-view. Social media has intensified, not reduced this. People follow and ‘friend’ people who reflect their viewpoint. Watching a stream of like-minded views re-enforces and confirms your original thinking.
People are less willing to have their views challenged and less able to debate openly. Where dialogue takes place it is increasingly from entrenched viewpoints. Discussions frequently become personal and shrill because people are unused to thinking issues through in a way that is persuasive. They are unable to see it from another person’s point of view.
- Trust the people around you
We live in an era where trust has broken down.
Inter-generational trust has been eroded; parents aren’t trusted to bring their children up safely; politicians are characterised as self-serving free-loaders; health campaigners despair at the eating and drinking habits of the population; girls are taught to look out for signs of abusive behaviour when dating boys; teachers are not trusted to teach pupils without assessments and checks.
It is clear to see why it is now normal to mistrust the motivation of other people. People casually look for, and see, the worst in others.
We must assume that other people are broadly motivated by the same things as us.
People’s experiences shape their perspective and the prevailing culture influences their outlook. It is the prevailing culture which we need to challenge. Fearing others is inward-looking and self-destructive.
- Move on from the shock
People who voted for Brexit were shocked when they woke up on 24th June. No-one could quite believe that a tectonic plate had shifted, that nothing could be quite the same again. They felt that the world held out new possibilities – that remote managerial dismissive politics had received a resounding blow. The people had spoken and the results were profound. They had a spring in their step.
The positive feeling was immediately under-mined by the fearful response of the Remain voters. Many Brexit voters have been accused of being ‘ignorant’, ‘stupid’ and ‘racist’. Friends have fallen out and misunderstanding is commonplace.
- Shape the future
On Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’ Owen Patterson, the Tory MP for North Shropshire, asked farmers to contact their organisations and submit ideas for the formation of the British Agricultural Policy. He wants agricultural producers to discuss and decide on how subsidies should be granted and to define policies. He wants farmers to decide British farming policy for the first time in a generation.
This is one small example of how we could shape our future. For too long, we have been treated like children who are told what to do. We now have the opportunity to act like adults, in a democracy, to shape our future.
So, what do we do now?
I believe in an outward-looking, dynamic economy where everyone’s standard of living increases. I want co-operation with the European Space Agency; the Horizon project; between scientists, researchers and thinkers across Europe, Korea, India, China and the wider world. I love the vibrancy of London. I want a liberal immigration policy, including a more welcoming policy towards refugees. I want a new industrial revolution to bring the benefits of robotics, nano technology, biotech, new forms of energy production. I want new industries to revitalise the ex-industrial areas throughout the UK and energise universities
Other people will have a different view. On some things we will agree and others we will disagree. What is certain is that the old Labour / Tory mould has been broken forever. We need to clarify our thinking and test our ideas through dialogue, debate and argument.
Alternatively, Remain voters can reject the decision; view most of the population with contempt; live in a dystopian fantasy of ‘unleashed toxic forces’ and sink into bitter despair.
For the first time in a long while, it really is up to us.