Brexit: Why we need to stop this latest form of identity politics

20:50 29 December 2016

PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

6 months after naming The New European as Britain’s Sore Loser Newspaper, what has changed for Vice UK writer Angus Harrison?

Brexit, the problem-child nobody knows what to do with, is six months old. That means that in the time since the UK voted to leave the European Union, you could have severely broken and healed a bone or enjoyed a comprehensive back-packing experience in south-east Asia. So why does it feel like we’re exactly where we were on the June 24? Rehashing the same heated pub chats about the future of the Labour Party, sending the same incandescent tweets about Daily Express headlines – stuck in an endless loop of disoriented outrage that’s turned Question Time into something more closely resembling a bemused, Middle England version of Westworld starring David Dimbleby rather than Anthony Hopkins.

As we approach this six-month milestone, and a new year, it’s important to reflect on what’s holding us up. Is it the complexity of the issue, or the incompetence of those dealing with it? Well it’s both on some level, but our urge to make Brexit a game of identity politics is just as much to blame.

Full disclosure: I was a little surprised when The New European got in touch and asked if I’d like to write something for them. You see, when the paper first launched back in July, I wrote a piece for VICE detailing my not-totally-positive feelings towards it. That’s not to say I thought the writing inside the paper was bad, or its intentions disingenuous, but there was something about the inherent premise that irked me. As I saw it, a paper declaring itself for the 48% wasn’t united by a pro-EU stance, as much as it was an anti-52% one.

Now, the blame here does not lie solely with The New European by any stretch. In the days and weeks that followed the referendum, the Remain versus Leave dichotomy immediately became the only framework within which anyone seemed capable of discussing the referendum and its fallout. As if overnight, we had a new language – a Brexicon – that neatly divided the nation into two teams based on issues as complex and diverse as attitudes towards the EU. The 52% – the mythical ‘little people’ we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing about – were quickly reduced to rabble rousers and populists by their opposition. On the other hand the 48% of Bremoaners – a portmanteau so smug I’d happily sacrifice single market access in exchange for never hearing it again – were written off as an out-of-touch elite.

Much of this was reasonable: a referendum only offers two options, leaving people no choice but to feel polarised. Yet, the reasons people voted either way weren’t simple in June, and they’re certainly not simple now. In continuing to view things in terms of Leave and Remain – and allowing the likes of the right-wing press, or the Conservatives, to do the same – we’re only going to reinforce rifts, rather than understand them.

Voter demographics have been an area of obsession since the result, but not necessarily a particularly developed one. The correct assertion, that metropolitan centres, from London to Liverpool, were Remain strongholds, all too quickly assumed divisions on other criteria – that the Brexit vote was therefore also ‘working class’, or predicated largely on fears of immigration. Time and again, however, these were proven to be misconceptions. Lord Ashcroft’s polls on referendum day – of a healthy 12,000+ voters – revealed 59% of Leave voters to be middle class, not to mention that ‘the principle that decisions should be taken in the UK’ emerged as the most common reason for voting Leave, rather than border controls.

Yet perhaps the most striking, but under-discussed, of Lord Ashcroft’s findings was that only 39% of Remain voters, and 36% of Leave voters claimed to have ‘always known’ which way they were going to swing – with the majority having made their decision in the months leading up to the vote.

Add to that the British Election Study’s October revelation that there are now enough Leave voters who regret their decision for the result to have been completely different, and the two camps look a lot less reliable as barometers of political opinion.

This referendum was not won or lost by lifelong convictions – it was built on hasty decisions, deception and badly-researched opinions. Yet we are using it to define the state of our nation, or worse still, for Nigel Farage under his new guise as “Fidel Gastro-Pub, Liberator of Little People,” we’re using it to define the future of the global politics.

This isn’t just about Leave voters either. Now obviously, me and The New European are the ‘same team’. Like most of my peers I voted to Remain, and was suitably shocked when the result went the other way.

Yet one thing I didn’t easily do, and haven’t been able to do since, is identify as a Remainer, to embody some new, arbitrary category based on my own complex and often ill-informed attitudes towards something as massive as the EU. If we’re going to criticise Leave voters for not knowing what they were voting for, we need to be prepared to self-examine as well.

It might be an uncomfortable truth, but most of my peers – aged anywhere between 20 and 30 – hadn’t ever professed to caring a whole lot about the EU prior to 2016. Unlike the NHS, university fees or social housing – all issues which evoke sincere and informed passion among my generation – the drive to vote Remain seemed far hazier.

More often than not, pleading Facebook statuses and impassioned pub polemics seemed derived from knee-jerk liberal allegiances or evocations of the continent itself, rather than informed perspectives on issue at hand – as though leaving the EU meant we’d never eat Brie again, or that Croatia was going to be cancelled indefinitely. I still struggle to feel complete disdain for those who’d voted out, not because I pity them, but because I recognised many of the tribalistic urges they have been criticised for in myself.

Perhaps I was a little unfair on The New European – it’s important that strong voices take sides, or else we will all end up being shouted down as Enemies of the People by publications far less rational in their delivery [really nice point, classy]. Yet the Brexit divide continues to be a blunt instrument with which to characterise the British population. The continued desire to equate the result with a broad political mood only serves to reinforce the movements of Theresa May’s government, who can continue to pursue their own agenda under the guise of a crude and approximated will of the people.

It’s no surprise we feel like we’re not getting anywhere, when we talk about the problems of echo chambers within echo chambers; we quote the same lies about the NHS and indulge in the same ad hominem attacks of Leave campaigners. For us to move forward, communication over demonisation remains paramount – we need strong, informed messages that are drawn from more than the assumed desires of two, flimsily constructed camps. Six months into our relationship with Brexit and it’s still complicated, but our most powerful weapon continues to be nuance.

Angus Harrison is a staff writer at Vice UK where he writes about music, politics and people. He also contributes to the Guardian and Crack Magazine

Latest articles

BrexFactor: The 10 WORST Brexiteers this week

Confused by another week in Brexit? We round up the losers and the losers (because there are no winners) of another crazy seven days on Planet Brexit

Euro rich list: The 48 richest people in Europe

Just who are the wealthiest people in Europe? We found out how much they’re worth

The unravelling of Turkey: a frightening illustration of a country unleashed from EU aspirations

Turkey was on progressive path, but Europe sent it in a dangerous direction

You are a fascist if you do these 14 things

What constitutes a fascist – and is it fair to categorise Trump, The Leader of the Free World, alongside Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco?

The true defenders of democracy are those who don’t give up the fight

British democracy has been an inspiration round the globe. Now it is time to defend it.

My problem with Piers Morgan

Piers Morgan and Milo Yiannopoulos share more than a love of attention: Society needs provocateurs, but it also needs us to see them for what they are

Blair’s new role: To temper romanticism with realism

There’s more to Tony Blair’s baggage than Iraq. But if he really is “back”, he does have the power to alter the terms of the Brexit debate

48 questions all Leavers have to answer

The Brextremists’ only response to Tony Blair’s speech was abuse. We should take heart from their refusal to engage on the substance – and force them to answer these 48 questions

The New European says: Thank you, our readers, for all your support so far!

No other media embodies a sense of community like a newspaper does.

NHS staff shortage looms: 1000s of doctors consider quitting because of Brexit

Four in 10 European doctors are considering quitting Britain following the Brexit vote in a move that would “cripple” the NHS.

What food is to me: We steal from our own memories and serve it on a plate

These top chefs shared how lesser known European dishes and ingredients have inspired their own work

Child refugees: We don’t need history to tell us how to respond to this crisis

The current batch of refugee children travelling across Europe desperate to escape unimaginable horrors at home prompt chilling echoes of Jewish youngsters arriving in the UK in the late 1930s

Brexit is about the rich Rees-Moggs of Britain, not anyone else

To get to the dark heart of Brexit, ask who benefits? The tiny cabal who might conceivably prosper from Brexit tell you exactly why we must continue to resist it.

This is why the prognosis is now critical for our NHS

If you want to know what’s going wrong in the NHS don’t listen to MPs, just follow the money

The new Cold War: In Trump’s warped mind, the EU is a rival to be destroyed

The shifting sands of geopolitics has seen a frost descend on US-EU relations. But if we are to have a new Cold War - between Trump and Europe – he will lose

This is the email that will make the Lords battle a Hard Brexit

I am a peer in the House of Lords preparing to fight Article 50

Will Ted Malloch be Trump’s anti-EU ambassador in Brussels?

Vanquisher of the Soviet Union, Thatcher’s “genius” or Europe’s best bullshitter? Whichever he is, Ted Malloch could soon be the EU’s worst nightmare.

Assessing the talent in the House of Commons (on both sides of the Brexit debate)

Romanticism always outshines stoicism, but the cavaliers left a terrible mess behind, says Michael White

Hate is easy, beguiling and powerful... but we can stop it

We are living in an era when hate seems to be in the ascendency, says Eddie Izzard. But there is a way to fight back

Trending

E-Edition

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter