Brexit: Why we need to stop this latest form of identity politics
20:50 29 December 2016
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