One year on
A few days after the EU Referendum, a newspaper had a poll on the cover. It put support for Independence at 59%. Other polls confirmed the trend and many of my no-voting friends were open minded. By September, before May became a Victorian meme, the wave had subsided but ended at a higher level. By March, First Minister Sturgeon seemed to be in poll position to achieve independence. The rest is history, but it shows how social media can go overboard with generalizations and narratives. And how we desire this state of affairs.
Why do people buy into the Tory England, Liberal Scotland narrative? Why did so many assume Theresa May’s dominance meant a mean, spoiled, angry little England? Moreover, why did so many pro-europeans not only buy it but internalized and relished this? It’s not because of disloyalty, hatred, and sneering. Europeans love Britain as much as anybody. It’s because it reflects our own moral foundations. It speaks to many people, who feel distant and demeaned. Treated like pariahs in real life, cowed on social media. When your friends are complacent about your (or other immigrant) treatment, supporting independence is asserting cherished values and moral grounding. On a factual level, we know these generalizations is half-truth, routinely debunked by social research. But no amount of social research can debunk collective experience. As Better Together can attest. This moral confirmation also “worked” with the Brexit debate. “Global Britain” and “Free Trading Nation” worked because it was proactive. An EU-ASEAN deal means more prosperity and opportunity for the average Britisher. Easier life for UK business. But some don’t see it that way. For many, “Global Britain” is self respect. Where the UK can exercise it’s own actions with total discretion and “proper” relationships. Being a good neighbor rather than a surly lodger. “Free Trading Nation” means actions that cut through the BS. Meanwhile, Single Market advocates can sound like disgruntled policy gurus or honors-teachers tired of teaching special ed at an overstretched school.
It’s now been a year since June 23rd, rereading the old postscripts feels eerie. For an event that happened only a year ago, it feels like decades have passed by. While 2016 proved narrative power, 2017 is proving it’s limits. Take the rape clause. The “rape clause” proved Scottish Conservatism’s policy paucity and Ruth Davidson’s ultimate weakness at defending Whitehall policy. While her party didn’t hit 30%, she still won 13 seats and 28% of the vote. In March, Nicola Sturgeon was bruised but unstoppable. With no capable opposition and tight polls, a yes vote was a nettle to be grasped. She’s not out, but still down. Both don’t compare to Theresa May. Britain’s 2nd female Prime Minister inspired universal fables. At first, she was Nanny Britannia. A break from casual David Cameron. A fun, frivolous ruler who never grasped the gravity of his actions. She became Queen Anglia. Inspiring hot takes that cursed her english nationalism, callouss treatment towards European citizens, and shitty capitalism. Now she’s nothing. Nobody writes anything about her. Tomorrow’s narratives will be written the day after the next person comes in.
Perhaps moral stories and narrative journalism isn’t very healthy. Sticking to the facts is boring, unrewarding, and facile. But it’s also factual. People should think of that before hot takes to jutsify our morality.