We need to talk about our feelings: five emotional arguments I’m going to start making about Brexit
Last weekend saw a blizzard of all-out-post-Brexit-Twitter-craziness following several papers’ parsings of a Government procurement exercise for new passports and Simon Heffer’s resuscitation of Peter Hitchens’ call to reintroduce Imperial measurements. This on top of a YouGov poll showing the popularity of the death penalty, caning schoolchildren and incandescent lightbulbs among a significant group of Leave voters.
Pro-Remain commentators, professional and amateur, lined up to ask the traditional question: “How stupid are these people?” But I want to ask a different question: why does it bother us so much? Because our country has bigger problems think about than the colour of passports? Sure. But that’s not really it. Our response is an emotional response born out of a feeling that people with a different set of values are wrecking our country — dragging us backwards to a past we don’t want to revisit.
Everybody agrees that the Remain campaign sucked. And actually, I don’t just mean the politicians who ran the campaign, but the collective failure of all of us who wanted to stay in the EU to explain why. How many of us spent the weeks after 24 June feeling devastated? Like we’d lost something dear to us. Like something we thought was good about our country had been a lie the whole time. Yet that raw emotion never came out during the campaign. While the Brexiteers were harnessing a desire to “take back control,” the Remain arguments (and counterarguments) were basically rational: think about the economic impact; remember the geopolitical advantages; look at this evidence; listen to these experts.
The Brexiteers exploited, and continue to exploit, an emotional fault line between those who see the past as something to return to, and those who don’t. Of course, people voted Leave for a whole range of reasons, but this fault line is what separates most core Remainers from the hard Brexiteers who are now driving the policy agenda. We will never “come together as a nation” until we at least acknowledge the fault line, and its emotional nature.
For Remainers, this means we need to argue differently. We need to ease off telling Brexiteers how stupid they’re being. Why? Because it reinforces their preconception that this is an argument between ordinary decent people (them) and snobbish elites (us). If we come over as bullies or babies who need, respectively, to be resisted or ignored we destroy any possibility of retreat or compromise — even from the nicest Leave voters with the best intentions.
It’s time to engage the Leave voters as adults. To articulate not just the objective reasons behind our positions, but the subjective things we value. That’s why I’ve made a list of things I’m going to start saying more when I talk to Leave voters. Each of them has a basis in evidence, but rather than debate facts I’m going to focus on explaining how my feelings about each issue informs the way I think our future post-Brexit. Here goes:
1. Empire was bad. The British Empire is an important part of our history; it shaped the world as we know it. But the practice of subjugating other nations by force was morally wrong. That’s why the colonies eventually forced/negotiated their independence. If we want to be an international trading power again, it has to be on the basis of interdependent relationships with other countries. When we talk about our past imperial glory it makes us look like selfish has-beens who aren’t fit to deal with serious modern nations. It makes me ashamed to be British, not proud.
2. My grandparents’ generation were heroes, and we need to honour their real legacy. Having said I’m not proud of the Empire, I’m very proud that my grandparents and their generation fought and defeated Hitler. Their generation also built the NHS and the welfare state. That, by the way, is what “moving on” looks like — building something constructive, not tearing something down. It makes me angry when people like Farage and his Tory mates invoke the memory of the War as if they’d fought in it themselves, and then tell us that the NHS is unaffordable.
3. I like being European. Which is handy because, as a resident of the UK, I live in Europe. While our grandparents were building a nation fit for heroes, their French and German contemporaries decided (with unprecedented grace and magnanimity) to put old enmities behind them and build a peace based on partnership and cooperation. That makes me proud to be European; it makes me proud to be human. If you think our island should have a different legal relationship with the continent, that’s OK, let’s talk about it — when you start talking gleefully about blue passports you’re telling me and at least 16.1 million other British people to reject part of our identity that we really value.
4. I am happier with Britain in 2017 than I would have been in 1957. I’m prepared to take Leave voters (most of them) at their word when they put forward concerns about the pace and shape of social change as not being motivated by racism/sexism/homophobia. But the idea of turning the social attitudes clock back even 30 years horrifies me. Let’s hear a bit more confidence in the Britain we have now.
5. Please, give our generation a break*. Like our grandparents’ generation most of us under-40s support the idea of intergenerational reciprocity. We don’t want to steal your pension. We think you should have dignity — and even fun — in old age. But can we please just acknowledge that when it comes to scrapping the metric system, losing the right to work or study in the EU, and spoiling for a war with Spain, today’s young people could be living with the consequences for a very long time.
That’s my top-five. Maybe others can add to the list. Hopefully any Leave voters reading this will see that my point isn’t to dismiss your feelings — it’s just to ask you to listen to the feelings of Remainers. Not because we think we’re better than you, or that we have a monopoly on the truth, but because we have a set of values based in the present and the future rather than the past. We don’t want to see our country, and its relationship with the world, remade in the image of a past that we’re ambivalent about. And we don’t think that the referendum result was a mandate for that.
Obviously, it’s not all about the tone of the argument. Brexit highlighted some serious policy issues that had been ignored for too long: our unbalanced economy and our ailing democratic system to name but two. However, the Brexiteers don’t leave their emotions at the door, and neither should Remainers. If we’re going to influence the post-Brexit settlement at all, we need to stop rehashing the referendum debate and start making a positive case for the values we want to inform a future settlement.
How can we do this? Well the first step is to make your own list of things you want to tell Leave voters. Then, next time you want to correct someone’s facts or logic on social media, maybe tell them how you feel instead. Maybe write to your MP — or even better go along to their surgery and actually speak to them. If you’re active in a political party think about what you’re saying to people on the doorstep or at meetings. And above all, find a way of talking about this with the Leave voters you know in your personal life — be it friends, colleagues or relatives.
The whole debate right now is pretty demoralising, but if we want to stop the extremists who’ve taken over the Brexit agenda, we need to put in the hard yards. Or is it furlongs?
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*I know plenty of older people who voted Remain and don’t like being lumped in with the rest of their generation, which is fair enough. Sooner we can end this battle-of-generations nonsense the better.