What I’ve learned so far, in Britain’s debate about Brexit is… absolutely nothing
This is a confessional, not an evidence-based argument. If you want one of those go look elsewhere — and good luck in your quest. Because I don’t think there even is an evidence-based argument to be had. How do you argue about things that haven’t happened yet?
All there is is a culture clash. Claim and counter-claim are amounting to nothing but noise in the lead-up to June 23 when Britain decides whether or not to remain a member of the European Community.
More than during any of the seven General Elections I have voted in, feelings — not facts — are prevailing. It really does seem to be a case of choosing your tribe then pulling a mixture of convenient factoids, lies and emotive tropes out of the bag and lobbing them over the wire at the other side. Day in, day out. To no avail.
Here’s one I deployed, some time before the war…er, official campaign began;
It was the header I chose for this article, back when I thought we might be able to rely on intelligent leadership, compelling arguments and lots of data to win the case for staying in. Because that’s what I want to do. And that won’t change.
But something quite distressing has emerged in the early stages of the campaign. It’s the schism in British society that separates the smug liberal intelligentsia (of which I class myself a middlebrow hanger-on) and the naturally conservative older and less educated milieu who have long been victims of changes they don’t like. Globalisation has changed things up and left large swathes of the population afraid, resentful, angry and exposed to even more change. But no one listened to them.
For so long they have been told by us progressive liberal types that they’re wrong to feel as they feel about so many things that their patience has snapped. The EU referendum gives them a chance to be heard, maybe even for the first time since they last got to vote for Margaret Thatcher and her handbag.
It doesn’t much matter that what they think is largely founded on sentimental horseshit, the fact is that what they think might actually now make a difference to the future of the country for the first time in ever.
Forget the to-ing and fro-ing of dubious statistics about the economic costs of Brexit, the likelihood of successfully negotiating this or that new trade deal, the cost-benefits or otherwise of mass immigration. Forget even the row about whether or not EU membership allows us to prevent terrorists entering Britain from the Schengen Area. These things are all massive red herrings in the campaign. They are convenient shields behind which we all hide to legitimise our prejudices.
One one side there’s people like me and on the other side there’s people like ‘June’ and ‘Roy’ (I won’t use real names, but they’re real people I’ve encountered online). On the surface we’re functioning members of the same society. Underneath we’re visiting Earth from different planets.
Crucially — and sadly — we have no respect for one another. I think they are slow-witted, credulous and concealing a nasty streak of primitive reptilian brain reflex dogma. They think I’m a gullible idealist, dancing to the tune of evil new world order masters, a traitor, a defeatist and just as stupid as I think they are.
For a while I tried to reason with them but it didn’t last for long. They did not understand the difference between a sentimental nationalist aphorism and a nugget of factual information offered up for interpretation. It could literally be this bad:
Me: yes but x didn’t happen until 1998 — look it up
June: wrong you delibretly post wrong #TakeControl #Brexit #LeaveEU
So instead I have become aggressively one-upping, but in that cynical way that smart people sometimes use to provoke the worst sentiments to surface in their opponents.
I enjoy it when my logical or factual coup de grace to a particularly risible line of reasoning provokes a stream of insult and expletives from a typical ‘Roy’ or ‘June’. I can then gleefully share it with all my followers, adding a pithy “Stay classy, #Brexit supporters.” I can ridicule them all day long in this way. They come out of their corner, attacking my glove with their chin — what’s a guy to do?
It’s an ugly side of me. And venting it gives me a lot of satisfaction because my contempt for these ‘knuckle-dragging simpletons’ knows no bounds. But why do I feel and act in this way? The same way in which they have also been treated by our political leaders too, for ages. Ignoring their concerns, labelling them as ‘racists’ when they feel marginalised in their own communities, not explaining to them how economically exposing globalisation is to many ordinary people, automatically expecting them to share in our liberal enthusiasm about LGBQT empowerment, same-sex marriage, loads of things that have nothing to do with Europe — the list of progressive stuff that means nothing but uncomfortable or weird change to them is endless. Long may these changes continue.
The reason I am so rude to, and about, them is partly because really we’re the same.
We’re all just afraid.
They’re afraid of being swamped by strange people and being influenced by decisions made in a place they don’t understand, by people they’ve never heard of and never saw mentioned on a polling card.
I am afraid of their tub-thumping pride, nationalist rhetoric and hostility to people not like them even more than I’m afraid of Donald Trump’s maniacal pronouncements about a wall to keep Mexicans out. I am especially afraid because these people are hell bent on voting in a couple of months. Right where I live. Just one of their votes cancels out the impact of mine. Because that’s how it works in an A-B referendum. There’s no tactical voting option.
In a General Election we all disagree about how we want things to be approached but we generally all want pretty similar outcomes. But these people want Britain to be ‘great’ again and the way I see it, Britain was last ‘great’ when it was mass-murdering Indians during the Raj, sending gunboats all over the world, jailing gay people and singing about how far it is to Tipperary.
Imperfect though it is, for these purposes, I happened across this fluffy, new-agey meme and it kind of sums up the two sides as I see them.
With its harshness, exaltation of pride, desire for separation from our neigbours, fear of incomers and romantic backward-gazing eye on an imagined previous state of centre-stage utopian world influence, I see the Brexit movement as wanting a country I wouldn’t choose to live in. And looking like they might just have a chance of getting it.
So it’s an incendiary mix. Their passion. My snobbishness. Our mutually exclusive agendas and polarised fears.
Of the 100 or so online encounters I’ve had with Brexit people since the campaign kicked off I have only met two who advanced their arguments, practically, without resorting to sentimental language. That also suggests to me that a massive majority of voters on the #VoteLeave side in this referendum have no idea what they really want. Apart from something a bit like something that one of their political leaders said about something or other to do with being like that country or maybe another country, anyway, something like that. Because it’s better than being slaves, yolked to our European neighbours.
That really is the typical standard of Twitter discourse on the Brexit side. While us liberals poke fun — because it’s so easy to — and fret about the rise of the new authoritarian right that mostly doesn’t even know it’s called that.
I have huge reserves of contempt and that leaves plenty of room to turn my nose up at the #StrongerIn side too, because I feel let down by its leadership.
I put myself in the shoes of a Brexiter and see nothing to persuade me to stay, no vision or even any attempt to explain the basics about how the EU actually works.
Little, but significant, things. Like the fact of EU legislation having to be enacted by sovereign member state parliaments that each country’s citizens democratically elected. Or that the European Court of Human Rights isn’t part of the EU. Things most people seem not to realise.
Instead, yesterday we were treated to the Chancellor of the Exchequer presenting Treasury figures that made Brexit sound so catastrophic it was implausible even to me. It was actually like a parody of ‘Project Fear’ (as #VoteLeave describe the #StrongerIn campaign). Pathetic, uninspiring, a comically predictable performance from a man whose forecasts are legendarily wrong (I just couldn’t even bring myself to share it, as I am wont to do with almost everything else that promotes a #StrongerIn argument).
So I have now abandoned my desperate search for facts that will enable me to move out of my own sentiment-rooted position and onto the front foot with some serious ammunition.
Instead, I’ll just content myself with pouring scorn on the ignorant, poorly informed, slightly barking Junes and Roys promulgating their visions of Britain sailing in Elizabethan splendour on silver seas.
And just hope that this poem by WB Yeats doesn’t prove as prescient as it feels right now.