Owen Jones’ pilgrimage to Brexitland tell us nothing new about Leave voters, but gives us another depressing insight into the sanctimonious mindset of an establishment Remainer
I have no great love or respect for Owen Jones. The Guardian’s sanctimonious boy wonder once tried to insult me by sneeringly describing me as a “self-described journalist” and a “patently dishonest man” for reporting fairly and accurately on an article which he himself had written (my, he gets upset when his left wing sanctimony and arrogance is pointed out to him), and his recent flouncing away from social media in response to receiving negative feedback after criticising Jeremy Corbyn is only the latest proof that when it comes to insults and ad hominem attacks, Owen Jones can dish it out but just can’t take it.
Therefore I now usually spend most of my time ignoring Owen Jones, but his current series of articles in the Guardian – under the banner of “Brexitland”, whereby the author trudges around the United Kingdom desperately trying to understand why people didn’t believe the Remain campaign’s lies, exaggerations and catastrophisations of Brexit and vote to remain in the EU – is too good to avoid at least passing comment.
The latest instalment takes Owen Jones to Fareham in Hampshire, which as Owen Jones solemnly informs us, somehow voted Leave despite being a wealthy town with a high proportion of homeowners. This, Jones suggests, is some kind of devastating rebuttal to the idea that only poor, disenfranchised working class people voted for Brexit – which nobody serious has ever claimed, other than with the proviso that it is a general trend and not a cast-iron rule.
Under the illusion that he is contributing something original and worth hearing to the discussion, Jones crows:
As elsewhere, the result defied any predefined class dynamic and confounded the stereotypes. While Fareham is cast as part of an anti-establishment vanguard, Tower Hamlets – which has prevalent child poverty and two-thirds of whose residents voted for remain – is subsumed into the caricature of a pampered liberal elite. Most working-class Britons under 35 opted for remain, while most middle-class people over 65 voted for leave. Most working-class people who are white went for leave, most working-class people from ethnic minorities went for remain. Consider that the next time the Brexit press imposes its simplistic narrative on a complicated reality. Applying their logic, black supermarket workers and young apprentices form part of the privileged remoaner elite.
Of course, the only thing this really proves is that Owen Jones failed to define the establishment properly (ironic, given the title of his second book), and constructed a straw man which would be most easily knocked down. Nobody is suggesting that supermarket workers or young apprentices form part of the pro-EU elite.
While the push to get the Leave vote over 50 percent was driven significantly by working class dissatisfaction with their economic and social circumstances – and with the political status quo – many working class people still voted Remain. They have free will, after all, and were every bit as vulnerable to the Remain campaign’s apocalyptic warnings and false assurances about the EU as any other voter. Owen Jones hasn’t somehow confounded the standard narratives around Brexit by finding a pocket of relatively wealthy people in Fareham who voted Leave, just as he has not achieved the impossible by identifying some working class people who voted Remain. The entire exercise is simply a cynical vehicle for Jones to trot out the standard self-exculpatory lines Remainers use when trying to rationalise their defeat (The Brexit bus! What about £350 million for Our NHS!)
The only thing that Owen Jones’ tour of Brexitland is really good for is getting another insight into the workings of the Remainer mind. This anecdote is particularly telling:
The divisions here mirror those in other affluent communities. Sometimes disagreement is amicable, often not. Henry Palk, 79, was polishing windows that were once plastered with remain posters. He took me into his extraordinary wood-beamed 14-room house, which dates back to 1294. “Hitler would feel quite comfortable here with a lot of the residents,” he said irascibly. Palk says he has fallen out with some of his neighbours, not to mention a leave-supporting relative. His cousin telephoned each week, but when they spoke the Sunday after the referendum, that arrangement came to an end. Palk told him: “I’m sick of you, and I never want to hear from you again.” Then he hung up.
How many times has that scene played out in the months leading up to, and following, the EU referendum? And how many times has the person severing contact been a Brexiteer? I would venture that the answer is “rarely, if ever”. As a general rule, Brexiteers (by virtue of having to live with a status quo they despised, often for years) are more tolerant of opposing viewpoints and capable of hearing dissenting opinions about Britain’s place in the EU. A higher proportion of Remainers, by contrast, have almost zero ability to handle dissent or see the goodness in a person with a legitimate disagreement.
As a result of my campaigning during the referendum, I have personally been de-friended and told to do various X-rated things to myself by a number of people online, while at one particularly memorable dinner party the female guest seated to my right physically picked up her chair and moved it a couple of inches further away from me when she found out that I voted for Brexit (despite knowing nothing else about me or my motivations).
And so it is natural that Owen Jones finds someone on his travels who feels justified and morally superior for severing contact with a former acquaintance (a family member, in this case) because they disagreed over Brexit – apparently the country is brimming with such people on the Remain side.
Palk’s words, “I’m sick of you, and I never want to hear from you again”, basically sum up the feelings of “liberal”, metro-leftist, pro-EU, establishment Britain towards those dared to defy their better judgment. As pampered members of the Edwardian aristocracy treated their domestic servants, Remainers often looked with a kind and indulgent eye on their fellow citizens so long as they kept their mouths shut and didn’t rock the boat, but became full of horror and revulsion when they dared to speak for themselves. Now Brexiteers are viewed as being every bit as “deplorable” as those Americans whose dissatisfaction with the status quo led them to vote for Donald Trump (a highly unfair comparison), despite the self-interested attempts to discern their motivations by people like Owen Jones.
The likes of Fareham seen through a media lens offer certainty, but in truth the lines blur here as elsewhere. It suits the media barons to portray Britain’s divide as being between a patronisingly depicted working class and a privileged layer of snobs. But that hardly facilitates the intelligent discussion we now need. Of course the referendum result must be respected. But attempts to shut down any scrutiny, let alone dissent about a hard Tory Brexit, have to be resisted.
The “intelligent discussion we now need”? Like perpetrating the insulting myth that we are only leaving the EU because the most gullible amongst us were tricked into voting against our own interests by a patently false promise scrawled on the side of a bus, while the honest and upstanding Remain campaign high-handedly dealt only in truth and never once descended to the gutter?
Even Jones’ own forays into Brexitland reveal the comforting tale Remainers tell themselves about Evil Brexiteers and their Bus of Lies to be a – well, a lie:
Ian Page, 72, is another lifetime Tory voter, save for a brief dalliance with New Labour. He worked in the computer and electronics industry before retirement and voted leave. “Distrust of Brussels,” he says. “I had no problem with immigration, it didn’t bother me at all.” Indeed, he resented the “very negative” immigration policies offered by the leavers. But he did it and he is upbeat. “I don’t have any fears about not getting a deal,” he tells me. “I think Europe needs us more than we need them.”
They were lied to like the rest of us. Never forget the sheer deceit of a leave campaign that promised £350m a week extra for the NHS. But I encounter few complaints of betrayal. Tony Coves, a 76-year-old former chartered loss adjuster at Lloyd’s, recalls the ads on the side of the leave bus: “That was a load of nonsense, we knew that. We still voted for it.”
The only ones who took the NHS-worshipping Vote Leave battle bus seriously are the Remainers who seem to think that it constitutes smoking gun evidence that the EU referendum was somehow unfair and stacked against them rather than hideously weighted in their own favour, as it was in reality. Well, I take the moronic Brexit bus and raise the Remain campaign a lying prime minister who abused his office and leveraged the full might of the state in an effort to get his way. And if you think that a deceptive bus slogan promoted by a team of obvious charlatans is somehow worse than our head of government debasing himself and his office then we really can’t have a fruitful discussion, because you are not engaged in a legitimate cognitive process.
And why this continual belief that scrutiny and dissent about Brexit are being shut down? Is Hilary Benn not given free reign to indulge in any partisan whim he pleases as chair of the parliamentary Exiting the EU Committee? Are the establishment not still overwhelmingly personally in favour of remaining in the EU, even if those who are elected politicians have made peace with the result as a matter of political survival? Are the arts and creative industries, which do so much to influence our culture, almost lockstep in support of the European Union? Are tremulous, wobbly-lipped Remainers not given every opportunity to sweat their insecurities about looming fascism on every news bulletin and every edition of BBC Question Time? Show me where dissent is being suppressed, Owen, and I shall be very grateful.
Ultimately, Owen Jones can trudge from Lands End to John O’Groats trying to understand Brexit, but he would do far better to stand still and examine his own heart. At one time, his more sincere left-wing principles led Jones in the same direction as the late Tony Benn – opposed to the EU either for principled democratic reasons, or perhaps more likely out of self-interested fear that EU membership would thwart the imposition of Utopian left-wing policies in Britain. The tiresome phrase “Tory Brexit” originated from the perceptive idea (shared by Owen Jones and his onetime idol Jeremy Corbyn) that Brexit is not a bad thing in itself, and that the only thing bad for the British Left would be Brexit purely on perceived Tory terms.
What happened to the Owen Jones who looked at the European Union with a critical eye, saw it for what it really was and came close to supporting Brexit? What happened to the Owen Jones who saw the EU’s treatment of Greece during the euro crisis and realised how terminally unreformable and intransigent an organisation the EU really is, and how lethal to healthy nation state democracy? The answer is as clear as it is damning – that eurosceptic version of Owen Jones realised which side of his bread is buttered, and meekly got in line with the pro-EU establishment’s amen chorus, suppressing any doubts about the EU and cheering for a Remain vote which would have put the interests of the political class over Labour’s supposed working class base.
A pilgrimage through Brexitland will tell you nothing new about working and middle class attitudes toward Brexit and the EU. But it will tell you everything about the public’s attitude toward people from the political elite – politicians, journalists and commentators alike – who profess to respect and serve them only to second-guess their judgment on key issues like Britain’s place in the EU.
And surprisingly, it doesn’t matter whether you are a working class denizen of Tower Hamlets or a wealthy homeowner in Hampshire – having Owen Jones turn up on your doorstep to study you and write about your vote in the EU referendum as though it were a symptom of some pathological disease is pointless, insulting and utterly redundant.
Talking about “Brexitland” makes it sound as though those enclaves of the United Kingdom which dared to vote for secession from the European Union are somehow foreign and alien, and that their inhabitants require analysis and interpretation to be understandable to the majority. This is still very much the attitude of the pro-EU, pseudo-liberal media. But they, and Owen Jones, would do well to reflect on the fact that 52 is greater than 48. They are the minority. Their worldview was repudiated, quite forcefully, by many of the people they claim should benefit from it the most. Perhaps it might be worth reflecting on why that was, and on the failures and errors in their own thinking.
Because if anything, journalists should be making enquiring voyages deep into the heart of “euroland” to understand what could possibly motivate such a large minority of Britons to vote to remain in such a deeply unattractive union when 52 percent of their countrymen knew better.
Top Image: Madeleina Kay
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