How Not To Talk To Brexiteers

James Obrien Brexit Trump Fascism Hysteria

If Remainers truly want to reverse or soften Brexit, they should spend less time flaunting their own enlightenment and more time engaging with the valid concerns of Brexiteers

I am continually astonished that otherwise intelligent, politically astute Remainers repeatedly choose the catharsis of insult, showing off to their peers and “talking down” to their opponents over engaging with wavering Brexiteers on terms which might produce some kind of compromise, if not a total change of heart and mind.

Say what you want amongst yourselves, Remainers, in university lecture halls or March for Europe demonstrations, but speaking and acting in public as though the Brexit vote was motivated primarily by ignorance or xenophobia is a surefire way to harden opinions and fail to convince potentially winnable Leave voters. Besides the fact that such a blanket statement is patently untrue, how many political arguments are won (permanently) by the side which mocks and taunts their opponent?

In order to change hearts and minds in debate, one must find a common frame of reference or (where that is genuinely impossible) at least feign to understand and sympathise with the underlying motivations of the opposing side. Tell somebody that you hate them and everything they stand for and you have permanently destroyed any chance of building the rapport needed for persuasion. But tell someone that while you understand their deepest motivations yours is the better path to satisfying them and maybe you have a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, so much of political debate is now little more than preening and performing for one’s own side rather than genuine attempts to inspire or change minds. I am guilty of this myself at times, having written pieces that I know will be eagerly picked up and shared by my “Amen corner” of fellow conservatives, libertarians and Brexiteers. But this is inreach, not outreach. And the losing side cannot indulge forever at inreach as a substitute for doing the harder work of talking to those who disagree. This approach is guaranteed to shrink your base to a diminishing band of Ultras rather than grow the broad – in this case, huge – coalition that would be required to overturn the EU referendum result.

While facts are important, emotion plays a big role when it comes to Brexit (on both sides). And at the risk of opening myself up to public ridicule, I will share some of the non-factual claims and actions which rub me (and at least some other Brexiteers) up the wrong way, and immediately make me less receptive to Remainer arguments. I do this as a public service, and because I am getting really tired of encountering the same insults, straw men and non sequiturs in my social media interactions with Remainers.

I don’t claim to be the archetypal Brexiteer, but hopefully some of what I say may be generally applicable and fall on receptive ears. So here goes.

First of all, as with other Brexiteers I am quite patriotic. That is not to suggest that many decent Remainers are lacking in patriotism. But it cannot be denied that there is a coven of hardcore anti-patriots harboured within the Remain community, people who actively dislike or (at best) are ambivalent about the nation state in general and the United Kingdom in particular.

For pity’s sake, stop giving these people the microphone. And take the conch away from AC Grayling, JK Rowling and Ian Dunt while you’re at it. I readily concede that true patriotism and love of country goes much deeper than jingoistic flag waving – the national anthem NFL protests in America, whilst I personally disagree with them, show that it is possible to make a calculated snub of certain national symbols while remaining more true to the country’s founding values than any shallow populist. But if you think that you are going to persuade Brexiteers by painting a negative or pessimistic vision of Britain then you are sorely mistaken.

Brexiteers believe – quite rightly – that Britain is a great, powerful and influential country, and while we personally may have played no part in making it so we are nonetheless proud to be part of this cultural (not racial) heritage. It is not that Britain “punches above its weight” in the world, to use that tiresome phrase surely coined by the pessimistic days of 1970s national decline. On the contrary, we punch exactly in line with our weight given that we have the world’s sixth largest economy, second most deployable military, nuclear power status and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, not to mention our unmatched contributions to culture, commerce, arts and science.

So talking about Britain as a “small” country in terms of geopolitical power not only flies in the face of objective reality, it actively raises the hackles of many Brexiteers who are justifiably proud of our country’s status. You can disagree as to whether this pride is justified, but descend into mockery and you will not get a hearing from many Brexiteers, nor deserve one. Shrieking that the UK cannot survive outside the EU is not a smart debate tactic. If your parents continually told you that you were useless and totally unable to succeed on your own in the world without their smothering helicopter parenting, would you stay living in their basement forever or become even more determined to move out and prove them wrong?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you cannot make a compelling argument that Britain will be economically or diplomatically harmed by leaving the EU – indeed, this staunchly eurosceptic blog has repeatedly warned that Brexit done wrong could be calamitous. But far better to make the argument in terms of future growth and prosperity at risk rather than paint a picture of a small, helpless Britain adrift in the world, buffeted by “great powers” like Malaysia or Mexico. It’s really annoying.

Then there is the tedious “Open vs Closed” talking point, voiced endlessly since the referendum result came in. It goes something like “we voted Remain because we are open-minded, forward-looking and ambitious while you voted Leave because you are closed-minded, backward-looking, insular and fearful of the future”. Stop for a moment and think about how you would feel if somebody tried to win you over by condescending to you in this manner.

I am an ardent Brexiteer, but like many of us I speak a foreign language, am married to a foreign-born citizen and have travelled and worked abroad. I read the Economist, for heaven’s sake. There are doubtless many unsavoury words which could be thrown at me with some justification, but “closed-minded” and “ignorant” are probably not on the list. If your post-mortem analysis of the EU referendum is telling you that Brexit appealed exclusively to a group of people who are paranoid, stupid, vaguely racist and fearful of the future then your analysis probably needs fine-tuning more than my values.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about education. Yes, a majority of people with formal higher education voted to Remain. But aside from academia’s general left-ish bias and desire to maintain current systems and sources of funding, this is a youth effect as much as an education effect – far fewer people from older generations went to university. Are these people not clever enough to understand geopolitics, unlike the sagacious newly-minted gender studies graduate? Some of my best friends from home have become smarter and more well-rounded than me, and I went to university while they cracked on with work. So enough sanctimony about being smarter and better-informed, please. I can count the number of Remainers I have interacted with who possess a basic understanding of the EU and its institutions on two hands, with fingers to spare.

Next, stop assuming that Brexiteers mean something other than the words which come out of their mouths. If they complain that mass immigration is straining local services and infrastructure or changing the nature of their communities, then uncomfortable as it may be for you to accept, that is probably what they mean. It is not code for “we want massive increases in taxation to deliver gold-plated public services” or “stop unscrupulous businesses from undercutting the minimum wage”.

If you are a more economically successful Remainer, try to check your “wealth privilege” (to use the current stupid social justice terminology). People in poorer or more suburban communities often have quite a different experience of large-scale immigration than city slickers, who tend to see only benefits and no costs. If you want to make traction with those Brexiteers for whom immigration is a major issue then some empathy will be required, even if deep inside you feel like you are palling around with Hitler.

Next, let moderate or more thoughtful Remainers finish speaking before jumping down their throats. There are probably twenty other things which I could say about Brexit which might add some nuance to my own views and enrich the broader debate slightly, but I am never going to say them because they can be so easily misinterpreted, made to sound bad or otherwise used as a weapon against me and my side. The national debate would benefit from hearing some of these things, but if talking openly about doubt, provisos and exceptions is going to be used by short-term charlatans lacking the patience to reel in the big fish then they will never see the light of day. Again, the short-term urge to perform and score easy points undermines the long-term goal of changing minds.

Finally, be more honest and open about your own beliefs. If you are a closet euro-federalist, probably better to just come out and say so at this point. Half of the antipathy and resistance to the European Union in Britain is borne of the fact that all these years of steadily-deepening integration have taken place under furious protestations from the ruling class that anything significant was happening at all. You will never get what you want (or be able to properly enjoy it if you do) through deception, so be honest about your vision for a federal Europe and try to win people over on the merits.

But even if you are not a beady-eyed euro-federalist with EU flag pyjamas as I once was (well, an EU polo shirt and lapel pin at least) you should still make your case honestly and positively. As Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn can attest, people respond warmly to positive messages and coherent narratives, while looking sceptically on constant fearmongering and haphazard messaging. People grudgingly respect Jeremy Corbyn because he says what he actually believes and doesn’t moderate his message (much) for short-term political expediency. Be like Jezza.

Don’t be like all those pro-EU campaigners and politicians, trotting out the same tired catchphrases about needing to cooperate with other countries or allowing the doe-eyed youth to “live, work and love in Europe”. Newsflash: Brexiteers know that international cooperation is important, they just don’t see why Britain necessarily needs the EU to facilitate this for us when even small countries like Norway and Switzerland are outside political union, and while other continents and parts of the world have conspicuously not followed our lead in setting up supranational governments of their own. If the EU model of cooperation is so great, show off that superior education of yours by telling us why. Best use lots of pictures, though, because us Brexiteers are a bit thick.

But if (as I sneakingly suspect is more likely) deep down you also believe that the EU is ill-designed, dysfuntional, furiously resistant to change and unnecessary for most international cooperation outside the realm of trade, then come clean and say that, too. We will respect these concessions to reality far more than if you just keep on humming Ode to Joy and telling us that Brussels is the only reason our parents were not annihilated in a nuclear war.

So in summary, if you want to have a fruitful discussion with a Brexiteer instead of just retweeting AC Grayling and feeling smug, remember these simple tips:

Acknowledge the UK’s genuine strengths and do not denigrate patriotism.

Stop talking about the “Open vs Closed” dichotomy, as though Remainers represent the apotheosis of human enlightenment and Brexiteers the dismal nadir. It’s really, really annoying. Talk about “Somewheres vs Anywheres” if you must, because that at least is actually rooted in reality and can spawn a useful debate.

Stop banging on about education as though a 2:2 degree in a soft subject at an unremarkable university makes you Henry Kissinger and uniquely qualified to hold forth on matters of statecraft and diplomacy. It doesn’t. And when evidently simple people start prancing around as though they are Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla combined, by sole virtue of the fact that they voted with the Remain herd, it can rapidly become quite tedious. Some very smart people voted to remain in the EU, but so did some complete and utter cretins.

Stop trying to divine secret hidden motives in what Brexiteers say, and take them at their word. Their concerns about sovereignty are not actually an inchoate cry for a new NHS tax, or any other left-wing pipe dream.

If you encounter a Brexiteer with whom you think you might have a productive dialogue, engage with them in good faith. Don’t just mine your exchange for nuggets of Brexiteer stupidity to titillate your Twitter followers.

And finally, be honest about your own beliefs. If you want a United States of Europe, just own your euro-federalism and wear it with pride. If you have a more nuanced position, stop feeling like you have to pretend that the European Union represents everything that’s good in the world as though this will do anything other than attract bovine applause from other Remainers.

I probably should not be offering these words of advice. Indeed, it is very much in my short-term interest to see Remainers carry on exactly as many of them have been doing since the referendum result was announced last year – it makes you look shrill and hysterical, and only hardens many Brexiteers in their convictions.

But I also have a longer-term interest in living in a country where the standard of political discourse is set a few levels higher than two monkeys throwing faeces at each other, and good (or at least productive) political debate requires at least some degree of empathy for the other side’s position. In this spirit, I have tried to explain a little bit of what makes some Brexiteers tick, and what downright ticks us off. You can laugh at this information and ignore it, or you can use it to improve the quality and tenor of your arguments so that we don’t just keep shouting the same talking points at each other ad nauseam.

Remainers, the choice is yours.


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24 thoughts on “How Not To Talk To Brexiteers

  1. voteNixon (@votenixon72) October 7, 2017 / 8:36 AM

    Very nicely put. I don’t live in the UK at the moment so my IRL interaction with people in this debate is somewhat limited but the majority of Remainers I do engage with show very similar aspects of argument to the ones you list.

    Their opening gambit (and often only) is always immigration.

    When I tell them I’m a classical liberal who favours total open borders they are often cannot engage much further. Then when I list the things I dislike about the EU – the Precautionary Principle, double standards on deficits and state aid, inability to solve any recent political crisis, the racist nature of the Customs Union – they agree with me on every point….yet still won’t acknowledge that Brexit might be a worthy idea on principle alone.

    All of which leads me to believe the average Remainer has thought or studied very few of the issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Douglas Carter October 8, 2017 / 8:59 AM

      There’s a lot I recognise here but most of all I’m perplexed by the (on long-term observation) complete lack of curiosity as to the future of the EU. As you point out, the EU is replete with embedded weaknesses and failures which are invariably batted away with the standard-issue mantra ‘The EU needs reform’. But I don’t recall any observer ever wishing to detail properly an articulation as to specifically ‘what’ needs reforming, let alone the ‘how’. There’s also value in re-registering into the debate what some senior and influential pro-EU UK observers began to talk about in the pre-referendum period in 2016. That they could see no particular need for the EU to reform anyway. The originators of those comments have not chosen to repeat them since.

      I’m left with the feeling that pro-EU campaigners are at basis ideologists solely. That the broad-brush EU symbology is sufficient for them to fall in behind. I think it’s there that their collective failure to generate pertinent curiosity of the EU is explained. Ultimately to these people the EU is a label. Just so long as the label remains ‘EU’ then it really doesn’t matter what’s in the box.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Samuel Hooper October 8, 2017 / 11:03 AM

        I wholly agree. More than anything else, the EU has become a cultural signifier for many of its fans, a generic totemic thing for them to rally around, rather than a political entity embraced either for its current qualities or future potential.


  2. Stephen Shepherd October 7, 2017 / 1:27 AM

    I had hoped to read something inciteful but after a good opening pitch you quickly fell into the same trap of making non-factual claims which you say rub you up the wrong way.

    Looking at the issue of Patriotism is a valid one however, stating “But it cannot be denied that there is a coven of hardcore anti-patriots harboured within the Remain community” is sheer hyperbole. I deny it, until I see sourced evidence to the contrary. Please provide a link to the report which proves this claim or, could it be that this is just your opinion? If so you have failed at the first hurdle , and it is one of your own making. Remove the unnecessary rhetoric and hyperbole and reverse your arguments so that it becomes advice on how not to talk to remainers, in a similar manner to how you have set up your polemic above. If you can provide a counterpoint for each claim which is equally as strong then you will have a more balanced and just piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jennifer Harley October 6, 2017 / 9:57 AM

    Although I am a Remainer myself I am always prepared to listen to other peoples points of view. I agree with some of the comments made. I am over 70 born just after the war and grew up proud to be British and proud of the British Empire. Unfortunately things have changed dramatically since then. Countries have gained independence and we no longer have that claim to power. Yes we are doing really well considering the size of our country but surely all these people who predict an economic crisis if we come out of Europe cant be totally wrong. As a child with reminders of the devestation of war very much in evidence and hearing family talking about the hardships I dreaded another war. I remember the vote on the Common Market and feeling that if we joined it would make another war far less likely. Now with Donald Trump as President I think we need to be united to deal with whatever havoc he creates in world peace. ,However I think it would do a lot of Remainers good to read this article and realise there are many intelligent and articulate people who are in favour of Brexit. Lets face it we all want what is best for the country and falling out and name calling is not the way to achieve that.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Paul Robson October 25, 2017 / 7:43 AM

      I agree. I don’t agree about the economy (and I’m a Tory !). Firstly we aren’t doing very well ; we are doing a little bit better.

      Secondly there will be an economic crisis Brexit or no Brexit (actually it probably won’t make a huge difference).

      People don’t want to believe it, but despite alleged austerity (actually a fairly small reduction in spending !) we are still in economic la la land. We haven’t actually paid for the 2008 crash yet, nearly ten years on. There’s a lot of economic death out there that’s hidden by low interest rates and debt keeping the pulse going.

      If anything, though, the EUs economic crisis is worse; this is partly why they are so desperate for the UKs money. There are very few net contributors, other than the Germans, obviously, and a lot of countries out there who think the freebies from the EU should keep coming ; they won’t.

      Trump is the exact same problem. The Remainer equivalents can’t/won’t accept why people voted for him – it’s racism, sexism, etc. No, actually it isn’t any of those things. Trump isn’t actually responsible for the “Havoc” either. It’s just that stuff has been pushed onto the backburner, so you refuse to do anything about North Korea until they start lobbing missiles at Japan.

      It’s the total disconnect of one part of the country from another, and a refusal to accept this is likely to lead to Trump 2020 an if we’re really unlucky, a Corbyn government.

      The latter will make the UK/EUs current issues look like a walk in the park.


  4. John Thomas October 6, 2017 / 6:15 AM

    Hard or soft, you cannot deny the so called negotiations are a shambles costing goodness knows how much, led by Davis who thinks it’s funny. Why else is he always giggling? We’ll get what Merkel and Macron give us. Tear up Article 50 and get back to reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Will H October 6, 2017 / 5:54 AM

    — the Brexit vote was motivated primarily by ignorance or xenophobia

    I’ve chatted, argued, and debated with countless leavers while out campaigning and xenophobia and immigration come up nearly every time. I’m also astounded by the misunderstandings and misconceptions of Brussels and the EU by so many leave voters, so yes, ignorance comes into the mix too.

    Ignorance is down in part to the laziness of the leave voter, the remain campaign not getting the message across and by the lies in the press and by some MPs. All reinforced no doubt by family, colleagues, and mates.

    While ignorance might be excusable, xenophobia and racism most certainly are not. If someone is racist then call it out. Indulging and pandering to xenophobes, as many in the two main parties do, is dishonest and in the long term puts you out of the debate.

    Sorry, if offends racist leavers, but this remainer is not going to back down from calling you out in the name of short-term political expediency.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Douglas Carter October 6, 2017 / 6:20 PM

      …’….this remainer is not going to back down….’….

      So what? Insulting people you never met, never listened to and misrepresenting their postures is what lost the Remain side their referendum.

      One day, they might even notice. On observation, that will be some years off.


  6. Emma Spary October 6, 2017 / 5:14 AM

    All well and good, but it doesn’t address the real issues. The consequences of Brexit are predicted by 99% of economists and a wide range of other experts to be disastrous for the UK. If we are the 6th largest economy, etc etc, this is not likely to be the case for much longer. We have little manufacturing industry left and entering the EEC back in the Seventies was the only way to stop a slide in standards of living and a disadvantage as compared to member states. No plan so far presented for Brexit is remotely feasible and hardly any arrangements have been made to cope with the new state of affairs. In the end therefore it makes not the least bit of difference whether the author of this article dons his EU pyjamas or is an enthusiastic Brexiteer. He, I and all of us are going to face decades of economic crisis and uncertainty, most likely the end or privatisation of the NHS, and very probably the end of the UK itself. The best interests of this country are still now within, not outside, the EU. What the author believes and what he wants us to believe—which may not be the same thing—are irrelevant to what will actually take place. So I for one intend to keep arguing vehemently against Brexit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Paul Robson October 25, 2017 / 7:50 AM

      Oddly I find the same with remainers. The only argument seems to be “because leaving the EU will be worse”. There may or may not be some truth in this ; it would help if the same 99% of economists hadn’t predicted instant disaster in the event of a leave vote of course (and supported the Euro)

      The really odd thing is that most of them don’t seem to understand how the market works. They do on a simpleton level “we can sell our stuff to France”, but not much more than that. They complain that companies can do business here without paying taxes without grasping, apparently, that that is the whole point. That’s what a single market means, it’s supposed to operate that way.


  7. A would October 6, 2017 / 4:44 AM

    When leave voters show some empathy towards the millions of people who will be harmed by brexit, maybe I will show some respect. When the leave camp put forward one reasonable, persuasive argument for leaving EU, I will show some respect. While most leave voters parrot daily mail lies, exaggerations and xenophobic conspiracy theories they will get the derision they deserve.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Marek Woznica October 6, 2017 / 4:25 AM

    I have read your blog and agree with much of what you say about the unfortunate discourse that now exists between remainers and leavers. I also agree that there is much that is wrong with the EU which as a member we would be in a position to help change. Crucially though I cannot find a positive reason you have for leaving, since the result I have been asking for solid reasons and have yet to be given a single one (valid that is)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Mercer October 6, 2017 / 1:28 PM

      I agree. Your comments are well argued and sensible, but nowhere do I find any hints of any possible arguments in favour of leaving. So why are we doing it?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Samuel Hooper October 6, 2017 / 1:31 PM

        Thanks Chris. One can only accomplish so much in a single blog post and this one was specifically on the topic of how to improve discourse between Remainers and Leavers. I wrote extensively on why Brexit needs to happen in the run-up to the referendum, the immediate aftermath and subsequently. If you give me some time I’ll try to find specific links, but if you search on the “Brexit” or “EU referendum” tags/categories you’ll find some of it. Also recommend you follow Pete North’s blog and, both of which have made the case far better than I ever could.


        • HardRemainer October 8, 2017 / 2:04 PM

          I’ve checked Pete North’s blog because I am a Remainer who believes in listening to all opinions and especially trying to address the causes that lead to the Leave vote, which in most cases are totally unrelated to the EU or its functioning. I haven’t found anything in Pete North’s blog that “makes the case”; all I have found are theories based on rather personal opinions, and philosophical considerations on general issues.

          The problem is that Brexit is happening in the real world, and we need to speak about the actual, quantifiable pros and cons of the IN or OUT situations. Unless someone comes up with some real data, recognised by the majority of experts in the many fields concerned, proving that Brexit is a concrete possibility for success, we are just speaking of Unicorns and wishful thinking. Making abstract statement about the fact that the UK is an important country, forgetting to put this in the context of EU membership for the past 40 past years, is too abstract for people who are in a more and more precarious situation because of Brexit.

          I also totally agree on the need to not feel superior or show contempt or make assumptions about the OP while discussing. Therefore I find it totally out of place of you to make accusations of lack of patriotism, elitism and “dreamy thinking” based on unsubstatiated assumptions. People love the UK, that’s why they do NOT want to Brexit. People are losing money, jobs; EU27 citizens in the UK and UK citizens in EU27 have been living in uncertainty about the right to live in their homes and with their families because of Brexit, time to show some respect and speak about reality ?

          Liked by 1 person

  9. britishawakening October 3, 2017 / 8:02 AM

    Sorry I’m too fick to understand this blog.
    Could you include some pictures next time?
    Kim Kardashian would be good.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Luke October 2, 2017 / 9:35 PM

    Couple of personal favourites:

    ‘You voted to make us poorer – and to make the poor and vulnerable even poorer and more vulnerable” [you evil heartless SOAB, but you’ll be fine ‘cos you’re middle class]

    “The EU is more democratic than Westminster” [‘coz of PR]

    “You’ve stolen the futures, rights and opportunities of young people” [insert name of your sons/daughters here more maximum effect]

    All great openers for a sensible rational debate of the issues…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper October 2, 2017 / 9:43 PM

      I like the “you stole the future” one too, for its sheer fatuousness. I thought we made our own futures, but apparently we just have them handed to us by the EU.


    • Paul Robson October 25, 2017 / 7:52 AM

      Someone seriously suggested the EU is democratic ? Perhaps you should have asked them how we vote against Mr Tusk or Mr Juncker.


  11. Douglas Carter October 2, 2017 / 6:47 PM

    …for example…

    …and in basis, this is someone saying ‘…don’t dare tell people they’re too thick to understand, whilst I’m too enlightened to explain successfully…’….

    OT Sam, but hope you’re managing to catch ‘The Vietnam War’ on BBC Four. Third episode tonight. Very good indeed.


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