One of the greatest failings of Brexiteers since the referendum has been our inability to convince more wealthy, urban, Remain-voting younger professionals that the old pro-EU political consensus is broken, or that they benefit in any way from nation state democracy
I spend a lot of time on this blog telling various people and groups – the establishment, Remainers, Labour centrists, Tory wets – to engage in a bit of introspection and consider where their own actions and behaviours may have helped feed the very circumstances or phenomena which now upset them.
It is only fair that I go through the same process myself, as a way to maintain intellectual integrity. And there is one failure in particular that I keep coming back to – never finding a way to bridge the gulf of understanding between the two worlds that I myself straddle, Brexitland (where I was born) and the urban bastion of EU support (where I now live).
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, even before we knew the demographic breakdown of the vote, I wrote:
I extend to you the magnanimity and friendship that (I hope) you would be extending to me right now had the result gone the way we all expected. It is incumbent on all of us now to work together to achieve the best possible form of Brexit.
I think it is fair to say that I have not always lived up to that aspiration, though most of my lapses have only taken place in the context of extreme provocation in terms of the rhetoric or tactics adopted by what quickly became an extraordinarily energetic (and often venomous) continuity Remain campaign.
I have at least never knowingly initiated a hostile encounter with an EU supporter, online or in real life, because I still believe that whatever convulsions or purges our political class may need to go through as Brexit unfolds, the rest of us will need to knit back together as one country. As I have written only recently, we have many other pressing issues besides Brexit facing us as a country, none of which can be tackled successfully so long as we have our hands round one another’s throats.
It was therefore been incumbent on Brexiteers like myself – in addition to safeguarding the referendum verdict and working to achieve a better form of Brexit than the present government is on course to deliver – to attempt to persuade at least some Remain voters (particularly those who are not hardcore eurofederalists) that Brexit has the potential to be a good thing and a catalyst for further change if we demand it through our active participation.
This has not been a roaring success. I live in northwest London, in an overwhelmingly Remain-voting constituency (Hampstead & Kilburn) where EU flags flutter from the windows, I work in a professional job and have a social circle largely consisting of people like me, some of whom read this blog and all but one of whom voted Remain. Not only was I unable to sway any of the young professional people who know me during the referendum or in the aftermath (though I did have more success with other demographics), my efforts on social media were even more disastrous.
To understand the scale of the problem, one needs to understand just how hard this particular demographic took the Leave vote. When my wife went to work (at an American-owned international public relations company) the day after the referendum, her company’s German office had already sent the following email to their London colleagues:
On this truly disturbing day, we want to send you our greatest empathy and heartfelt solidarity to London and the whole UK [company] Team. Although troubling times maybe ahead of all of us here in Europe, the whole team of [company] Germany keeps on believing in the European idea and the future of peaceful and prosperous unity for Europe with the United Kingdom and all the wonderful people living there.
So for us this is not the end of the road. Our friendship with you will be stronger than ever and we will get through this together.
Big Hugs from Germany
Please share with the whole office
This text was followed by a picture of the entire German team making heart shapes with their hands as they hold aloft the German, EU and UK flags.
This is what we have to contend with as we try to navigate Brexit – whole offices full of undeniably smart people who legitimately view the events of the past seventeen months as a nearly unspeakable calamity with no possible redeeming features.
The author of this email (and the senior person who authorised it) clearly had absolutely no doubt that their sentiments would be shared by every single one of their colleagues in London. There was simply no recognition that smart, professional people might come down on different sides of the Brexit debate, only the arrogant but genuine assumption that everybody working for the company (both in Germany and the UK) shared the pro-EU worldview.
Imagine working at such a place: certainly no Brexit-supporting employee would dare to openly admit their own political views in such a one-sided, hostile climate. If senior management think your political views are “truly disturbing” one is not likely to torpedo one’s own career by dissenting from the email. We saw the same intolerance of ideological dissent at Google earlier this year, when engineer James Damore was fired for what was portrayed by the media as an “anti-diversity screed” but which in reality was a thoughtful (if partially flawed) memo on Google’s specific diversity policies.
I was stunned when my wife showed me the anti-Brexit email circulated within her firm. But what struck me most was the way that the author described Brexit – the prospect of Britain regaining the kind of democratic control over its own affairs enjoyed by every other developed country in the world outside Europe – as “truly disturbing”. It simply should not be the case that the entire staff of any organisation (save perhaps the EU itself) view Brexit as an unmitigated calamity. That such uniformity of opinion still exists is a failure on the part of Brexiteers – despite the unwavering effort of many of us to present the progressive, internationalist case for leaving the EU.
We currently live in a country where many people are consumers first and conscientious citizens a distant second; where the elimination of the smallest short-term risk is seen as more important than safeguarding the long term democratic health of Britain. But it is not enough to rail at pro-EU professionals for voting for their own short-term economic self interest, just as it is not enough for disappointed Remainers to berate Brexiteers for supposedly voting against their own. Just as the rise of identity politics has stoked bitter divisions in society on both sides of the Atlantic, so in addressing Brexit here we must somehow find a new common language which unites all of us (or enough of us to establish a workable new consensus).
As of yet, I don’t have an answer to any of this. I just know that what I and other Brexiteers tried during the EU referendum and in the months following the Leave vote has not worked, and that something new must be attempted. The danger is that unless this key demographic of young urban professionals can be made to see Brexit in less catastrophic terms, they will reject any new conservative ideas out of hand and effectively hand the country to Jeremy Corbyn.
We have entered a new period of discontinuity in British politics, where the old consensus has broken down and new policies are required to solve new problems. Without a radically new approach we will be doomed to more of the same – weak, short-term governments reacting to events in isolation rather than proactively addressing them according to any kind of master plan.
It is impossible to build anything likely to stand the test of time – such as a new model for an independent, open country which is adaptive rather than defensive to globalisation, automation, migration and other issues – without the enthusiastic backing of enough people to elect a strong government with a clear mandate to deliver.
And it will be impossible for any Conservative government, at least, to secure such a mandate without better outreach to this truculent demographic of young urban professionals who currently believe that the Big Bad Brexiteers have stolen their future.
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‘The political Brain” by Drew Westen points out somethign which seems so obvious once you have read it: although we THINK of ourselves as rational beings, that only counts as long as EMOTIONS are engaged.
You attempt a degree of introspection in this post, thank you, but I claim a slight advantage over you in that I was only slightly emotionally involved as a Remainer. My only reason was that if there is any hope for democracy, elected governments must have more clout than global corporations.
There are two flaws in my argument: the neoliberals have already won the narrative, and gained congtrol of elected bodies anyway, and Europe itself is flawed – It took in Greece fully aware of its shortcomings, for short term reasons, whereas the corresponding wealthy states in the USA continually, and quietly, bail out the impoverished ones.
But to try to be rational, for me, Brexit even the enlightened version you think possible, has unearthed problems I had not thought of- the Irish border, Scotland, and the inseparability of freedom of movement and customs union.
I can imagine emails like those circling around hip, trendy companies, especially ones filled with young people. Such emails make flawed, but not entirely wrong, assumptions of their audiences’ political inclanations.
It will always be extremely difficult selling Brexit to affluent young professionals as a whole. Many of them are still bitterly disappointed with the referendum result because of what, to them, it represents – Britain cutting ties with the continent, shutting its doors to immigrants, and retreating from the challenges and opportunities that globalization affords.
And in many ways, who can blame them for thinking that way? UKIP, and the various figures amongst the vote leave establishment, were atrocious representatives for the leave cause. Their actions fuelled the perception amongst many that Brexit was right-wing xenophobia and economic backwardness. And many still think that’s true, now that the tories are going for the hardest of hard Brexits. Now, perhaps these ‘educated’ youngsters shouldn’t have been that narrow minded, but it is what it is. I sympathize with the fact that it’s easy to get caught up in the hysteria of it all.
The loss of FoM ties this all together. For many remainers it is a painful blow, both practically and symbolically. It is an attack on a fundamental belief (that is, borders should be relatively open). This must be reconciled somehow.
Sadly I think the damage has been done and nobody on either side seems to give much of a toss about reconciliation. Not looking forward to the next Corbyn government…
Sorry Sam – I just spent a long time typing a reply only for the ‘system’ not to let me post it. although I’ve posted some OK in the past!. Not sure if they (WordPress have changed something.
Too much detailed thought went into it, to do it again.
I’m so sorry that you invested all that time in what I’m sure would have been a very informative and insightful contribution only for the submission process to fail. So frustrating!
Can I ask if you used the same account/login details you usually use when commenting? I ask because WordPress made me approve this comment as though you were a first-time commenter, which obviously you are not, and this usually only happens when a new email address or other login method is used.
I have sometimes suffered the same issue so what I often do before submitting a long comment somewhere is copy/pasting the text elsewhere, perhaps into WordPad. That way, if the website times out or there is any other error, I still have a copy of my text and can try again.
Sorry again, and best wishes!
Immediately recognise your remarks about living neck-deep in Remainer land (Mill Hill)- the day after the Charlottesville demo and killing, breakfasting as usual at my local greasy spoon, and known as a Brexiteer, one of the regulars called out …. I see your pals were out on the streets yesterday…
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Gosh, what an awful thing to say. Such is often the bigotry of those who consider themselves most enlightened and tolerant, sadly.
Living deep in hostile ideological territory can certainly be awkward sometimes. It’s the certainty of every interaction where it comes up that I simply must have voted Remain because that is what People Like Us do. Sigh.