Remainers love to claim that the EU referendum “divided Britain”. But many prominent Remainers are perfectly happy to stoke divisions of their own in order to thwart Brexit
While any measured, rational human being ought to be immediately capable of seeing through YouGov’s recent flawed opinion poll – which was constructed to give the misleading impression of elderly Brexit voters being selfish extremists – new LibDem leader Vince Cable is happy to stoke intergenerational conflict in order to feed his desperate pro-EU confirmation bias.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday (surprising enough in itself, considering most bien-pensant elites view that paper as little more than a fascist propaganda newsletter), Cable moans and wails about how the older generations have supposedly “shafted the young”.
The Remain argument about economic damage is now largely accepted. Mounting evidence of a slowing economy and rising inflation give substance to earlier warnings. The issue has become one of how to minimise or postpone the damage. And instead of countering the arguments, more and more Brexiteers are embracing economic pain as a price worth paying for ‘taking back control’: almost as a badge of honour.
This attitude has reached worrying proportions. Press stories refer to ‘martyrs for Brexit’ based on a YouGov survey suggesting 61 per cent of the public would accept ‘significant damage to the economy’ from Brexit and 39 per cent ‘don’t mind losing their job’. These figures seem wildly implausible.
I don’t encounter people running around saying ‘please make me poorer’ or ‘please sack me’. These figures are also difficult to reconcile with polling which shows 66 per cent of voters wanting to remain inside the single market.
Of course, as I explained at length in my response to an equally idiotic piece in the New Statesman, there is in fact no contradiction here. It has nothing to do with being a “martyr”, or acting irrationally against one’s economic self interest. Rather, elderly voters simply understand that there are other motivations and considerations besides short term economic gain.
Having grown up in the post-war years and through the Cold War, older voters tend to appreciate the value of democracy and self-determination more than young voters who have never faced existential threat and for whom the EU has been an ever-present reality and an unquestioned positive force. And Vince Cable probably knows this full well, but it suits his purposes to portray those with differing political opinions as somehow unhinged or even malevolent.
Ironically, immediately after impugning the motives and morals of older Brexit voters, Vince Cable then goes on to make a plea for tolerance and mutual respect:
But the last thing the UK needs is further polarisation. There is already more than enough bad-mouthing of opponents and questioning of the patriotism of those who criticise the Government.
The gall of these establishment EU-defenders is absolutely off the charts. Where once a senior politician might have felt a degree of shame that would have prevented him from contradicting himself so completely in an Op-Ed, Cable does so proudly, fully expecting not to be picked up on it. This is how little establishment centrist politicians think of voters and their capacity to understand political or rhetorical arguments. But it is also a sign of the desperation in the Remain camp, as the dream of thwarting Brexit altogether recedes further and further into the distance.
And it gets worse:
To describe such masochism as ‘martyrdom’ is dangerous. We haven’t yet heard about ‘Brexit jihadis’ but there is an undercurrent of violence in the language which is troubling. We have already had the most fervent of Brexiteers, such as Nigel Farage, warning of civil unrest if the ‘will of the people’ is frustrated.
Brexiteers may well be frustrated since the practical difficulties of Brexit, as well as the costs, could result in Brexit never happening.
This is a clever little construction of Cable’s, writing that we haven’t yet heard about “Brexit jihadis” while simultaneously inserting what he clearly hopes will become the Left’s new insult of choice into the public discourse. Let’s be clear – the leader of the Liberal Democrats, that party which considers itself so rational and pragmatic, has just compared Brexiteers who dared to weigh considerations other than economic gain when voting in the EU referendum to jihadis. To murderous Islamist terrorists who maim and kill.
At what point do we stand up to the establishment’s collective hissy fit over Brexit? At what point do decent people refuse to be thus insulted by what Tim Montgomerie called the very “greybeards” who only recently urged further EU integration and the Euro on us even as these failing policies devastated the younger generation, particularly in southern Europe?
That’s not to say that Vince Cable is wrong in many of his warnings about Brexit. In many ways he is right to warn about the implausibility of hammering out a bespoke deal with the EU by 2019, and to urge a slower, managed transition which maintains current access to the EEA. But all of these sensible warnings are completely overshadowed by the overwrought, flowery language suggesting that Britain’s grey-haired voters are supposedly full of hatred and malice towards the children that they raised.
Are the older generations completely innocent? Of course not. Valid arguments can be made that they have been too sheltered from “austerity” and the consequences of the Great Recession thanks to universal benefits and the “triple lock” on pensions. And certainly, as a demographic with a high propensity to vote, the retiree lobby has been very successful in seeing their interests turned into government policy.
But Vince Cable’s over-the-top attack on older voters immediately turns them back into sympathetic characters, and only makes it harder to question the privileges that they have accrued through successive government policy. Comparing decent people who have worked their whole lives and done so much to build the country in which we live today to radical Islamist terrorists is so heinous, so wildly excessive, that sensible discussion becomes impossible.
This kind of behaviour might be just about acceptable from someone like me – a relatively unknown political blogger perhaps looking to make a splash by saying something outrageous or provocative (see Abi Wilkinson’s clickbait call for a 100% inheritance tax in the Guardian). But Vince Cable is not an obscure political commentator. He is leader of the Liberal Democrats, a political party which still purports to be taken seriously.
In reality, most people vote both for reasons of self interest and for the perceived good of society. The truth about the elderly Brexit vote probably lies between Brendan O’Neill’s lionisation of these voters and Vince Cable’s haughty dismissal.
O’Neill has been effusive in his praise:
I find it deeply inspiring, moving even, that my fellow Brexiteers are willing to have it rough in the name of democracy, in the name of bringing law-making back to where every progressive of the modern, Enlightened era believed it should be: in the nation, under a people’s oversight.
I straight up got a lump in my throat when I read the bit of the YouGov research that says many Leave voters would even be okay with losing their own jobs, or seeing a family member lose a job, in the name of Brexit. Thirty-nine per cent said such personal hardship would be a price worth paying, against 38 per cent who said it wouldn’t be. Now that’s devotion. That’s idealism. And if it seems alien to us, that only goes to show what a flat, grey political era we live in.
Indeed, the rather elitist alarm that has greeted the revelation that people are willing to suffer for their democratic ideals sums up what a baleful influence technocracy has had on our political imagination. In the technocratic era, when politics has been drained of big ideas and reduced to a box-ticking exercise that is all about managing society, its inhabitants and their aspirations, political passion can seem threatening. Strong feelings, democratic devotion, self-sacrifice – these have become foreign bodies in a time when politics is about making things chug along as uncontroversially as possible. To the technocrat, to the EU suit who drafts laws far from the madding demos, the utterance ‘I am willing to go through hardship for what I believe in’ seems perverse. It’s disruptive. It is because we inhabit such a beige world of spun, small politics that the willingness of us Brexiteers to suffer for our beliefs can look like ‘extremism’.
I get where O’Neill is coming from, even though I think he goes a little too far, reading something that both he and I desperately want to see (a return to conviction politics and commitment to ideology rather than fudged centrist compromise) into a vote whose motivations were more nuanced than either extreme.
In truth, elderly Brexit voters are neither selfless heroes nor foaming-at-the-mouth jihadists. But as far as the media is concerned, the narrative about older voters being selfish is too convenient to ignore. Unfortunately it reveals a gulf of misunderstanding, as Vince Cable makes clear:
The old have comprehensively shafted the young. And the old have had the last word about Brexit, imposing a world view coloured by nostalgia for an imperial past on a younger generation much more comfortable with modern Europe.
If I had a pound for every time some sanctimonious Remainer airily asserted that Brexit was motivated by “nostalgia for an imperial past” then I would never need to work again. In reality, the Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum clearly showed that the principle motivating factor for Leave voters was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Perhaps this lacks nuance and an understanding of modern day interdependence in the regulatory environment, but it is also a clear and unambiguous call for the same kind of autonomy enjoyed by countries far smaller than ours in terms of GDP such as Australia, Canada or Korea. This is by no means unreasonable, and cannot be fairly caricatured as some kind of imperial nostalgia.
So why pretend that it is? Either Vince Cable is so full of self-hatred for his own country and its history that he believes that our dissolution as an independent nation state into an increasingly federal EU is somehow appropriate “payback” for our transgressions in the days of empire, or he knows full well that the Brexit vote was not motivated by imperial nostalgia but simply finds this to be a convenient trope with which to whip up his own supporters.
For now I will do Vince Cable the courtesy of assuming the latter rather than the former – that he is in fact not a self-hating Brit, but rather just a cynical old politician like so many others. But the longer this tantrum against anyone and everyone who voted for Brexit goes on, the harder it becomes to assume good faith on the part of the furious Remainers.
At some point the Vince Cables of this world have to either engage with the real substance of Brexiteer arguments, attitudes and motivations, or else just admit that they don’t care – that they simply feel blind, unthinking hatred towards those who disagree with them and have no interest in rational discussion.
It might actually prove quite cathartic; rather than having to make increasingly ludicrous arguments that people voted for Brexit somehow want to bring back the Empire, Vince Cable and his ilk could simply have their Two Minutes Hate every day and be satisfied.
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