The Steady Ascent of the Silent Majority

28/06/2016 13:58


The Financial Times

Unbeknownst to the seismic change unfolding overnight, my peaceful sleep was abruptly interrupted by a panicked mother in the early hours of the morning. 'It's happened, they've done it!' Bleary-eyed, I managed to gradually piece together the information I read prior to midnight - Farage had conceded defeat, exit polls claimed a solid Remain majority and some bookmakers asserted a probability of ninety percent that the United Kingdom would vote to stay in the European Union. It took just one reading of a friends' emotional outburst on social media in the morning - of which there had been several- to deduce that the improbable had happened.

Unfavoured outsiders from the start, the Leave campaign had the unenviable task of disestablishing the status quo- one that has created economic prosperity and growth over four decades- and facing up to opposition from influential political elites: Cameron, Osbourne, Major and Corbyn a few from a lengthy list, and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. Juxtaposing this with the smaller Leave camp, spearheaded by the eccentricities and emotional rhetoric of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson that were divisive throughout the campaign, bookmakers' constant odds for a Remain victory (1/4 as opposed to 3/1 for Remain) were unsurprising. Repeated opinion polls reflected the seemingly large suspicion of 'Leave'- portrayed and mocked by mainstream media as nescient, ignorant and overly gallant, Leave were consistently pitted as less popular than the Remain camp for almost the entirety of the weeks running up to the 23rd, allowing a quiet confidence to seep into the Remain ranks.

The shockwaves of Friday's result will continue to reverberate through the nation as across the globe- the various effects and implications of 'Brexit' to be discussed with trepidation and almost blind uncertainty for the weeks and months to come. However, at the heart of today's historic turning-point, the defining of the odds and bucking of opinion polls are revelatory not only of a significant divide in the ideologies of U.K. citizens, but of a gradually rising number of disenchanted members of the populace on both sides of the political spectrum. In many ways, history has repeated itself. Just over a year ago, opinion and exit polls asserted confidently a hung parliament for the 2015 general election- the North, as per the polls, would rediscover Labour roots and prevent a Conservative majority. What followed is comparable to the referendum; industrial working class communities- traditional Labour heartlands- once again bucked the trend. Sunderland had been expected to narrowly vote Remain. It instead emphatically voted 61% in favour to leave the EU. This was a microcosm of growing discontent through the North- Bradford and Rotherham, both vast Labour strongholds, voted to leave with 54% and 68% majorities respectively. County Durham, a rare bastion of support in an otherwise grim general election for Labour last year, continued this trend by voting to leave by 58%. This unexpected defiance of expectation in northern working-class areas was ultimately pivotal in framing the outcome- that this overcame the strong resistance from Scotland and the capital epitomizes the sheer levels of Leave support in the North.

Reasons for the unanticipated mass support for Leave, and the pollsters' gross failure in their predictions, are multifaceted. In the midst of doubt surrounding the future of the U.K., one certainty from the referendum can be inferred- the discontent from the ordinary working-class and populace is greater than first envisaged. Concerns about immigration and border control were at the forefront of Leavers' reasoning for Brexit: a sensitive and divisive issue, these fears would oftentimes be instantaneously branded as racist, nationalist and jingoistic; subjective and reasoned opinions placed under the umbrella of bigotry and ignorance. To disagree with a view is commonplace in politics and healthy discussion is encouraged- deriding the other side of the argument with derogations is not. This backlash, by no means prevalent through the entirety of Remain but prominent in certain 'Remain' campaigners, are likely to have acted as a suppressor for many Leavers' voices- two Labour MPs, assumed role models for rational and intelligent debate, have publicly apologized after branding Brexiters as racists. The emergence of a petition to 're-do' the referendum- surging rapidly at 3 million signatures - is not only thoroughly undemocratic, but also evidences the huge backlash and instant disregard towards the views of 17 million people. Transcending from parliamentary politics into the general public, this stigmatization that some had assumed - celebrities and ordinary people included- likely quietened the voicings of prospective Leave voters. Indeed, an almost comical irony arises out of the argument: the mass-labelling of Brexiters as racist and xenophobic is a fundamental generalization and stereotype- the very facets that Remainers preach so ardently against. It may thus come as no surprise that the reviling discourse of individual Remain campaigners repelled some neutrals and the undecided, swaying them into the Leave camp. As Guardian journalist Gary Younge aptly conceded a month prior to the referendum, 'ridiculing and treating Brexiters as small-minded and stupid may be the very reason for the Remain camp to lose the argument for staying in the EU'. He may well have been partly right.

I consoled my Remain-supporting mother after awaking, reassuring her (with veiled optimism) of eventual economic recovery and continued existence within the EU for at least two years, and took a tube to Westminster and Parliament Square to soak up history. Impassioned debates and diverse protests aside, an obscure image of Margaret Thatcher in a newspaper was the day's most thought-provoking aspect. For the two epochs in history- though contextually different- draw many parallels. Just as Thatcher had done in the late 1970s, Farage and Johnson- also two unconventional outsiders- successfully tapped into the vein of the disgruntled working classes; capitalising on the populace's discontent using powerful and emotional rhetoric to promise the alleviation of peoples' ills and appealing against the 'corrupt' status quo. Both instances have heralded a political revolution and reflected a shift in the standpoints of the traditional working class.

What followed Thatcher's transformative election- economic volatility, public discontent and periods of diplomatic uncertainty- is an apt indicator of what the United Kingdom has to expect in the future. Friday's shock result, however, reveals a remarkability about British politics at present. The failure of opinion polls and bookmakers to predict a Brexit victory removes the false perception of a subdued and idiosyncratic minority; manifesting their ever-mounting discontent through the ballots, this proportion of the ordinary and working class people reveal themselves as the de facto majority, and are silent no more.

Thomas Smith