The Blog

The Fears of a Young, Unrepentant Brexiteer

A week ago, I was nervous about the prospects for Brexit; opinion poll data was fluctuating wildly, and I could have seen the result going either way. Worse still, conspiracy theories involving MI5 and the idea that we needed to bring pens to the polling station were being aired from some fellow Leave supporters, which was eerily reminiscent of the ludicrous reaction to the Scottish referendum among parts of the SNP for which they were rightly derided. But I never wavered in my own support for Brexit; not only did I know that these ideas weren't representative of the wider campaign and the many Brexiteers that I knew, but I simply wasn't voting to endorse those ideas any more than I was voting to endorse Farage's infamous billboard. I was simply voting to leave the EU. In the end, though I was surprised that Leave won the referendum, the same can't be said for any of the effects thereof - least of all the demonisation of Leave voters, and calls to ignore the result which have proliferated since.

To be clear from the outset, I and many other Leave voters I know are appalled by the racist incidents that have been reported since the result was announced, such as calls for immigrants to leave the country, and the racial abuse reported by the BBC's Sima Kotecha. It is certainly up to the Leave campaign and Leave voters to make clear that this was not what the referendum was fought on (as Toby Young has set a good example in doing), and that a vote to leave the EU was not a vote for racism - lest the voices of 17.4 million people become hijacked or exploited by the agenda of a far-right fringe which I'm optimistic will soon be back in the corner where it belongs. From Llanelli to London, ordinary people are making clear that such racism is not what Britain is about - and it would be sanctimonious in the extreme to simply presume that only Remain voters (or Leave voters for that matter) are doing so.

Yet however loud our condemnations, it's likely that there will simply be no satisfying many vocal Remainers, who had already decreed that Leave voters were voting as they were because they were racists (Bob Geldof's abuse of the flotilla of fishermen voting Leave comes to mind. Never mind, then, that the issue most cited by Leave voters was democracy rather than immigration, or indeed that people can be concerned about the effects of free movement without being racists; we're actually a country of millions of uneducated racists. But certainly never mind that sizeable minorities of the British Asian, Black and Muslim population also voted Leave - and indeed that, during several debates prior to the referendum, some of the strongest pro-Leave arguments came from non-white audience members. However, we must also ask whether this would have been any different had the referendum gone the other way. Not only had the EDL protest (of only c.30 people) in Birmingham been planned months in advance, but it's likely that the very same people hurling abuse at immigrants on account of a Leave vote would have done exactly the same under a Remain one. Nor should we forget the compelling left/left-libertarian case that the EU's own free movement policies are themselves racist, especially against citizens from Commonwealth countries (or perhaps we should, if Alex Salmond's sneering (at 9:06 - 9:55) at that exact point by Daniel Hannan in the Oxford Union is anything to go by).

But the branding of Leave campaigners as racists is surprisingly far from the most vitriolic aspect of the reaction to the result: that honour belongs, if it can even be awarded so bad has much of the reaction been, to the rage against the elderly - who were far more likely than young people to both go out and vote at all, and to vote Leave. Even before the referendum, we had calls for older people to be denied the vote in case they voted the "wrong" way, an assertion which has been doubled down on afterwards. The idea that one shouldn't give up a seat to a frail elderly person in case they voted Leave was retweeted 13,000 times, and at least one placard at a pro-EU demonstration called on elderly people to die. The selfish rhetoric of the elderly "stealing [young people's] futures" that has become dishearteningly common after the vote would be, if directed at any other group, derided as bigotry. Not only do young Remainers making this claim have no monopoly over the future (it is not "theirs" to be stolen), but the very people that are being derided have often worked all their lives to build the country we've seen today, and in some cases even fought the Nazis to ensure we had a future at all.

Yet the reaction which has been most widespread, and also most disturbing, has been the naked rage against the fact the vote went the "wrong" way. Already we've seen calls for a second referendum, a #wearethe48 hashtag, and indeed for Parliament to ignore the vote as "advisory" (which explains, of course, why millions of pounds of taxpayers' money was spent promoting one side of the campaign) - and indeed for a second referendum on Scottish independence failing that. I'm not going to go into the arguments against all three of these propositions (which are already well-made), but what surprised me about this reaction most was actually that anyone else was surprised. Since the 2015 General Election, where sections of the Left rioted at the decision of the wider public to reject their preferred brand of politics (even Proportional Representation would have made it extremely unlikely that Miliband would currently occupy 10 Downing Street), the idea that democracy is only good if it gets the "right" result certainly appears to be gaining traction in certain political circles.

Worryingly, however, in the aftermath of the referendum result, it also appears to be gaining sympathy among some within the media, an op-ed calling the Leave vote "lizard-brained" appearing shortly after the results were announced, which can fit nicely alongside the Guardian's dehumanisation of Leave voters as rats in its cartoons and indeed open calls for the "ignorant masses" to be ignored. But again, this is nothing new either: after the last General Election, after all, Giles Fraser suggested that "the poor" somehow don't know what's best for themselves, and therefore implicitly that they shouldn't be trusted to make democratic decisions (but since then has been an unlikely ally in calling both for Brexit and against the elitism on display since the vote). I can't help but feel that these obviously anti-democratic, misanthropic sentiments would not be receiving such a sympathetic hearing had they been coming from Nigel Farage in the wake of a Remain vote, and indeed the calls for a second referendum after the Scottish vote were also derided. Exactly the same attitude should be being taken with the call for a second EU referendum; whichever way tou look at it, 4 million is a lot less than 17.4 million, and democracy isn't about getting what you want all the time.

What worries me most of all for the future of the country, however, is the sheer dehumanisation of Leave voters as a homogenous, evil bloc against the "good" people who voted Remain - when Leave voters aren't a malignant hive-mind of racists; they're our colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and family (though apparently for some even the latter isn't good enough to excuse voting the "wrong" way). Yet even this is nothing new; "racist" (after the referendum) has simply replaced "sociopath" or "murderer" (from the Conservative Party Conference) as the insult of choice for those allegedly in the right to degrade their political opponents. In more concrete examples, a good friend of mine was assaulted physically the day after the referendum at a College Ball for voting Leave, and calls for Farage's death have been sent by the dozen.

The markets will recover from the shock of Brexit - indeed, there are signs that they are already starting to do so - and I have every confidence that the British people, Leave and Remain voters alike, will make it clear to those using the referendum result to legitimise racial hatred that this has no more place in a post-Brexit Britain than it did pre-Brexit. But I doubt the same can be said for the politics of absolute truth and self-righteousness we've seen in the last two years, wit the reaction to Brexit being merely its zenith. And that's what scares me about the future of British politics; that the "shy voter" effect will only intensify as the voices of the anointedly right only grow louder, and that a Sword of Damocles of dehumanisation, disruptive protest, and perhaps even violence will hang over the next secret ballot as it has with the previous two. Yet unless we challenge the doctrine of "no reasonable disagreement" which has infected much of the Left in recent years, it is difficult to see how things will play out any differently.