Last weekend the Guardian published the results of a poll looking into how Brexit opinions may have changed since the referendum. They revealed that there is a majority across almost all demographic groups that want a second referendum. But what the Guardian poll reveals goes beyond the simple change in opinions, it goes a long way to confirming what some people have been saying for a long time, as to why the Leave campaign succeeded, and the actual motivations behind the Brexit voters. It was all about identity – and it is only on this basis that any Remain argument can have any hope of success.
We already knew that the retired and the elderly swung the poll, and this is even more stark with these results where a majority for Leave only appears after the age of 65 or retired. And, as is confirmed by the employment status, the majority of current and future taxpayers would vote for Remain.
Where we start to see the motive behind voting Leave is with the questions about the economic impact of Brexit. Only the retired and over 65s believe, by a small margin, that this will be positive. This is even starker when it comes to the effect on personal finances. Only 15% of the total believes that the effect will be positive (17% in the age range 65-74) whilst 29% believe that the effect will be negative. So the majority of Leave voters believed that Brexit would have a negative effect on the economy and their personal finances, but still voted for it anyway. Why would a majority of the elderly, retired, non-tax payers (thereby reliant on those of us in society who do still pay tax) vote for something that would negatively effect the finances of the country as a whole and themselves in particular?
The next question provides the answer. When asked whether Brexit would have a positive or negative effect on ‘the British way of life’, the over 65’s are the only group to respond positively. It is possible to conclude from this that a substantial proportion of this demographic would sacrifice the well-being of the country and their fellow citizens, even their own financial stability in order to protect their received cultural identity from a perceived threat.
This is what UKIP and the Leave campaign exploited from the start. With them it was never about facts or projections – they denigrated academics turning the word ‘expert’ into a derogatory term. Arguing with Leave voters based on what the EU actually is, how it is constituted and the benefits it provided us was simply dismissed as irrelevant. The lies that were told by the Leave campaign had already passed into myth - and these myths were the foundation of a belief structure that was at the basis of this cultural identity. Immigrants were equated with invading armies with the intention to dissolve Britishness into the soup of multiculturalism. The EU was an evil empire, dictating ridiculous regulations and imposing restrictions on our way of life.
The referendum was a re-staging of World War II – but a Nolan’s Dunkirk version, where the only soldiers and civilians who fought and died were white British. This idea of WWII, the mythologised and homogenised version, has passed into popular mythology. But what needs to be acknowledged is that these ideas were deliberately constructed and then popularised as never before through the propagandising of popular culture as a part of the war effort. Why is British film and television still dominated by retelling of WWII myths more than any other country in the world?
In the same way the myths of the conquest of the Wild West and the iconic cowboy has become part of US folklore and identity, these WWII propaganda inventions have been incorporated into ours. The danger that we face is that as time passes, the people who can tell us the truth about WWII, the combatants, survivors, refugees and victims, are all leaving us. It seems that the last chance to eradicate this propaganda from our culture may soon be gone.
But these aren’t the same people who won for Brexit. A 70-year-old man in 2018 was born three years after the war ended, and wouldn’t even remember rationing in any detail (it ended in 1954, when he was six years old). But he would have grown up, as I did (born in 1966) playing with toy planes and soldiers, reading Commando comics and watching endless repeats of wartime (i.e. propaganda) movies on the TV, and then the cultural spin-offs of that same stuff, from Colditz to Dad’s Army
We still describe Britishness in times of crisis with these invented terms – Dunkirk spirit, uniting like people in the Blitz etc. Churchill is raised time and again as the hero of WWII, the best prime minster the country ever had, but he was vilified at the time and held views far removed from acceptability in today’s society. The mythical Churchill is entirely removed from reality – and it is this one that has been lionised yet again in not one but two Hollywood blockbusters this year. This disneyfication of history has direct parallels to the war movies produced during and immediately after the war, but at least in those films, the propaganda elements were being deliberately and consciously added.
This fake identity must be challenged and not by presenting people with the facts of the matter, but at an emotional, personal level. If the campaign against Brexit is to succeed, and even for the future of our society, this should be the focus and methodology used. Only at this level can the cognitive dissonance resulting from challenging the core of cultural identity be used to tip the balance, and to put these myths back into the historical context where they belong.
Footnote – just as I was about to publish this blog, The Guardian reported that the outgoing German ambassador would seem to agree with my analysis!