Brexit and Prejudice

By July 25, 2016

Participants hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event at Parliament Square in London, Britain June 19, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall - RTX2H0ON

Politicians and liberals should examine their own prejudices before speculating about those of others, argues Dionne Fitzgerald.

After the referendum on UK membership of the European Union there has been much soul-searching about the stark divide in British society between educated metropolitan liberals and the much less educated working class. This divide is not particularly, new nor is it unrecognised, however the referendum shone a bright light on the extreme disconnect in the thinking of these two major groups. There has been a lot of sound analysis attempting to find ways to understand and overcome this divide. However there has been a lot more condemnation, misunderstanding and prejudice in the way people are interpreting the vote to Leave the EU.

Examples of this off-kilter thinking from the elites can be seen in the Labour party’s attempt to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn because he apparently did not work hard enough to deliver a decision that most traditional labour voters clearly did not want. Whether you believe he was sufficiently committed to Remain or not, it is a completely twisted message to send to leave voters – that the party assumed to represent them is seeking to depose a man who did not fight hard enough against them. The worst of this attitude can be seen in Owen Smith’s pledge to offer a second referendum. On the other side there is Theresa May making veiled threats to send EU nationals back to where they came from, a proposal that has been rejected by over 80% of the population.

For those who are serious about fixing this divide in society, they have to begin with examining the prejudices of the metropolitan liberals. What the referendum, and much of the post-referendum analysis, has revealed is that at best the liberal elite are clueless about the motivations and capacity of their working class counterparts, and at worst they are actively looking for the bad in them.

This can most clearly be seen in the widely accepted assumption that a vote to leave was indicative of a racist, xenophobic, and insular mind-set. No doubt the tone of much of the Leave campaign was nasty, with its vile posters and insinuations about immigrants of various ethnicities. However, did this hostility and xenophobia really influence the majority of those voting Leave? The evidence appears to suggest not. According to a post-referendum ComRes poll, 53% of Leave voters cited the ability of Britain to make its own laws as the most important factor affecting their decision. This compares to only 34% who saw immigration as the overriding concern. Upsetting the popular narrative, then, most people were motivated by issues surrounding democracy and sovereignty as opposed to immigration.

In any case, the lazy assumption that anyone concerned about immigration is necessarily racist is yet another example of the inability of the right-thinking to understand the concerns of the working class. For a long time politicians of all persuasions have failed to discuss immigration in wholly positive terms. Any pro-immigration argument is usually based on its economic advantages and usually qualified with the line that not much can be done to reduce the numbers because of the EU, or because high levels of immigration are an inevitable by-product of globalisation. Now for those who don’t feel like they are benefitting from the current economic situation, or from globalisation in general, this is not seen as a positive case for immigration.

Even worse than this failure to set out a purely positive case for immigration is the dishonesty and hypocrisy in how the elites conduct themselves with regards to the issue. Gillian Duffy could be branded a bigot for expressing concerns about the effect of immigration on jobs by the same man (Gordon Brown) who a few years earlier had revived the old National Front slogan “British jobs for British workers”. Similarly, we’re all supposed to believe that the EU is a safe haven for immigration and free movement whilst ignoring the fact that almost 3000 migrants have died on the shores of Europe so far this year.

Another way in which the disconnect between the liberal elite and the masses has been expressed is how Leave voters have been painted as ignorant and reckless. Before waiting for the dust to settle after the referendum, reports were flying around social media stating that there had been a ‘huge spike’ in google searches asking the question “what is the EU?” once referendum polls had closed. This was taken to express the ignorance of the decision to vote Leave. However these reports gave rise to more questions than they answered. As one illuminating post on Medium put it:

“…how many people is that? Are they voters? Are they eligible to vote? Were they Leave or Remain? Trends doesn’t tell us, all it does is give us a nice graph with a huge peak.”

Another explained how this “huge spike” was likely to be around 1000 searches. Such is the prejudice of the metropolitan elite that they uncritically take reports like this and indict the whole nation as uninformed and reckless.

This woeful view of the capacity of ordinary people to think rationally is evident in the idea that many Leavers regretted their decision post-referendum. This is another claim that surfaced almost as soon as the results came in. The only evidence I have been able to locate for this assertion is anecdotal reports of individuals who voted leave and now wish they hadn’t. However polling information reveals “Bregrexit” to be a myth. An Ipsos-Mori poll, for example, showed similar levels of regret among those who voted Leave (3%) and those who voted Remain (4%). The willingness of many people to believe unconfirmed reports of widespread regret based on flimsy anecdotal evidence shows just how little faith is placed in the ability of large amounts of the population to decide in a rational manner.

A final prejudice that must be abandoned if we are to bridge the divide between the metropolitan liberals and the working class masses is the idea that ordinary people are so easily manipulated by the media and the far right. One of the most irritating claims to surface after the referendum is that those voting Leave were duped by a campaign based on lies and misinformation. The often quoted statement of the Leave campaign – “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” – which was later disavowed by many prominent Leave campaigners is taken as evidence of the gullibility of the masses.

Another area where leave voters are taken to have been seduced by campaigners is with various promises to reduce net immigration to very ambitious targets. The argument goes that the people were hoodwinked by the Leave campaigners and so, perhaps, the result of the referendum is now invalid. However, once again, there is little evidence to suggest that people voted Leave because they actually thought that the NHS would receive £350 million a week, or because they believed that net immigration could be reduced to less than 100,000.

Moreover, Remain campaigners were hardly innocent when it came to exaggerated claims about the consequences of a vote to leave the EU. For instance, take George Osborne’s absurdly accurate forecast that families would be exactly £4,300 worse off a year. The idea that an economic forecast could so accurately predict the financial consequences of leaving the EU on individual families is laughable. This is in no way supposed to be taken as a defence of the leave campaign, I’m simply suggesting that the vast majority of the British public are aware that people make wild promises that they have no intention of keeping in political campaigns. Instead of assuming that people are capable of weighing up different arguments and recognising false promises when they see them, the liberal elite convince themselves that the masses are gullible fools.

This conviction requires an extremely strong capacity for self-delusion. Almost the entire establishment threw their weight behind the Remain campaign and yet they can still suggest that people were easily led by the lies of the Leave campaign. It appears that the disgruntled elite is more interested in delegitimising the concerns of a large amount of the population than they are in engaging with them. Much fuss is made about political apathy, however when those considered socially excluded get involved in politics and clearly express their views, they’re dismissed as nothing but a channel for the views of the racist Right.

If the liberal elite want to mend this rift in society (and, actually, I’m not sure that they do) then they need to rethink their prejudicial views towards those who do not belong to their university-educated, London-dwelling bubble. They need to stop looking for racism and bigotry where there is simply discontent with a system that is not working for large parts of the country. They need to recognise that not everyone who disagrees with them is blinded by ignorance. Most importantly, they need to recognise the capacity of all people to think rationally and for themselves.