“Those who proclaim their concern for the poor in the abstract nearly always find that they hate what the poor believe in when confronted with it.”
Britain’s MPs are now on their summer break, which is lucky for them because the last couple of weeks before their holiday were absolutely torrid politically. One wonders whether British politics can stoop any lower than it already has, but then another piece of evidence comes along which slaps you in the face with a resounding “Yes.” While they’re off, Theresa May is ringing round the leaders of the EU and European countries, presumably to beg for help in getting through some sort of Brexit deal. Of course, they will squeeze her for all she’s worth; after all, to have gotten to where they are, Macron, Merkel and Barnier have had to be utterly ruthless in their political conduct. Any delusions that they won’t be similarly ruthless with May should have been dispelled long ago.
Meanwhile, the debate on Brexit in Britain is still stuck in its toddler phase, where people on both sides are screaming and stamping their feet in indignation. I’ll deal with my side here, but I do not apply these arguments to most “Remain” voters. It is the conduct of the Remain commentariat that has encouraged the reservations about the way I voted.
I voted “Remain” because I believed it would be safer economically than if we had voted to leave. Therefore, while my heart says leave, cold hard reality said stay. I was always a “reluctant remainer.” I, therefore, cast my vote on June 23, 2016 with mixed feelings and waited for the result. Unlike many on my side of the debate, I did not take it for granted that “my side” would win. I knew that there was a distinct possibility that the UK would vote to leave. All I did was listen to what people were saying: if others in the “Remain” commentary class had done the same—if they’d had the humility to do the same—we might be in a different position today.
As Matthew Goodwin says in his article in Quillette, he had hoped that whatever the referendum result, it would act as a wake-up call to the elites that there were long-term issues that needed addressing if Britain was not to become even more polarized than it already was. I also had some of this hope following the referendum; having spoken to those who voted “Leave,” I knew it was more complex than those in the upper echelons of “Remain” camp had claimed. I hoped that our national conversation might grasp some sense of maturity and actually get down to some real issues in a more in-depth way—in a way that went past the usual party-political sound bites. This is not what happened.
The issue is that the referendum was not about policy; it was a conflict of values, a conflict of visions as Thomas Sowell says. And values conflict are the most divisive. The side that won (“Leave”) tends to believe more strongly in things like patriotism, law and order, communitarianism and a certain degree of economic nationalism. And it had been on the losing side for the previous three decades. The side that lost (“Remain”)— particularly its elite—tends to believe more strongly in abstract ideals like diversity, progress, equality, and openness. And it had won in every way possible for the past three to four decades.
Their defeat, the first in decades, led to a feeling that this wasn’t supposed to happen, and it’s not us and our values that are faulty but them and their values. Instead of reflection, what happened was a knee-jerk reaction from those in the commentary and political classes most invested in “Remain” against their fellow countrymen and women. This knee-jerk reaction displays a level of contempt, laziness of thinking, shallow prejudice and preconception, disdain, derision and downright snobbery that stem from the smug liberal style. It makes me ashamed to be associated with those who issue these arguments.
Despite the poor conduct both sides displayed in the campaign, those in the commentary and political classes who voted “Remain” are utterly unrepentant at not only their conduct during the referendum campaign, but remain so in the attitude towards “Leave” voters. To them, the vote was not a sign of deeper, underlying causes and issues unaddressed for years, it was much more short-term in origin. To them, most Leavers voted that way because they are stupid, ignorant proles who have no idea how anything works, especially the EU. Because of their stupidity and ignorance, the Brexit vote was an irrational backlash grounded in a fear and loathing of immigrants, fed by fake news and misinformation provided by Russia, manipulated by shadowy firms like Cambridge Analytica, and brainwashed by Facebook ads.
There have been various people saying that Brexit was due to white resentment, that “old white people” resentful and fearful at changing Britain voted to keep their privilege. There were and are people who argue that those who voted “Leave” are old and will be dead before the full effects are felt, so they have cursed the younger generation with something they didn’t vote for. Finally, there is the argument that people don’t vote to be poorer and don’t vote against their economic interest. This last argument is just bad: people’s concerns do not always fit into a country’s GDP.
Instead of engaging with the arguments and positions of those who voted “Leave,” “Remain” elites have instead engaged in a campaign to delegitimize the result of the referendum, pushing back against it at every turn, either by overturning it, forcing a rerun or watering it down to such an extent that it becomes Brexit In Name Only (BRINO), a return to the status quo that many weren’t happy with in the first place. As Goodwin argues, “Brexit is to be opposed, not understood.” This attitude has led to the paucity of depth in approaching why “Remain” lost. Instead, lazy analysis has led to intellectually-wretched arguments that ignore any evidence to the contrary.
Some counter-examples that are ignored include the fact that 1 in 3 black and minority ethnic voters voted “Leave,” as well as almost half of 25-49 year olds, 1 in 2 women and 40% of voters in Greater London. When was the last time you heard that? As Goodwin points out, “Brexit appealed to white pensioners in England’s declining seaside towns but it also won majority support in highly ethnically diverse areas like Birmingham, Luton, and Slough.” Meanwhile, according to the National Centre for Social Research, what one might call pro-Brexit views have hovered at around 50% for over 20 years, views that were decades in the making.
But, of course, none of this is considered or even touched upon by “Remain” elites; much easier to reach for the short-termist teddy bear and blame it all on thick, fat and fascist Leave voters. The denouement of this approach is that some “Remain” elites now seem to gain a perverse sense of joy from the thought of a no-deal Brexit. Good, they think, when jobs start shipping to Europe, when food becomes more expensive, when the economy suffers, when those bigoted idiots suffer at the hands of their own stupid decision, that’ll show them that we were right all along.
At bottom, all these arguments display the “shadow of liberalism” that David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom talks about. Those who proclaim their tolerance of diversity only like the right sort of diversity: the type that agrees with their values. Those who proclaim their concern for the poor in the abstract nearly always find that they hate what the poor believe in when confronted with it. George Orwell, who described this exact situation in The Road to Wigan Pier, would not have been surprised.
This self-satisfaction and the smug style of liberalism in which it is rooted cannot conceive of the reality that it perhaps does not have all the answers. And when it is repudiated, the answer is to hope that those who moved against it will suffer for their intransigence. I am not a full Brexiteer, but this attitude is why I am now no longer a Remainer.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.