Okay, first of all, no more petitions to re-run the referendum. Please. It confirms everything that the Brexit campaign has said about people who wanted to stay in the EU. People voted. It’s done. The anger at over-turning it or demanding a do-over would be so enormous that Brexit would probably not only win again but would win again with an even higher margin. And the level of rage we would see in response could honestly be so great as to be dangerous.
That’s not to say that down the line there is not room for the debate to be continued. Given that people voted for Brexit for a myriad of different reasons, with different goals and different visions of post-Brexit Britain, it seems reasonable to say that once a specific deal has been reached, that it could be put to the public, to give people a chance to have their say again. And, of course, going into a general election, parties can campaign on whatever platform they like. But right now, the vote was to leave the EU. Everyone must respect and, to use an irksome political phrase, be seen to respect it.
Okay, now I’m done with all that. Please also stop with the accusations that we, the people who supported Remain, are labelling everyone who voted for Brexit and thick or racist or both and are terrible mean bigoted people, when we raise our concerns about the severity of the impact of Brexit, or the strengthening of the far right. This simplistic and dismissive response to people’s very real concerns about the impact of Brexit, the way the campaign was fought, and the way decisions of this importance can be sensibly made is getting extremely tedious. Democracy doesn’t mean that the minority has to shut up and respecting people’s right to have an opinion doesn’t mean you have to pretend to agree with it.
First, the racism bit. I am extremely bored with the inane statements about how not all leave voters are racist. No-one is saying this. There could are lots of sensible arguments on both sides of the EU debate (I have written about some of them myself). But that isn’t the campaign that the Leave strategists chose to run. What I have heard expressed is: ‘The Brexit campaign won because of racism.’ That is a very different statement from ‘every Brexit voter is racist.’ And it’s true. Of course it’s true. We know from polling, interviews, and conversations with people in real life, that huge numbers of people voted for Brexit because they basically dislike foreigners. I know people who did so. It is a senseless, patronising waste of everyone’s time to pretend that this isn’t the case, and to pretend the campaign we saw was not fuelled by racism and xenophobia. By the end, they might as well have sent out leaflets saying: “If you want a Turk for a neighbour, vote Remain.” It is not helpful to pretend not to see it. It wasn’t only Nigel Farage’s poster. There was a banner from Leave.EU which claimed we were in danger of an Orlando-style shooting if we voted to Remain. There was that map sent out claiming Turkey will join the EU, with the only countries labelled on the map being Syria and Iraq (let me know if you can think of any non-racist reason for that. I am stumped). And who can forget that Nigel Farage genuinely warned of middle-eastern men coming to assault European women. Let’s not pretend that comments like that are accidental. We know they are very old, tried and tested techniques to stir up racism and xenophobia without taking responsibility for it, for political ends.
So calm down and have a beer, because no-one is calling you, personally, a racist. I’m sure you’re a lovely person. But so what? I am sure when the Conservatives ran their infamous ‘if you want a [slur] for a neighbour, vote Labour’ campaign, there were people who voted Conservative for other reasons. Perhaps they disliked the Labour candidate. Perhaps they didn’t agree with Labour’s economic policies. Perhaps some just thought Peter Smethwick would do a good job as MP. Do you see the flaw in this reasoning now?
Ultimately it doesn’t much matter if your motivation for putting those people into power was racist or not. No-one cares about what is going on inside your heart. No-one cares if you like them or want to hang out with them or want to have sex with them. People care if your actions impact their lives, their rights, their safety. Once the far right is out of their box it matters very little who opened the box, or why they did it. All the Brexit voters are not racist but what does that matter; the point is that huge numbers of Brexit voters are comfortable with racism, and prioritised something else over keeping racism out of politics; huge numbers of Brexit voters were happy to vote in such a way as to give a mandate to racists, and to reward a racist campaign, thereby encouraging more of the same. That, I’m afraid, is a factual reality of what you voted for. You can be offended by it as a lovely non-racist Brexit voter but that’s tough. If you get into bed with Nigel Farage don’t be surprised if people look at you funny when you’re doing the walk of shame in the morning without your knickers on.
It is at this point that I expect to hear the familiar cries of either ‘but unity!’, or, ‘I’m bored of this now; get over it.’ With regard to the first, well, you might want unity but that’s just tough for the time being. I’m afraid you can’t run or support that kind of campaign and expect everyone to be the same towards you in the immediate aftermath. Actions have consequences. Telling everyone else to shut up and stop boring you by discussing the consequences of your actions is not cuddly and warm; it’s actually quite unpleasant. And make no mistake, you can tell people to shut up in whatever polite, superior language you want – don’t be divisive, calm down, let’s not be hysterical, let’s have a bit of positivity – but that’s still what you’re doing.
But the second cry, the cry to ‘move on, get over it, stop discussing it’ is perhaps the most troubling. Look. I absolutely believe that most voters knew what they were voting for, looked at all the facts, and voted carefully for what they believed was best. I am also aware that many voters feel lied to, ill-equipped to make the choice, or exploited, and am happy to accept that this is not their fault. What I am struggling to be patient about, however, is the huge groups of people who insist with furious indignation that they analysed all the information, and are absolutely qualified to make this decision, but are now puzzled to find that people are still discussing it, and think it’s hilarious that so many people are so angry, scared, and upset by what they’ve done. There is no nice way to say this: if you think we should all just forget about it now, like a football match that our side lost and your side won, then guess what – you did not understand the ramifications of your vote. If you didn’t realise there would be consequences for the pound, the wider economy could be plunged into recession, we would end up with – and this is just off the top of my head – effectively no Prime Minister, potentially the breakup of the United Kingdom and the end of the peace process in Northern Ireland, then I’m afraid however intelligent you are and however carefully you considered the information available to you, it’s really, really, not unreasonable for people to question whether we, any of us, are qualified to make such a momentous decision by the means of a referendum.
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like I think I’m any better informed or smarter than you. I’m not. None of us has time to read all the legislation that comes out of the European Parliament and analyse the impact on domestic and foreign policy; none of us has time to speak to world leaders and diplomats and economists around the world to pull together detailed insights into what impact Brexit would have on world markets and borders and the likelihood of peace; none of us has time to read up on the full-scale impact of Brexit for workers rights or human rights, women’s equality or trans equality (I mention trans equality in particular because the Trans Equality Legal Initiative has produced a briefing on it, which you can access here); none of us has time to calculate by how much food prices will go up and what impact that will have on child poverty and malnutrition; none of us has time to consider all the different Brexit models, establish how all of the above and many, many more things would be impacted by each one. That’s not because we are ignorant or thick, it’s because we have day jobs, families, partners, friends, and we are not subject experts. I know, those pesky experts again. But you see, just because experts sometimes get things wrong, it doesn’t mean that the whole concept of knowledge or expertise is null and void. I get that it isn’t our fault we were asked the question. But it’s not as if no-one told us that the consequences of Brexit would be disastrous – it’s not even as if only David Cameron and politicians told us so. Everyone told us so. World leaders. Economists. Business leaders. Scientists. Academics. Doctors. And contrary to the line we keep hearing, it’s not about class. Plenty of homeowners in leafy suburbs voted for Brexit; plenty of people in low or no income voted to Remain. Immigrant-free seaside towns or leafy suburbia can be just as much of a ‘bubble’ as London, you know. This is nothing to do with ordinary people who voted Remain thinking we know best. You are the ones, the Brexiters, who thought you knew best. You knew there was no plan, no answer to any of the above – how could there be, when all the people campaigning for Brexit can’t even agree on what model they want instead – and you still thought you knew best.
That is why people are pissed off. That is why people are struggling to be polite through your sneering and mocking people’s concerns. That is why people are still talking about Brexit. I’m not pissed off at people who can see the impact on the markets already and see that they may have made a mistake. I’m not pissed off at the people who were confused about why we were asked the question in the first place – the people who have spent the last several months asking, pleading, begging, for the facts and the information they needed. It’s the having the cake and eating it attitude that pisses me off. That attitude comes from the politicians who are supposed to be steering the ship and have no plan, but, yes, also, I’m afraid, from those voters who thought they knew better than the experts, and now find the inevitable chaos that has ensured boring, funny, or someone else’s problem. The Brexit camp wanted to take control – but when it’s time to take responsibility, none of them can be found.