It is only a week since the EU referendum. It seems like a year. Some poor deluded people think that’s it, we’re out. In fact it’s only just beginning and we have years of wrangling ahead of us. We may never leave the EU. Why 52% voted for Leave is discussed at length. Of course politicians have to be careful what they say so as not to offend the many loyal constituents who voted for Leave. It would be awkward to suggest any of them voted because of xenophobia, or bigotry, or ignorance. Righteous UKIP supporters have complained of being called racists, even as their leaders promoted horror stories of millions of Eastern Europeans, Turks and even Syrians swarming over our little island if we don’t take back control. UKIP supporters posted on facebook with jolly little slogans like “Piss off, we’re full”, harking back to the good old days when landladies freely put up signs saying ‘No Dogs, No blacks, No Irish’. An article in the Telegraph as recently as March 2015, before the General Election, concluded: “Well, here you go. Ukip’s leader believes racial discrimination in the workplace should be legalised. Not just discrimination on the grounds of nationality, but on the grounds of colour and race. ‘No dogs. No blacks. No Irish.’ That Ukip policy in full.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/nigel-farage/11467713/No-dogs.-No-blacks.-No-Irish-is-now-Ukip-policy.html
So why did people vote for Leave? We can’t look into the minds of 17 million people. But before the referendum I made probably too many forays into the darkness that is social media and engaged with Brexit people. It was interesting but confusing. I was so perplexed by what I was reading that I made some notes one day in February, a good three months before the voting. I had a most enjoyable conversation on Facebook with a group of Leave.EU / Brexit people. Enjoyable because it did not descend as it so often did to personal abuse. In my conversations with Brexit people I had been told I was ‘a traitor to my country’, ‘should go back to Broadmoor’ and worse.
One facebook ‘conversation’ started with a post from a young woman who worked in financial services and was excited by a Daily Express ‘poll’ that found 92% wanted to leave the EU. This was February, remember. It was an online poll of Express website readers and, even though she agreed they would be brexit biased, she still claimed it was “a huge result”. The role of the press in the referendum has been questioned and there’s no doubt ‘news’ like this has had an influence. The role of politicians also needs to be questioned. She was impressed by “a classic quote” from the classical Tory James Rees-Mogg who said: “It shows the Prime Minister’s deal is failing to butter parsnips.” Such a clever comment and the quaint, old-fashioned language that captures the mind of the great British public but adds absolutely nothing of any substance to the debate. Some might say that was the essence of the Leave campaign. At the time Cameron thought his ‘deal’ would solve everything but already brexit people were turning against him, even though it was he who had given them the referendum.
A man called something like Disney Dingleberry-Sloe quickly replied. He wanted to leave the EU, thought that we would vote to do so, but thought “there will be no panic or tanks or burning of buildings”. That was good to know. He thought that life goes on quite happily for countries outside of the EU and the same will be true of us. How he was so certain he didn’t say. He thought that the UK leaving will be the end of the EU because it’s the UK that has kept it going all these years! There you have the brexit idea that ‘they need us more than we need them’. This idea was reinforced by the brexiter notion that the UK is a self-contained ‘little island’ – always ‘little’ and always ‘full’ – but which can bravely stand on its own two feet. Many brexit people think that the Second World War was won entirely by Great Britain ‘standing alone’ against who else but those Germans.
Another brexit reason for leaving, that we’re in a mess but it’s all the EU’s fault, was more curious. One contributor pointed out: “We don’t need a share of Euro problems when we have enough of our own”. Trying to explain that our problems are largely of our own making made no difference to the belief that leaving the EU would ‘sort everything out’. Close the gate, lock the door, draw the curtains and everything will be fine. One brexit person thoughtfully added that “We may well prosper”, suggesting he had some doubts about leaving. He happily avoided the fact that we have already prospered over the last 40 years. Again, for those who hadn’t prospered as well as others, the blame was nothing to do with our governments, it was all the EU. In essence they seem to be saying that everything’s gone wrong since we joined the EU so if we leave we’ll manage quite nicely on our own and everything will be fine. One brexiter said: “I just think we are a nation struggling to stay afloat” citing the debt mountain, NHS struggling, roads, food, blah, blah. I pointed out that all of these domestic problems have nothing to do with membership of the EU and are completely within our government’s control. No answer.
One brexiter thought that we would vote Leave because “when the British public are taken for a ride, as they have been by British politics over the last 40 years since the so called common market, they will become like donkeys and resist. Pushing us towards the EU will just make the masses vote NO”. Looking at his profile, these were the words of an apparently well-educated, intelligent and seemingly prosperous middle aged man in middle England. He seemed not to know if it was British politics or the EU that was the problem. British public taken for a ride? Pushing us towards the EU? We’re already in it, we don’t need to be pushed. The public will become like donkeys and resist? The problems laid at the EU’s door are so often of our own making but brexit people ignore this and blame the EU. There’s no logic but worse, there’s a denial of any responsibility, just slightly stroppy moaning and wingeing like a spoilt child who’s been cosseted for too long, who just starts not liking things and demanding something else on a whim. Like Andy Pipkin in the aptly named ‘Little Britain’ TV show, asking for things without even looking at what he’s asking for: “I don’t like it – Want that one”. After the referendum quite a few Leave voters have admitted they voted ‘on a whim’.
Then there was the belief that we are totally dominated and dictated to by the EU and by Germany in particular, if not Angela Merkel. This was sometimes accompanied by mutterings of Nazi Germany. You’d think we were still fighting WW2. To read some comments you’d think people are prisoners in their own homes which of course are also controlled by ‘EU laws’, viz: toasters, hair driers, bananas. One brexiter said that no one had yet given him a single reason why we should continue to submit to “EU domination” and that “we (the UK) are fully capable of making our own laws that best suit our people (everyone living here) and our land (all of it, The Falkland, Gibraltar etc)”. Gibraltar of course was notable for voting 97% to Remain, and the Falklands weren’t allowed to vote.
Another said that the EU is “a massive unelected bureaucratic dictatorship”. At this point I wondered how much brexit people really know about the EU. I wondered how seemingly reasonable and aware people could say: “Norway and Switzerland continue to trade with Europe. But their people get a say in how their country is governed. What laws are made.” Unlike the UK, where we have absolutely no say in how our country is governed?
Mention of the Falklands and Gibraltar as part of ‘our land’ suggest that part of the brexit psyche still dreams of Britain and its Empire. The feeling of loss seems to have endured and fed into a loss of identity. One brexiter wrote that “there is nothing wrong with wanting to take your country back and recover your identity. This is not jingoistic, this is simply placing more value on your country than our politicians seem to”. I looked at his facebook profile and saw he is born and bred British but lives in the Philippines where he owns a company that provides ‘a powerful data management system designed specifically for Realtors’. Nothing wrong with that but how much does he value his country? Probably in US dollars per square foot.
Oh, and then there was the cost of it all! This was the biggest success of the Leave campaign, sustaining the big lie about the cost of the EU, painted on its battlebus. One brexiter wrote “If we weren’t sending £55m a day to the EU let alone all the other things we are fired [sic] to provide and pay out for other things then we may be able to pay for the NHS, roads, education, etc!” Yes, Farage’s fabled £55m a day or £20bn a year. I pointed out it’s nearer £30m or £11bn a year. To put it into context I told him the UK Tax Gap (tax that should have been collected but wasn’t) was about £119bn a year, including £18bn alone of debts written off by HMRC. But it didn’t matter as much as ‘them’ wasting ‘our’ money. That’s one of the most pervasive brexiter ideas, that it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s ‘us’ and the EU, not accepting that we are in the EU. I tried to convince one proud English woman that she was British and European but she wasn’t having it. She conceded some of her family’s ancestors were Huguenots but they didn’t count because it was before the 1600s.
Brexiters are never racist and one kind gent who didn’t like foreign immigrants assured me he’s not jingoistic. For many of the brexit people the immigrants were the cause of all our ills and of course it’s the EU that allows them in. One said: “2008 all over again is not good for anybody.” Those Eastern Europeans; no good for anybody. There was nothing like immigration for unleashing a steady dribble of immigrant horror stories. In one facebook conversation a brexiter told me of: “many British youngsters that tell me that they cannot compete with European workers living 20 to a building, or in cars.” This stretched my credulity. I’m sure there are some plucky Brits who could beat that, but twenty people in one car is impressive. I was told that some of these European workers even live “in the woods (yes I can give you photographic evidence of what two Eastern Europeans built in an area of outstanding natural beauty beside my house – to live in. Until one of my neighbours found it and destroyed it.” Such nice British neighbours. And the reason that British people can’t do this is because “British people have British costs.” Yes, really, that’s what this brexiter said! “A British family of 4 with a mortgage in a small house will spend around 1000-1500 a month minimum to just live”, so that clearly explains why it’s wrong for ‘Europeans’ to live 20 to a house. Because they’re not playing fair. Bloody foreigners. Our Brexiter continued with this: “I recently helped a friend inspect a property he was concerned had more than the person on the AST living in it. He had every reason to be worried. We turned up at 10pm, the 2 bed house had 15 people in. All quite chilled, all very sensible people in garden chairs and all quite comfy…lots of mattresses…however, I took from that that their accommodation costs must have been about 25 GBP a week each. I do not know many young British workers that would live like that, it’s just not in our DNA … each to their own but it’s not apples with apples. They can and will work for very low wages and make it work.” He wasn’t worried that 15 people were sharing a house, only that they weren’t paying enough. It’s not unscrupulous British employers paying less than the minimum wage that are to blame, it’s the EU.
That was just a few hours on facebook, back in February. What saddened me then, and still does, is that our once great and outward looking Britain has turned in on itself like a frightened child. European is what we are, geographically, culturally and socially. We should be playing our part in Europe and not cutting ourselves off from it. We are constantly reminded that ‘the British people have spoken’ but we’ll see