In a recent interview with the Guardian, the playwright Alan Bennett spoke about his views on Brexit, and discussed how he had taken to asking those seeking a selfie with him which way they had voted – if the reply was “Leave”, he refused their request. He eventually quit the practice as he felt it was “a bit mean spirited”. There are many who would feel that Bennett was justified in his attitude given the clear warning signs that we had regarding what the consequences of a Brexit vote would be, which almost half of the population decided to inflict on us anyway. But is this view, as Bennett has put it, mean-spirited? Or is it, in itself, an attitude we should be critiquing, even across our own university campus?
Anger at those who chose to vote to remove us from the EU is more than understandable. Leaving the EU will disadvantage us both economically and politically, and sends out an unsavoury message of intolerance towards those from other European countries. It was always clear, and has been made clearer in the aftermath of the vote, that the political voices pushing hardest for Brexit had no idea how to execute it so as to avoid the obvious pitfalls of the decision. What makes this sting all the more is that all of these issues were clear prior to the referendum. Bennett’s attitude towards Leave voters is easy to identify with for myself and many others, but to decide to shun leave voters entirely ignores a lot of the issues that led to so many choosing to opt for Brexit. If these are not tackled head on, we will struggle to cope with what are certain to be difficult times ahead as a result of this vote.
The most oft-cited of the issues that led to Brexit is our culture of misinformation. Much has been made of such a large proportion of the British public’s rejection of the facts and refusal to listen expert opinion. It’s true that much of the information circulated by pro-leave politicians and media was untrue, with the obvious example being the £350-million-for-the-NHS bus.
It can be challenging in any referendum campaign to discern what the actual facts are, and finding a source of information that isn’t biased can be harder still. It must be especially difficult for older people, who may feel overwhelmed by the way that technology now dominates the way information is circulated, and this connection should not be overlooked when thinking about why they voted to leave in far greater numbers than the young. If we do not make some attempt to tackle this culture of misinformation, it will weaken the electorate’s ability to hold our politicians to account in the long run, something that will be especially crucial as they prepare to negotiate our leaving the EU.
The West’s move towards neoliberalism in the past few decades has resulted in the growing gap between the rich and poor, and the resurge of far-right politics throughout has been a direct consequence of this. In the UK, the recession, increasing cuts to health, welfare and public services, as well as Labour’s remodelling itself as a centre-left party, have left the working class cash-strapped and feeling abandoned by the political class. Even the EU itself, despite the work that it has done in securing rights for workers, has far more of a focus on business interests than making life better for its citizens more generally.
The world has a long history of unfairly blaming immigrants when times are hard, and UKIP exploited this to encourage the poor to vote Leave. It is important that we recognise this problem and work towards building a more equal society before this escalates further. We must also acknowledge our capacity for intolerance and make sure that we educate people on the importance of diversity, so that those with fascist agendas will not be able to take advantage of general discontent in this way again.
Although these problems do not excuse Leave voters’ decision, acknowledging them would at least be a start in moving forward. To dismiss them outright in Bennett’s fashion, or to mock, or sneer, would be to open ourselves up to further disasters in the future, and we ought to challenge this rhetoric when we see it across our own campus. It might just be damage control at this point, but it might be our only hope at protecting ourselves against what is to come.