Just a week ago I crossed the length of the country without meeting a single Leave voter. But on June 23rd vote Leavers turned out to be the majority and dragged the rest of us with them, out of the European Union. How was this possible?
My lack of contact with the Brexit brigade will be less surprising when I describe my route: I travelled from my Remain stronghold in a leafy part of Camden to King’s Cross, where I took a train up to Darlington and swiftly hopped on another bus to Barnard Castle. Thanks to rapid transit, my feet barely touched down in Leave hotbeds. None of the studenty types or business folk I saw on the train seemed to be rallying the Leave war-cry and the immaculate Brief Encounter* generation I shared my bus ride from Darlington with, went about their business demurely, seeming little concerned with politics. For the next three days I stayed with one of my best friends and pretty much forgot about the referendum. We celebrated midsummer and apart from exchanging a few pleasantries with locals, talked mainly to each other. I felt like I had gone from the Remain campaign’s headquarters to a countryside that was silent on the matter. I then returned to the Labour Borough of Camden in time to vote. When I entered the community centre around 4 that rainy afternoon, I marked my paper with a giant X by ‘Remain ‘ in full view of the smiling poll clerks, who I’m pretty certain shared my views.
I bounded out of the room feeling sunny and virtuous, happy that everyone around me seemed to be voting the same way. On Facebook and Twitter, individuals, businesses and even their pets were pledging Remain. While I glimpsed the Leave campaign out of the corner of my eye (Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson shouting on TV; The Sun and The Daily Mail’s inflammatory front pages on a news-stand) I had no tangible evidence of its existence, or of public support for it. Over and over again, I heard people saying that they didn’t know a single Leave voter, apart from in a few cases, that one weird relative, who doesn’t count. (Well, actually, as we’ve seen, they do). What’s clear is that I and so many others who fall into the privileged metropolitan category like me, have only had sustained contact with people like ourselves.
We wake up bemused and bewildered after elections, wondering who on earth these conservative hordes are. The phrase ‘Shy Tory’ was coined in the aftermath of the May 2015 general election- the idea being that many voters (with a secret drawer of light blue underwear, monogrammed with a spreading oak tree, I imagine) are domestic sheep in liberal wolves’ clothing. Last week’s Referendum revealed the phantom of those immigration-phobic Eurosceptics we view through screens, to be a terrible reality. When I started writing this post, I thought I didn’t know any of them personally and then, just yesterday, I found that I did – an oddball very close relative, who has benefited from the advantages of globalisation, but thinks that Europe is finished and voted out.
Leaving this exception aside, though I’m sure there are a handful of others like him, who bridged the decisive 4% gap, my picture of the generic Leave voter is collaged from hearsay and headlines. Are they posh and patriotic? Do they sing the national anthem even when there’s no football match, observe pheasant shooting season and Michaelmas, dream of a new British Empire? Are they sad old nostalgics who look back to a time of close-knit communities when there were less foreigners and English was the only language spoken in the streets? Are the majority simply poor, immobilised by austerity measures and inequality with nowhere to rise in their local communities? Do they like tea, wildflower meadows and a bargain like me? I imagine because I don’t exactly know. I’ve had so few opportunities to meet these people, so I’m out of touch with them. Again, who are they?
There have been calls to make Remain strongholds independent. The opinions of some Leave voters are xenophobic, racist and inimical to modern liberal values, so why not treat them like embarrassing relatives, give them short shrift and function without them? Who wants to have their national identity dictated by people who are driven by fear and sensationalist headlines? But to do so would perpetuate the exclusion from wealth, education and open-mindedness that the under-priveliged have endured, especially over the past ten years. We shouldn’t imitate or take on their values, but rather channel the curiosity and tolerance born of education and relative comfort, to at least get to know them and familiarise ourselves with their situation. This won’t be easy because it will mean coming properly face to face with the gaping divide in our society; but in unsettling times like these we have to lean into to the weirdness. We should be flexible, open doors so they get to know us, share in our advantages. Maybe then, they will see things more like we do.
*A beautiful British film from 1945, directed by David Lean. If we have to go back in time, can it please look like this?