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Have Remainers lost perspective? Urban Liberals are engaging in behaviours they would associate with Populists and extremists

Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty

April 24, 2019   6 mins

I have never seen so many white people in one place, it’s an extraordinary story.” These are the now infamous words spoken by Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow, amid a pro-Brexit rally in the heart of Westminster.

A few weeks later, the Labour MP and prominent Remainer, David Lammy, appeared on the Andrew Marr Show and compared leading Brexiteers to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, although Lammy later noted that the comparison to Nazis and supporters of apartheid in South Africa “was not strong enough”.

Around the same time, Remainers on social media, including the head of an academic organisation, were sharing a graphic of the Nazi swastika alongside a logo of UKIP and the new Brexit Party with the caption: “Same shit, different logo”.

Ever since Britain voted for Brexit, the portrayal of Leavers, either directly or indirectly, as racists, Nazis and extremists has been a constant feature of our national debate. “Let’s be honest what’s really driving Brexit”, read the title of a Matthew d’Ancona column last year, “Bigotry.”

Urban liberals such as D’Ancona, Snow, Lammy and countless others are not interested in evidence. Indeed, one irony of Britain’s post-referendum debate is that while prominent Remainers have traced the vote for Brexit to ‘misinformation’, ‘fake news’, ‘post-truth politics’ and the dismissal of experts, they have simultaneously been the most willing of all to ignore the expert studies of why 17.4 million people decided to leave the EU. These studies show, clearly, that the Brexit vote was anchored in an array of legitimate grievances about a broken economic, social and political settlement.

But this evidence does not correspond with the confirmation bias of Remainers that has been on display ever since the vote, and which has led Lammy and his ilk to believe that early 21st-century Britain is somehow equivalent to Weimar Germany, or D’Ancona to conclude it is dominated by racists.

“I am forced to conclude that there is now a sufficiency of Britons who just don’t much like people of foreign extraction”, he mused, “and certainly don’t want many more of them around the place.”

These accounts make me wonder where this leaves the one in three black and minority ethnic voters who voted for Brexit, the incredibly diverse towns like Birmingham, Luton and Slough which provided majority support for Leave, or the academic studies which show, clearly, how racial prejudice in Britain has been consistently declining since the 1980s. Moreover, how do these accounts of “bigoted” Leavers fit with the growing pile of research we now have that suggests that it is Remainers, not Leavers, who might have a problem with tolerance.

A few months ago, in the United States, I stumbled across an interesting survey. It suggested that today only one in ten Americans thinks that interracial marriage is a ‘bad thing’. This is a remarkable achievement for a society where as recently as the 1950s more than nine in ten said they would be uncomfortable with this idea. Liberals often forget their achievements.

The same trend has also been visible here in Britain, where support for interracial marriage has been consistently rising while measures of prejudice against non-white groups have been showing a consistent and quite dramatic decline. These are not the metrics you would expect to see if Britain really were about to give birth to the modern-day equivalent of Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP.

But even more interesting was a parallel finding about political polarisation; while the vast majority of Americans now have no problem with interracial marriage, about four in ten of them would have a problem if a relative married somebody from a different political tribe. Americans are more likely to take issue with marriage across political lines than marrying across ethnic and religious lines.

But if you drill down deeper, then you find something even more striking; it is Left-leaning voters who are most likely to have a problem with their ideological counterparts. One example was a recent finding that while 45% of Democrats would be unhappy if their child married a Republican, only 35% of Republicans would feel the same way if their child married a Democrat.

Ordinarily it might be tempting to put this down to the insanity of American politics but, worryingly, this now also appears to be happening in Britain. While growing numbers of us are putting ‘social distance’ between ourselves and those who hold a different political outlook, this is especially likely to take place on the Left, or Remain, end of the spectrum. According to one recent poll by YouGov, for example, while 11% of Leavers would mind a little or a lot if a relative married across the Brexit divide, this jumped to 37% among Remainers.

I wanted to explore this in more detail and so, with political psychologist Aleksandra Cichocka, we asked a sample of Leavers and Remainers how they would feel about getting closer to the other tribe, from having them as an acquaintance, to the idea of their child marrying somebody from the other tribe.

Consistently, Remainers were more likely than Leavers to distance themselves from the other side: while 80% of Leavers are open to having a Remainer acquaintance, only 70% of Remainers feel the same way; while 79% of Leavers are open to having a Remainer co-worker, only 67% of Remainers feel the same way; while 78% of Leavers would not mind having a Remainer living next door, only 65% of Remainers feel the same; while 80% of Leavers would be willing to have a Remainer as a friend, only 61% of Remainers feel the same way; and, lastly, while 75% of Leavers would be willing to have their child enter into a romantic relationship with a Remainer, only 53% of Remainers would want to see their child in a relationship with a Leaver.

Remainers, who routinely present themselves as the vanguard of liberalism, tolerance and moderation, sometimes don’t seem that liberal at all. Ever since the political shocks of 2016 much of our (liberal) media has latched on to an incredibly simplistic ‘open versus closed’ framework; Remainers, we are told, are open, while Leavers are closed. Yet, if anything, it appears that the former can be more closed off to alternative views than the latter. The reality is far more complex than the likes of Lammy, Snow and D’Ancona would have us believe.

We are not the first to point to this. Recently, the academic Noah Carl brought together a whole body of research to show how people who hold Left-wing and liberal views are almost always more likely than people who hold Right-wing and conservative views to block or un-friend their ideological counterparts on social media (this was also happening before Trump, by the way). Others have similarly found that Left-leaning voters in the US are more likely than Right-leaning voters to stop following people who they disagree with. Summarising other research, a journalist in the US recently concluded that while the political Left might consider itself more open-minded than the Right, “research shows that liberals are just as prejudiced against conservatives as conservatives are against liberals”.

Back in Britain, many on the Left and those in the Remain camp do not engage with this evidence because it undermines the concerted effort to portray the vote for Brexit as a proxy for Right-wing extremism on the march, or an indicator for their belief that the country is sliding into the same conditions that gave rise to Adolf Hitler. I suspect that their stronger desire to disassociate from the other camp helps to explain why many so Remainers have been so quick to ‘catastrophise’ about voters with whom they probably have very little interaction with.

Catastrophising, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note in their recent book The Coddling of the American Mind, is what we do when we believe that something is far worse than it is, usually after an event or moment has challenged our values and beliefs. Psychologists associate catastrophising with the parallel traits of overthinking, magnification, feelings of helplessness and a tendency to view an event (or an election result) as being much worse, dire or severe than it really was.

When prominent Remainers compare Eurosceptics to Nazis, or modern-day Britain to the Weimar Republic, they are engaging in something that has defined much of our post-referendum debate: liberal ‘catastrophising’ – a cognitive distortion leading them to expect, and become obsessed by, the worst of all possible outcomes.

The distortion means that Brexit is not an uncomfortable democratic result but rather signals the rebirth of fascism. The 2016 referendum was not a valid democratic exercise but was hijacked by the Russians. The ERG is not a fringe group of eccentric Eurosceptic reactionaries who are obsessed about trade but is somehow equivalent to the virulent anti-Semitic, white supremacist and revolutionary Nazis, and so on.

The irony is that liberal catastrophisers engage in exactly the same behaviour that they associate with populists and Right-wing extremists; they overgeneralise; they label others; they engage in Manichean ‘good-versus-bad’ dichotomous thinking; they lose perspective; and they become obsessed with apocalyptic-style scenarios.

Rather than assessing things rationally, and engaging with those who hold different points of view, they cling to comfort blankets, such as catastrophising, distancing and emotional reasoning.

Such irrationality, of course, is by no means unique to the Left. Those on the Right fall foul of the same mechanisms. Populists routinely catastrophise when talking about demographic projections, the decline of white populations, Islamist terrorism or the capacity of Islam to integrate into Western ways of life.

The trouble is that as our value divides continue to rise to the surface, and are exacerbated by social media, this behaviour looks set to become more, rather than less, common on all sides. But at this particular moment in our history, it does seem to be most prominent among those who claim to be most tolerant among us.

Cognitive behavioural therapists would suggest six ways forward for those struggling most; acknowledging that sometimes things do not go your way; trying to recognise when your thoughts are irrational; trying to disrupt catastrophic thought patterns; thinking about a different and more positive outcome; repeating positive affirmations; and engaging in stress-relieving techniques.

We need to think far more seriously about ways of building far more stable and resilient bridges across these different communities. Remainers, in particular, might consider how they are responding to our post-referendum environment – and should certainly stop harping on about Nazis, extremists and intolerance.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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