There are moments in the life of a nation that become central to its sense of self. Brexit is surely one of these. Of course it is politically significant, but it also matters on a deeper level: it is highly symbolic, imbued with a far greater significance than debates about institutions or trade suggest.
Our leaving is the result of a collective decision, taken by a majority of its people, about the destiny of their national community — or what most consider to be their home. And this decision, contrary to the liberal view of citizens as autonomous individuals who are mainly driven by self-interest, was never rooted in transactional considerations about money.
Nor was it focused on individuals. Rather, it was anchored in a collective and sincere concern about the wider group, about the nation, and in profound questions about identity, culture and tradition. Who are we? What kind of nation are we? What holds us together? Where do we want to go, together, in the future?
Remainers never grasped the potency of these questions — or how to answer them in terms that the majority would recognise. At times, they presented a vision of Britain that was fundamentally at odds with how most people see it — a random collection of individuals who have little in common aside from the pursuit of economic growth and “openness”.
And even now, more than three years on, many commentators and campaigners continue to display a poor understanding that only underlines their remoteness from their fellow citizens. Myths about Leavers have flourished.
Perhaps the most popular claim is that Leavers did not know what they were doing. Yet a rapidly growing pile of research suggests the exact opposite. Leavers knew exactly what they were doing. They were asking for two entirely reasonable and legitimate things: for decisions that affect their country to be taken in their country, and for their government to have greater control over who comes in and out of the country.
These requests, in turn, were rooted in things that have long lain at the core of what it means to be British: respect for judicial independence and the common law; a strong emphasis on the need for political accountability; a rich, proud and uninterrupted tradition of parliamentary democracy; an instinctive suspicion of the centralisation of power; a vibrant civic culture; a strong attachment to both little and national platoons.
So the popular portrayal of Brexit as an irrational backlash against “the system” — as a “protest vote” — never made sense. Researchers have since demonstrated that wanting to register a protest against “the establishment” was at best only a distant concern for most Leavers; voting to exit signalled more a desire to return to a traditional political settlement. The idea of their home being governed by people whose attachments appeared to lie elsewhere — in distant and insufficiently democratic institutions — seemed alien to the very things Leavers associate with the nation.
Contrary to this myth of incoherent Leavers — which stems from a tradition of ‘elitist’ democratic thought that has long been sceptical of the masses — those who put their cross next to Leave shared a clear and coherent outlook.
They wanted to regain their national independence and reassert their national sovereignty against supranational institutions that looked neither transparent nor particularly responsive. They wanted to be able to control the pace and scale of demographic change. And they felt that, on balance, the EU threatened not just the stability of Britain’s economy but, more fundamentally, its national identity, culture and security.
In an era in which perceptions of competence have come to play a far more important role in politics, Remainers asked Leavers to put their faith in a project that had largely failed to respond to a succession of major crises, that had shown little solidarity to fellow member states and which, at the time of the vote, even seemed to be struggling to guarantee the security of its citizens.
In the shadow of the result, prominent Remainers set out to find the Wizard of Oz: shadowy networks, social media platforms and evil genius campaigners, anything that could be used to justify their claim that the result was somehow illegitimate. But along the way they lost sight of the real and legitimate reasons that people had to vote Leave.
Brexit turned winners into losers and losers into winners. And by doing so it threw light on a settlement that had simply stopped working for a large swathe of the British population.
We now know that many, though not all, of the people who were most likely to back Brexit lived in communities that had been suffering from “long-term economic distress”; areas that had, to all intents and purposes, been cut adrift. Places where the state had retreated and citizens had been left, on their own, to grapple with disproportionately high rates of unemployment, poor health, low quality schools, inequality and sharp declines in wages. Remain asked people who had been priced out of their local housing markets, and who had been the most heavily exposed to economic shocks from globalisation, to walk to their local polling station and vote to stay in this dreary existence.
Another misleading claim is that these were people who simply did not understand the wonders of diversity because they had never experienced it. Yet we now know that support for Leave was significantly higher in communities that had not only seen their economies decay, but which had also experienced a sharp increase in demographic change in a very short period of time. Once again, they were on the front line of globalisation, as local economies and cultures were further disrupted, while opposition or merely voicing disquiet was met with accusations of racism.
Leavers were not stupid. They could see that the failure of their elected representatives to control immigration was not simply because of a widening gap in the values of the rulers and the ruled. There was a deeper and more troubling realisation. Their leaders no longer could control who was coming in and out.
Few if any Remainers offered a meaningful or credible reply to this reality while a not insignificant number of them simply looked indifferent to the plight of their fellow citizens. Many regurgitated the trope that Britain could have dealt with these problems while staying in the EU, expecting people who had watched their towns and neighbourhoods decline over many decades to believe them, and to not ask why nothing had been done when Britain was a fully-fledged, signed-up member.
Countless other myths have emerged. Leavers, we are still told, want “to return to the 1950s”. But new work finds that they are not the only ones driven by nostalgia. While they certainly prefer an earlier era where there was less immigration, less technology and respect for traditional families, Leavers favour returning to an era when there was more economic equality and more working-class MPs. The claim that one tribe looks back while the other looks forward is just as misleading as the claim that one is ‘open’ while the other is ‘closed’.
Nor do some of the other claims hold up. The idea that Leavers are stupid and do not understand how the EU works does not sit easily with research which found that, when it comes to knowledge about the EU, there was “no average difference between Leave voters and Remain voters”.
Accounts that argue the media somehow advantaged Leave overlook research which find no significant skew in either direction. And accounts that present Leavers as longing for a world where “faces were white” are undermined by the fact that one-in-three of Britain’s black and ethnic minority voters backed Brexit, while ethnic minority MPs were just as likely as white MPs to do the same.
Looking back now, few journalists ever ventured into the large, urban and diverse areas like Birmingham, Slough and Watford that provided majority support to Leave. Had they done so then they would have found what researchers later documented: that many ethnic minority Leavers share the exact same grievances as their white counterparts. They felt that Britain was controlled by the EU, they worried about the EU overriding UK law, they felt anxious about immigration and believed that minority rights are better protected in Britain than in EU member states.
This reality was also avoided because it undermined seductive narratives about an intolerant ‘white-lash’, which in turn fed a deeper need among Remainers to retain a feeling of moral superiority. Yet even that suggestion — that Remain represented the last beacon of tolerance and decency — sits awkwardly with work conducted since the referendum which suggests that it is Labour and Liberal Democrat voters who would be more likely to end their friendships with populist voters than vice versa, and that Remainers would be more likely to feel bothered if a close relative married a Leaver than vice versa.
Indeed, my own work suggests that Leavers are consistently less likely than Remainers to distance themselves from the idea of having members of the other Brexit tribe as their co-workers, neighbours, friends or children-in-law.
As the academic Noah Carl points out, few people seem to be talking about it, but ever since the shocks of 2016 there has emerged a growing pile of evidence to suggest that liberals appear significantly more likely than conservatives to block or unfriend people who hold beliefs they disagree with.
None of this will stop the cultivation of further myths of course. Brexit, we are now told, is unleashing a wave of racism, even forcing members of the Royal Family to flee abroad. Yet prejudice in Britain continues to decline. And, since voting for Brexit, the British people have, overall, become less concerned about immigration, more positive about its effects and are often more upbeat than their counterparts in the EU.
If anything, it appears from one study that regaining control over the potent issue of immigration has been key to this softening of attitudes. Brexit has made our politics more not less tolerant, yet many on the liberal-Left continue to catastrophise, painting a picture of a country that their fellow citizens simply do not recognise.
History, it was once said, is a nation’s collective memory. And history is written by those who win the great struggles of the day. Yet with Brexit we might find something different. Most of the spheres of influence continue to be dominated by those who disapprove of the Brexit decision — the universities, media, the arts and high culture. In this sense, we might yet find that while Leavers won the battle, Remainers could end up writing the history. And if this is true then perhaps the myths of Brexit are only just getting started.