Nowadays, it is almost a cliché to say that the country has never been more divided. Both sides of the Brexit debate seem passionate about their view, and tend to dismiss the other side as just playing games, more interested in the win than in any negative outcomes which that victory might produce.
For over a year, I have been struggling to fathom what fuels the drive towards Brexit. There are probably as many variations of reasons as there are leave voters, but some at least can be grouped together as similar. And finally I’m starting to understand one of these Leaver groups.
As a strong Remainer myself, it’s easy to understand the drivers for our vision. Economic prosperity feeds government revenue, which (with an appropriately responsible government) allows many of the ills of society to be addressed and mitigated. All evidence points to freedom of movement being one important driver of such prosperity, and free trade being another key component. Damage the economy, you damage society.
Not only that, but political and social stability is increased by greater integration of peoples around the world, which is also related to our moral responsibility to help our fellow humans when they are facing adversity, wherever in the planet they may originate. How could you possibly support a course of action which so damages our prosperity, our humanity and our global influence? How could you sleep at night, knowing that you were wrecking the lives of countless thousands of trans-national families who have assumed their futures here were safe and secure for ever?
A breakfast insight
I had an interesting breakfast conversation recently with a Frenchman who was trying to explain why 12 million people in France voted for Le Pen. Fascinating in itself, it also finally gave me a glimmer of insight into the mind of at least some of the Brexiters. My breakfast companion explained some of the many ways that ordinary French people feel under attack. Some things are obvious; recent terror attacks, of course, and Muslim violence against French Jews. Other things are much more insidious. Apparently, he claimed, in French schools with significant Muslim presence, it is now impossible to teach some elements of French history: for example, when Charles Martel finally turned back the Muslim advance from the Iberian peninsula at the Battle of Tours in 732, or the Holocaust in WW2. Pupils simply disrupt such lessons. It is even claimed that a significant minority of Muslims support the aims and tactics of Islamist terrorists, and rejoice in the atrocities which have ravaged France recently.
Add to that a sense that immigrants get a better deal when it comes to free healthcare, unemployment benefits and so on, and you see a picture of a population starting to feel “enough is enough”. French taxes are some 10 per cent higher than most of the rest of the EU, and many citizens feel that the money is just going to support a segment of society that is taking advantage of the system and working to undermine French culture and values. How much of this feeling is accurate may be debated, but it is undoubtedly there, and a major cause of the support for right-wing policies.
As far as I can see, the UK has not reached the same level of disquiet with incomers, but perhaps the root causes are equally present. If your local church is overshadowed by a shiny new mosque, your shops are full of products labelled in languages you don’t recognise, if there are people who don’t share our views of women’s equality, LGBT rights or religious freedom, it is easy to feel that British values are under threat. These are the things that make people feel at home, safe and secure not just in their own homes, but also when they are out and about in their towns and cities; take these comfortable feelings away and people start to feel uneasy. Brexiters are not (as they are often accused of) being xenophobic, racist, nationalist, or any other ‘-ist’; they are just fed up with having their homes disrupted. This is totally understandable. If I thought people were invading my home, I’d feel uneasy too. I’d be prepared to give up a lot to ‘take back control’.
The really sad thing is that Brexit won’t fix this. Even Theresa May’s aim of reducing immigration to tens of thousands won’t help over-much. Decades of ‘tolerant’ immigration means the problem is already here. Because we have never said “If you want to come here and settle, we insist that you embrace all our values”, we have millions of people who would rightly be very angry if we enacted laws such as banning face coverings in public. Worse than this, the negative economic effects of Brexit (not to mention the distraction of government from addressing our real problems) mean that we will have far less ability even to start to tackle any of these issues.
Britain has a long history of assimilating incomers, whether refugees or economic migrants. Over time it inevitably happens: Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Caribbeans, Asians, all have enriched our culture and become just part of what makes the UK a great place to live. In most cases some intolerant segments railed against the influx, only to fade away as each subsequent generation of the arrivals fitted in more and more.
An action plan
So, what do we need to do? Firstly, and most importantly, Remainers need to acknowledge that the values and concerns of the Leavers are real and valid. Secondly, they need to understand that these values are so strong that all the Remainer arguments about “damage” to the UK are irrelevant. Restoring the feelings of belonging and being secure are far more important. If I’d lost those feelings, I’d be willing to make huge sacrifices too. Remainers need to deal with Brexiters where they are, not where we imagine rational beings should be. We need to explain how Brexit is not going to fix Leavers’ issues, and we need to promote alternative policies which will fix them. If we can’t do that, then maybe it’s time to let the Brexiters try their answer.