“Then why did so many Remain MPs vote for the Article 50 bill?”
Outside the semi detached house on the Essex fringes of London the shouting had subsided but Dad’s hand stayed on his home-made cudgel. Granny sat by a small fierce fire. The power cut had stretched into its second week and it was so miserably cold that they had prised the plasterboard off the fireplace. The shadows of the torchlight and firelight were becoming ordinary.
Granny answered, “For the opposition at the time, their leader said they must”.
“He said it would be democratic. Even back then there was a lot of talk about a crisis of democracy, and Leave had already vote won the referendum by 4%. He was trying to win back support which Labour had lost to the right.”
“But the referendum was only advisory.”
“Yes, but there was already so much cynicism about politics, even at that time. The economy wasn’t working and the middle class, which had been the biggest class for some years, was disappearing. There was a general sense of decline and anxiety. The financiers and big business owners – well, the new-right ones more than the old paternalists – had managed to divert attention from their own failings onto the MPs and external forces – there’d been a big scandal about MP privilege which helped that along. And suddenly there was this referendum and many people who usually refused to vote did indeed turn out – and they took out their bad fortunes on the EU. So you can see how for politicians to then turn around and say it didn’t count – they feared what the Leave voters might do next. So instead they talked about democratic necessity”.
“But Leave were still only a minority of the country. 37%”
Granny’s face moved in the shadows. “Some Labour MPs were pointing that out, but they tended to have a majority Remain in their constituencies. And anyway, that’s how that referendum was set up – that’s what the MPs allowed to happen back when they were confident that their display of democracy would lead to a well-informed, self-interested Remain outcome. So even though almost all of the MPs wanted to remain in the EU, they set up a referendum which only required a simple majority – no threshholds, no requirements that there should be a majority in all the UK nations.”
“So then the result came, and even though most of them thought it would hurt us, they felt too silly to vote against it? That’s ridiculous. Where was the opposition?”
“The Conservative leader had pledged the referendum during the election campaign, so the Labour opposition felt they couldn’t stand against the popular mandate”.
“They really forfeited being the opposition?”
“Yes. And for democratic reasons. It was very, very strange, even at the time.”
“I can’t believe it. It’s maddening.”
“They were very disorientated. The same kind of direct democratic election had just given them an anti-establishment leader with no track record of winning anything which made a difference to people’s lives and yet somehow his supporters thought he would be a real opposition. His MPs were terrified he would sink the party, but also terrified of his huge popular mandate. They tried a second time to get somebody else elected, but that failed too. So Labour MPs were not working well together at that time – they were very shaken. Demoralised.”
“But even so, most MPs across the parties wanted to stay in the EU, and yet they held a referendum where the people would vote the other way. Why?”
“I think they knew politicians were not very popular, but they hadn’t realised that things had gone so far – they didn’t realise the populist right – there was one party in particular, called UKIP – had been so successful at blaming the establishment for everything. They should have – it was obvious to some of us at the time. That was coming from the left as well as the right, too. So there were ‘Shy Leavers’ – voters with intentions which weren’t picked up by the polling companies or the established media. It happened in the US election which Trump won, too”.
It was so cold that their breath was condensing on the duvet covers. “Why are people so stupid?”
“People rarely respond in a thoughtful way if you call them stupid. Of course they should, but they don’t. So if you want to change people’s minds, you have to find another way than scolding and mocking. They say – the psychologists – that it is not enough to simply argue – you have to replace the idea you knock out with another, better idea, and knit that new idea in with other things people think already. Nobody managed that. For years nobody had been managing that. There was a woman, Sarah Palin, who got the Republican nomination for Vice President of the United States – the election Obama won. I remember people mocking her, calling her stupid, and how that didn’t change her supporters’ minds at all. In fact it probably made people identify with her. Smart people were already being called the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’. Calling people stupid only works in societies where intellectuals are trusted, or at least recognised as a force for public good. People who don’t trust what intellectuals say but don’t want to be called stupid tend to keep very quiet. They’re the shy voters.
“Shy to whom?”
“To pollsters. To what remained of the establishment media – the mainstream media. There was also a lot of moral condemnation of the Leave voters as anti-immigrant racists, and that really incensed them – but they weren’t as articulate as the intelligentsia so they kept quiet rather than have rings run round them in an argument about how nasty they were. That’s why the Leave vote was underestimated. There was no particular type either. There were certainly the 60-something white men who had once worked in foundries and mines and then had their masculinity dented by having to find work in shops. We heard a lot about that type. They called him ‘the left behind’. There was more to it though – a fear of the future. Many of my generation’s and my social group’s parents, well-off people, voted Leave. ”
“But it’s been proved true, right – they did mostly hate foreigners.”
“But UKIP and news sources like The Sun, and The Daily Mail, and people’s own networks on social media, were telling white voters to think of themselves as the most critically endangered minority. The Conservatives were at home tapping into the anti-immigrant way of thinking. It got very dark. The high profile Muslim supremacist violence and politics in European cities, and the apparent failure of the establishment to stand up to it, helped that message, even though it was a small threat in the scheme of things. Same in the US too, and across Europe. Competing victimhood. I remember a documentary – a black politician cautioning other black people to be less offended by racism because there was a pressure cooker atmosphere and he didn’t want it to blow”.
“And now you mention race discrimination and everyone shrugs”.
“Yes”. Granny swallowed and looked at her hands. “So even though only 37% of the voting population voted Leave, the MPs took us out without much opposition. There were some very eloquent Labour and Scottish Nationalist politicians who did oppose it, but Labour was a dwindling power and its prospects of turning things round were small. Many of its MPs thought that voting against Article 50 would be an empty gesture which demonstrated contempt both for people and the democratic process. So they suppressed their own principles”.
“And that’s how, for the sake of democracy, we gave up on democracy?”
“Yes. Poverty swept away any last scruples. The next government dismantled many of our democratic structures. It was like a slow re-run of Venezuela. We didn’t take back power. We were still dependent on business people – just in other countries.”
“And now we sit in the dark, hoping there’s no trouble, wondering how that government threw so much away.”
Granny was very still, staring into the dwindling fire. “They meant well”.
Image credit: Mahoney’s Household Edition illustration (1871). He sat down on a stone bench opposite the door.