Last Thursday, as voters across the United Kingdom cast ballots on their future within the European Union, I was in Dublin attending an academic conference. The professors, graduate students, and other various representatives of the professional intellectual class that I spoke with there all seemed quite confident that the Brits would stay in Europe. The banker I found myself chatting with at the pub was so confident in the referendum’s outcome, in fact, that he wanted to know if there was anywhere he could still place a bet in favor of a ‘Remain’ outcome. In Oxford and London, meanwhile, correct opinion at cocktail parties and sitting-room kaffeeklatsches was likewise that of course Britain would stay put. At least, such a view was easy to find among the dons and tutors.
But as soon as one started to seek out the position of the kitchen workers and domestic staff and taxi drivers, one discovered a different sort of confidence. It was a confidence that said of course we’re going to vote to leave. In the small hours of Friday morning it became clear that the Brexiteers had carried the day. Many still have not recovered from the shock.
My interest is not so much in the result itself as in how, amidst a months-long national debate on the issue, could two segments of the population so thoroughly misunderstand each other? What seemed like a foregone conclusion to the educated, high-earning city-dwellers struck their working-class, uncredentialed fellow-citizens as plainly unacceptable. As markets wobbled and both the Labour and Conservative parties began to self-destruct in the wake of the vote, there is good reason to fear for the economic and political stability of a newly ‘independent’ Britain; but more troubling still is the failure of civil society to accurately frame a viable debate in which voters could hear from and understand one another.
The post-referendum polling clarifies the problem. London super-zips like Westminster, Kensington, and Wandsworth voted to stay put by as much as seventy-five percent while chronically depressed areas like Blackpool, Waveney, and Tendring opted for exit by roughly identical margins. Outside the capitol a majority in every region in England voted to leave the EU, while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted unanimously to remain. Others have already noted the decisive divide between young and old voters, with pensioners about three times more likely than their twenty-something counterparts to support Brexit; in Manchester, for instance, where the median age is twenty-nine, the vote was sixty percent to stay, while seven out of ten voters in East Lindsey, with a median age of forty-nine, wanted to quit Europe.
The strong feelings have not subsided since the results were announced. On the contrary, several outlets have now reported on an increase in racist and nativist incidents—including a few violent attacks—across the country after the vote. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative who had been campaigning for Brexit, told CNN that ‘The atmosphere on the street [after the vote] is not good,’ as evidenced, for instance, by the graffiti-vandalism inflicted upon the London headquarters of the Polish and Social Cultural Association over the weekend.
Somehow and somewhere along the way this debate turned from one about the limited, procedural question of Britain’s place in an international institution into one of fundamental social values and national identity. This can be explained in part by the particularities of the Remain and Leave campaigns’ respective strategies—Brexiteers captured the narrative early and played fast and loose enough with figures to buttress high rhetoric with the impression of economic urgency. The Remain camp, meanwhile, never really found its footing, in no small part due to Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ersatz commitment to the cause of European unity. Thus while overall turnout was close to an all-time high, most of that energy belonged to the Leave camp. But more than the happenstance of party politics, the Brexit vote reveals that the interrelated clump of media-cultural-social institutions conceived of as civil society failed to establish clear parameters for this debate, or to represent accurately the true scope and scale of antagonisms involved in it.
Thus how only thirty-six percent of young people ages eighteen to twenty-four managed to show up to vote, despite now leading protests in the streets against the result. Thus how my sophisticated Oxford confreres completely underestimated the flinty potency of the working-class protest vote. And thus the growing number of voters who have publicly declared their ‘Regrexit’ (or, alternatively, ‘Bregret’) and wish they could take back their vote to leave. One Leave voter told the Independent, ‘I'm shocked that we voted for Leave, I didn't think that was going to happen.’ One is left to wonder what this voter did think was going to happen as he pulled the lever in support of Brexit.
The same phenomenon can be seen in America in the improbable rise of Donald Trump. Chattering classes and urban professionals wrote off Trump’s potential appeal from the very beginning and only now, after he has clinched the Republican nomination, does the reality seem to be setting in that there exist significant swaths of the population for whom his heady mix of bravura and bluster is genuinely appealing.
Civil society exists to ensure that citizens are not strangers to one another. When, on the one hand, one segment of the population can remain blissfully unaware of the resentment being marshalled against it while, on the other hand, a second segment can strive so eagerly after an outcome they don’t truly understand, then the conventional practices of debate and deliberation have failed in some important sense. Surveying the state of affairs on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, it seems voters are less and less inclined to ‘reflection and choice,’ opting instead for ‘accident and force.’ No one should be surprised by the confusion and turmoil to follow.
Photo attribution: By Vexels GroovyGraphics - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49752970