Friday , June 21 2024

Reflections on the Referendum in Britain

Firstly, I would like to remark at what a revealing few days this has been, on all sides of the EU referendum debate. I have learnt a lot more about the nature of the campaigns on both sides from the fallout of this referendum than I did over the course of campaigning. Some of you may have noticed the title of this article, and yes it is a veiled reference to Edmund Burke’s masterwork Reflections on the Revolution in France. My piece won’t nearly be as long as Burke’s, but why write this now? Well, I feel that the coming months will be very challenging, and my inner conservative has been roused by the events of the past few days to begin tackling those challenges. There is a lot to discuss, and limited time.

Generally speaking, I do not believe the political campaigning for the referendum to have been Britain’s finest hour by a long shot. Of course, as a passionate supporter of Vote Leave, I was very happy with the result, but I have always been fairly critical of the way the Leave campaign went about its canvassing. I believe it took a far too subjunctive view of a Brexit, emphasising too much the mood of possibility and too little the hard facts and case studies which show the damage, both political and economic, that the EU does to Britain and to its partners outside the EU. Remain, on the other hand, put across a very negative campaign which focussed on near-apocalyptic scenarios which might have occurred if we left the EU. The campaigning is over now though, thank God, so I won’t comment the validity of either campaign’s facts – there will be time enough for that in the coming months.

There were many reasons why the British public was polarised by this debate, why there was such a close split between Remainers and Leavers. The vast majority of Remainers I believe, voted so out of a cautious attitude, and innate British small-c conservatism, and they did not wish to risk what they saw as economic stability, British jobs and relationships with other European countries. This is not necessarily a bad position to take, at least, in that I cannot knock the intentions of such voters, as much as I think their concerns are little to worry about. With the USA, Canada and even Germany saying they want special trade deals with the UK following Brexit, much of the fear about being “put to the back of the queue” for international cooperation appears to be null.

But ah, Friday 24th was undoubtedly the most interesting of the entire experience. I awoke, part of me expecting to have been beaten by Remain, closely, but I was not expecting a victory for Leave, I was so wrong, and minutes later, a cheer from the rest of my family confirmed the reality. I was pleased, and I ventured onto social media expecting a lot of disappointment from those who voted Remain; a large number of my friends and acquaintances are Remainers, and a lot of them respected and understood my position as a Leave supporter, and I thought perhaps naïvely that despite people’s disappointment they would accept the result and now work with Leave supporters to receive the benefits of Leaving the EU that we were all promised. I couldn’t have been more shocked, and scared by what I saw. Torrents of foul-mouthed abuse directed at Leavers, a near constant flow of accusations of racism and xenophobia, hatred towards the older generation, and a generally hostile atmosphere which, as a Leave voter, made me feel incredibly uncomfortable considering many of the people writing and “liking” such aggressive postures were people I knew. Later I saw University students calling for the older generations to be disenfranchised altogether, since apparently did not have the “education” or “high enough IQ” to take decisions like this. I saw calls for the referendum result to be overturned, for Parliament to block the result and for the Electoral Commission to be given powers to tackle “misinformation”. I was terrified and disgusted. Many people said they were “ashamed to be British”, I was ashamed to know people who behaved in such a disgraceful and disrespectful way.

As much as I do not wish to come across rude myself, I am afraid to say that this attitude among many young people, and even older, supposedly mature adult Remainers, is nothing more than childish. It frankly makes me despair for the future of our democracy. Yes, 75% of 18-24 year olds may have voted leave, by turnout among them was only 36%, compared to 58-81% among the older population. So of course, it’s young people who care about our democracy much more than those older than us.

Many Leavers, just like Remainers, were passionate and enthusiastic, and believed strongly in their opinions, and here is the crux of the matter. There appears to be a reluctance among the disappointed ones to accept the result of the referendum as being the triumph of a different opinion over theirs. They would, just as a religious fanatic decries adherents of other religions a “heretic”, decry the Leavers as “racists”, “xenophobes” and “bigots”, abandoning debate and descending into the most horrible abuse so as to encourage it by others. I know a lot of people who voted Leave, including a lot of my family, and I haven’t heard a bigoted comment from a single one of them. From some on the Remain side, however, there has been a great deal of bitterness, contempt for the uneducated, talk of sewers bursting and this country becoming a nation of evildoers, fantasies about creating a new independent state that would exclude the rural, backward, “racist” parts of the country, and so on. If these people want to see bigotry, they should take a look at themselves. Quite frankly they are showing the largest display of bigotry in this country right now.

I fundamentally reject the idea that this debate was a result of the victory of racist attitudes. To paraphrase something that a Remain friend said to me recently: “Oh, you may not be a racist, but your campaign was comprised of a large number of them.” No, not at all, that is a gross assumption. Yes, there will always be some racists in a campaign like this, there will always be Britain First types who believe that only white British people deserve any kind of recognition and fair treatment by the state. But to say that the Leave campaign, and the rise of nationalism across Europe in general, is a sign of the rise of “racism” in the world, is I think a very misguided attitude. This is not the victory of racism – in fact it is the victory of ordinary people against an illiberal elite. We all knew there would be some short-term economic pain, but it has not been nearly as bad as many “experts” predicted. The elites have adopted such a strong “liberal” position on nearly everything that their liberalism is beginning to consume itself, and become fundamentally oppressive. Both the Labour and Conservative Parties which have presented themselves as our only political choices since the beginning of the 20th century have in the last 20 years or so been so contained in their cosmopolitan and often metropolitan (and often, dare I say, London-centric) bubble that they have lost sight of the people who used to be their support base. I do not believe that the British people hate other cultures, hate non-British people, we have never been a nation to do that – instead, we have rejected a value-system. The people who have been hardest hit by economic crises, made to pay for them and been given nothing back because they do not conform to the establishment’s criteria for special treatment, the working class, have turned around and sent a message to their leaders “We have had enough.” It’s just sad that the response of a large number of people appears to be that of a toddler whose parent denied them the chocolate bar they wanted – throwing a tantrum and demanding the result they want angrily, with as little respect as you like.

Despite all of this, we now have work to do, and positive work too. Let’s look forward to the benefits promised from Brexit, and seek to affirm Britain’s strong economic position in the coming months. The markets are already correcting, and the outlook is nowhere near as bleak as many feared. But as much as I look forward to these things, we must also look to our political system, ready our pens and our voices to speak out against those who would deny us of our democratic choice. Peter Sutherland, a top UN official tweeted that “The younger generation in the UK has been sacrificed all because of distortion of facts & consequences. Somehow this result must be overturned.” People want to end “misinformation” in politics, which is a highly subjective word to interpret, have Parliament debate to overturn the result and other outrages. We must not allow a generation which has never been exposed to ideas which challenge their supposedly “progressive” assumptions to override our democracy.

I am hopeful that these frankly laughable petitions and tantrums will achieve nothing, especially with Cameron and Corbyn accepting the referendum result. We are after all, committed to our cause, absolutely necessary in this kind of affair, and which steels us against the shock and insults we have been subjected to, but also against the presumptuous judgement of the ignorant. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to stand by and do nothing. Let’s use this as a chance to fight for more democracy, and less intolerance and illiberalism.

About Alex Illingworth

Alex Illingworth lives in Oxford where he pursues studies in philosophy and theology, having previously studied Classics. He has written extensively on conservatism, and on British politics, and is a co-founder of the conservative blog aimed at students: The Burkean. His debut book in political philosophy "Political Justice" is a forthcoming publication with Arktos Media.

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