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4 February 2020

Remainers agonise over how to treat their opponents – when will Leavers do the same?

The Brexiteers have already won – the least they can do is to be nice about it. 

By Jonn Elledge

Late on Friday night, as Big Ben failed to bong, Britain left the European Union. This was very obviously a bad idea, which, as a committed Remoaner, I am honour bound to point out will lead to everything from economic weakness and more paperwork when visiting the continent, to a plague on the nation’s first-born. But if you still think I’m wrong about this, there’s very little I can do to change your mind here, so let’s not talk about that right now.

Instead, let’s talk about how the news was greeted in the burning hellscape we shall refer to as “online”. In the hours after Britain cast itself adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, The Discourse followed a familiar pattern: TV reporters interviewed a pair of “real people” at the party in Parliament Square about their reasons for voting Leave; smug Remainers, at least some of who had hashtags in their names, tweeted about how hilarious it was that these women weren’t particularly articulate and couldn’t convincingly explain what the benefits of leaving the EU actually were; then equally, though differently, smug Remainers criticised the first lot for calling Leavers stupid. It’s a dance as old as time.

This sequence was entirely predictable: the broadly liberal, broadly internationalist bit of the public sphere has been agonising over how best to approach the chunk of the electorate that isn’t either of those things since at least June 2016, and probably well before. It isn’t restricted to Brexit, either. You can see variants on this pattern in Labour’s discourse about its failure to appeal to socially conservative voters; on US politics Twitter, where it concerns blue-collar Trump voters; and anywhere else where people have long and pointless arguments about What Is To Be Done.

But this time, something struck me about it: I couldn’t imagine it happening the other way around. When did you last see a tweet from a prominent Leave campaigner, say, berating his voters for talking about Remain supporters as if they were a bunch of arrogant traitors, and telling them that this country would be in a much better state if we all treated our opponents with the proper respect?

Come to that, when did you last see Blue Labour note the importance of black and minority ethnic voters to the party’s coalition? Or see older white voters in post-industrial towns told that, to help heal the divisions in society, they needed to do more to understand the struggles of the urban poor? The demand for understanding only ever seems to run one way, the impulse to self-flagellate to belong to one side alone.

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To be absolutely clear, since this has already got me into trouble: no, I am not arguing that calling Leave voters stupid is in any way A Good Thing. It’s one thing to mock, say, Iain Duncan Smith for his lack of intellect and his obvious insecurity about it. (Seriously, it screams at you.) But he’s a public figure, a man whose narrowness and meanness has literally ruined lives, and who has been rewarded with a knighthood for his trouble. And it’s another thing entirely to mock members of the public who’ve never done anything but vote without being in command of all the facts. Apart from anything else, it’s hardly as though the entire 48 per cent of the population who voted Remain were experts on trade policy or international relations, is it?

Nonetheless, it’s striking that the exhortation to cool it only seems to come from one side of this chasm. The leaders of the Leave campaign never seem to feel the need to tell their supporters to be kinder to the other side, and it’s worth asking why.

Perhaps it’s because Remain has lost, repeatedly, so needs to change its strategy in a way the other lot don’t – as if the opinions of @JoeBlogs1973  #FBPE are just as much as a part of Remain’s political strategy as the actions of the Lib Dem leadership. But you can flip that round, and argue that, having won, repeatedly, Leave is in a position to be generous, to ensure losers’ consent. That very obviously hasn’t happened.

So perhaps it’s a temperament thing. Perhaps liberal, internationalist types are simply more tolerant and more pluralistic than the nationalist-leaning Leavers, and so more minded to reach across the aisle.

But “they know not what they do” is such a smug starting point for a political position that I felt dirty just typing it out. And it’s patronising in the extreme to speak as if only Remain voters have the intellect or temperament necessary to treat their opponents with respect. It’s also, if we’re to believe polling gleefully promoted by professor Matthew Goodwin last weekend, not actually true.

So perhaps there isn’t a reason, or at least not a good one. Perhaps it’s just that some Remainers are motivated partly by their desire to feel superior, while the type of politicians who campaigned for Leave are more likely to be a bunch of shysters motivated by their desire to own the libs.

Nonetheless, the fact the exhortations to understand only seem to run one way feels like a fairly stupid way to run a country. If we’re to heal the divisions in our society, about Brexit or about anything else, then empathy needs to run both ways. No, we shouldn’t call Leave voters stupid – but nor should we expect less of them than we do of ourselves. They’ve already won. The least they can do is to be nice about it.