Iraq War opponents were called traitors and snakes – now it's happening with Brexit, too

After an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost.

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“We are all Brexiteers now,” said the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, in July, explaining why he felt comfortable backing the Remain-supporting Theresa May as his party leader. To which I’d like to reply: I’m not. Leaving the EU still seems like an act of wanton economic self-harm, and constitutional wrangling will crowd out any serious discussion of domestic policy and public services for years to come. Yes, it has to happen. But don’t expect me to be happy about it.

The other reason why I’m not cheering on the idea of Brexit is that it’s so clear that the Brexiteers don’t want me to. Their entire narrative relies on casting themselves as the underdogs, fighting the pernicious dominance of the “liberal elite”. These two words are a magic mantra, stronger than any industrial solvent: they wash away money, privilege and connections, rendering even the poshest bloke the authentic voice of the humble working man.

Unfortunately, encouragement for this type of attitude comes from the top. It was striking how little Theresa May’s Conservative party conference speech had to say to anyone who voted Remain and, indeed, how casually it caricatured 48 per cent of the population as la-di-da latte drinkers in £2m houses.

Are the people of Northern Ireland, who have the UK’s lowest average pay, weakest productivity and highest unemployment, members of this hated elite? They must be, because a majority of them voted to stay in Europe. What about the people of Lambeth, the area that had London’s highest Remain vote? They can’t escape the accusation of being metropolitan, true, but as the 22nd most deprived borough in England, I doubt they feel like elites, either.

Once an “us and them” narrative this strong is established, often any empathy for “them” gets lost. On 12 October, the Daily Express ran a comment piece by Chris Roycroft-Davis claiming that anyone who wanted a Commons vote on Brexit was arguing: “The people have spoken, we don’t like what they said because they aren’t as clever as us, so let’s ignore them and try to reverse the referendum result.” He added, “Such snake-like treachery cannot go unpunished. Here’s what I would do with them: clap them in the Tower of London.” And in case you think that this was just a columnist getting overexcited (like when Rod Liddle has too many cod liver oil pills and – oops! – ends up breaching a court order), consider the front-page headline: “Time to silence EU exit whingers”.

This madness is spreading. A Tory councillor called Christian Holliday recently started a petition calling for the Treason Felony Act to be amended, so that it would become an offence “to imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others to support the UK becoming a member of the European Union”. It got a dribble of signatures before he was suspended from the party. (Side note: his name would make him an excellent choice to lead this year’s inevitable round of the War on Christmas.)

I know that, individually, these seem like minor examples: we can’t ascribe too much significance to the ravings of local politicians and Express op-ed contributors. My concern is that these are only the lurid flowerings of a much deeper phenomenon: an insidious recasting of the events of 23 June as a huge landslide in favour of the hardest possible Brexit, rather than a 52-48 decision with millions of people in the soggy middle, worried about both immigration and the economy – and imagining that the government will try to arrange the best compromise between competing interests.

Yet we have already slipped into a space where “ordinary people” supported Brexit; where it is unpatriotic to question the exact form that leaving the EU should take. Any scrutiny by parliament is “subverting the will of the British people”, as if MPs were elected by some other group entirely. No one should try to overturn or even temper the referendum result, because, after all, it’s not as if Nigel Farage and his friends spent decades fighting the consensus in politics.

All of this reminds me of the rush to go to war in Iraq, when similar arguments were deployed: why do you hate freedom? Are you a terrorist sympathiser? Why aren’t you getting behind your government? Rereading some of the rhetoric from the early 2000s is chilling. A Sun front page in 2003 showed the then Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, next to a cobra, asking readers to “spot the difference”: “One is a spineless reptile that spits venom . . . The other’s a poisonous snake.” At the 2004 Republican national convention, the keynote speaker Zell Miller told delegates: “Our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief.” In other words, opposition was divisive and unpatriotic.

We are back in that dark place. We have lost the idea of politics as the art of endless compromise, trying to deliver the best possible result, pleasing the greatest possible number of people – and protecting a space for dissenters. Only 52 per cent
of us matter.

In her conference speech, May attacked Remainers for “find[ing] the fact that more than 17 million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering”. Well, yes. It sounds like a terrible idea to me. But I’m sure that Brexit voters would say the same about my opinions. Do we really think that Farage has an intuitive sense of my concerns? Yet, in this new world, he isn’t expected to understand me, although I have to understand him. And I have to shut up, too.

None of this is good for democracy. Good opposition makes governments better, by forcing them to think more deeply and strategically. The atmosphere in 2003 led to a catastrophe in another country. In 2016, it could lead to a disaster in this one. 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood