Leave voters can’t be dismissed as “old, racist and stupid”

Those who backed Brexit were driven by a passion for democracy and a sense of community. 

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Can the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union simply be dismissed as old and racist? And now, according to my former colleague the Labour MP Barry Sheerman, stupid? I’m sure I was not the only one who considered his claim that "better educated people voted Remain" offensive.

Putting aside the fact that many young people voted Leave, isn’t it possible that the “old” had a valuable historic perspective which allowed them to draw a distinction between trade and co-operation on the one hand  and political integration on the other? They remembered a time when nation states on the European continent either belonged to EFTA, which was based on trade, or the Common Market, which always had as its aim political as well as economic integration. That is why among the key imperatives of leaving the EU are putting an end to the supremacy of the European Court of Justice, and leaving the single market, which has free movement of people as a key pillar.

Could it not also be that the "old" recalled that peace and collective defence were guaranteed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which guarantees collective defence in the case of one member being attacked. That collective defence was invoked when NATO was led by a former British Defence Secretary, George Robertson, after the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.

Every nation state reserves the right to decide who can and cannot come into the country. It should be legitimate to talk about what these rules are as well as their consequences. That’s not racist. If half your annual net immigration comes from mainland Europe and the other half from the rest of world than this tells you something. And if you only have control over the rules relating to that part of immigration from non-EU countries, then that tells you something too. And if you then find that public services are struggling to prepare for the changes in population numbers and that in some areas wage levels are suppressed by cheaper labour coming in from outside the UK, then that should be cause to reflect. But calling it racist diminishes the debate itself  and our political leaders.

And what about this claim that Leave voters were the "uneducated"? In my experience of fighting elections in a constituency (Birmingham Edgbaston) which embraced a Russell Group university, a leading NHS hospital, working class communities who wanted to own their own home, and hoped that they would always have a job and be able to pay their bills, as well as some deprived housing estates, it is true to say that some voters may be far more articulate than others, but those without a university education are not stupid.

So maybe those who voted Leave had a greater sense of place and commitment to their communities. They would not able to pack their bags and move to a well-paid job somewhere else if things got tough. But they understood that functioning democratic institutions, having a say over who makes their laws and being able to kick their politicians out if they disagreed with them, was important. Indeed, I’d go further and say that properly functioning democracies deliver economic prosperity not the other way around.

Leave voters had rumbled the problem at the core of the European Union. At the outset, the then Common Market was supposed to remove all talk of ideology and make economic performance the centre of the project. The promise of a better tomorrow would overcome the old divisions between the key founding members, Germany and France. Now, that works for the head, but it never appealed to the heart, and politics and life needs not just rational explanation, but some ideas and ideals to hold onto.

The other thing to consider is that the UK has had a supranational identify since the 18th century – and that identity is at the core of being British. World War Two did not leave the Brits disillusioned with the nation state - in stark contrast to the mainland. And whereas most European countries held onto the EU as the key institution that offered an identity bigger than the nation state, the UK had a plethora of global institutions of which it was either a founding member or a leading participant. From the IMF and the World Bank, to the UN, the Council of Europe, NATO, the OEED, and GATT.

Some of these institutions have succeeded in adapting to the changes we have seen since then and some have not. The UK is comfortable with change, and no one institution is central to its identity. So there was no crisis when the World Trade Organisation succeeded GATT, or when the Organisation of European Economic Co-operation was subsumed by a worldwide organisation, the OECD.

The UK always has been and will continue to be outward looking, international and welcoming. But since the Maastricht Treaty of 1994 - when we opted out of a single European currency and common travel area (Schengen) - there was an inevitable distance from the rest of the EU. The road to our eventual departure was set in motion then. And it was sped up when the Euro was introduced because it became increasingly difficult to have a political and economic union which did not institutionally acknowledge the different needs of member states. The EU’s response - which was to plough ahead with "the project" without acknowledging that the world around us was changing - was also key in edging us further to the exit door.

In this way, the vote to leave was for the UK a logical consequence of a decision made over 20 years ago - one which David Cameron’s negotiation failed to address, perhaps due to resistance on the continent, or perhaps because he failed to see the writing on the wall. 

But whether you agree with this exact analysis or not, I hope we can all agree that it is time to stop the patronising and offensive name calling. The vote to leave was not an illness which requires treatment, or a stupidity that requires education, it was a democratic decision which now must be implemented: a process which I hope all politicians will put their energy towards.

Gisela Stuart is chair of Change Britain and was Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston from 1997-2017