Is it safe to come out yet? Doubtful. Not since the mid-1980s has British politics been so divided and embittered. Debates, such as they are, descend into ad hominem attacks, friendships are ended, and opinions become entrenched to the point of dogma. The catalyst for this was Brexit, but the debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union, destructive as it was, had at least one salutary effect – it tore the benign and smiling veil from the left to reveal a snarling and spiteful face.
For those involved or heavily interested in politics this is hardly news. As I’ve discussed previously, Tory voters get called scum, monsters and evil which such rapidity and frequency it’s almost become background noise. But to the casual observer, and to those who only really have their political interest piqued during national elections, one could be forgiven for buying into the message that the board left were the nice ones, all warm and fuzzy and talking about equality and inclusiveness while the other lot are by the (sort of) admission of their own leader, the nasty party. (Because everybody of a centre right persuasion is a Tory apparently. CCHQ will be pleased.)
Brexit, however, and especially its immediate aftermath, unleashed the full and terrible wrath of the progressive left on a scale that couldn’t be ignored. Anybody brave enough to venture onto Facebook and Twitter in late June would have borne witness to a vitriolic display of hatred that can only be summoned and wielded by those with complete confidence not just in the rightness of their argument, but also in the moral superiority of their cause.
To understand why, one needs to understand how Remain viewed the average Leave voter. The caricature was quickly formed and gleefully latched onto – Leave voters were poorer, less educated, less well travelled, had a narrower range of interests, a less sophisticated pallet, and lived outside the major metropolitan areas. It was snobbery, but the sort of acceptable prejudice that has always infested the progressive left. Bob Geldof encapsulated it beautifully, with the now-infamous photo of the sneering millionaire giving the v-sign to destitute fisherman becoming one of the lasting images of referendum.
The Leave voter was everything that the Remain voter quietly bristled against. Despite sovereignty consistently being the number one reason people voted Leave, to the Remain campaigner Leavers were assumed to be obsessed with immigration. This mattered for two reasons. Firstly, it demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of their opponents and the country as a whole. And secondly it gave Remain the excuse it needed to write off a huge swathe of voters as bigots and crypto-fascists. Why even bother trying to talk to these people, the argument went, they’re not only wrong but bad, and who wants to talk to bad people?
The pattern was a repeat of 2010, the AV referendum, and 2015; the mostly younger progressive left ventured outside their comfort zones and started to engage with real people, didn’t like what they saw and heard, so scurried back the cosseted coffee shops, Facebook groups and Twitter feeds to swap stories about how ghastly and irredeemably backward everybody outside London is.
All this was reinforced by the democratisation of the news and media. When you can tailor your news and entertainment intake so easily and so deftly it becomes terrifyingly easy to unconsciously filter out views all and opinions you find challenging. A generation of young left wingers have prescribed themselves a diet of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, The Last Leg, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Independent and countless smaller outlets which might on paper look like a wide range but is in reality very narrow and not representative of broader public opinion.
The Daily Show and, to a smaller extent, The Last Leg are particularly significant because of the pseudo-news manner in which they ridicule and dismiss much of what comes from Fox News in the US and the centre right here (often well deserved, to be fair). Concerns about immigration, ideas of national identity and patriotism, are sneered at, ridiculed, and dismissed as the domain of knuckle-dragging provincial hicks, not the sort of people whose opinion is even worth considering. This message, repeated daily across bespoke media platforms and among friends has created an ingrained culture of intellectual superiority. The intellectual left has written off the white (especially northern, working class as a lost cause and disassociated themselves from a country they never really liked to begin with.
When viewed like this it’s easy to see why the referendum result came as such a shock to many on the left, just as the general election did last year. When the only articles you read, the only news you watch and the only people you interact with all share your views it’s inevitable that you’ll conclude that your views are those of the majority.
But rather than examine how they let themselves become so detached from the rest of society, too many on the left opted for the petulance of a toddler. Worse still, there are genuine calls for the referendum to be re-run or even flat out ignored. Again, the anti-democracy strain on the left is not new but seldom has it been so brazen. The masses, it seems, simply cannot be trusted with certain decisions. Far better to leave complex issues to people who’ve been to university and read the Atlantic, and let the onsie-clad Proles get back to X-Factor and Celebrity Big Brother.
Far from being anti-establishment as they came, the graduates and young professionals on the progressive left have far more in common with the political, governmental, and journalistic class than they do with the overwhelming majority of the voting public.
For what it’s worth I voted Remain, but was horrified and frankly embarrassed at what I saw my from fellow Remainers in the days and weeks after the referendum. It’s one of the great ironies of contemporary politics that those who claim to be inclusive, open and tolerant don’t seem willing to extend these virtues to their neighbours.