In this article, John Harris makes a point that I have made here a number of times ( a monotonous number of times, I fear) about the contemptuous dismissal by middle class liberals of those who had the audacity to vote against their wishes and preferences in the Brexit referendum of 2016 (another nice piece on this can be found here). As Harris points out, Leave voters, scolded for being lazily indifferent to evidence and suckers for simplistic explanations, are also frequently characterised as idiots and racists, even though this in itself is of course a lazy and simplistic generalisation. (But it seems it’s okay to make sweeping generalisations as long as it’s our side that’s doing it.)
Harris refers to an ugly and fatuous Venn diagram retweeted by Ben Goldacre (which is painfully ironic, given that Goldacre has made an entire career out of challenging lazy thinking, dodgy statistics and poorly reasoned claims). So let’s do a mental Venn diagram. Let’s start with a circle for Leave Voters and a circle for Remain voters. This is straightforward: the two circles are separate because you can’t do both.
If we were to add a circle for racists, I fully concede that it would overlap a lot more with the ‘Leave’ circle than with the ‘Remain’ one, because disentangling oneself from foreigners is, on the whole, something that would appeal to racists. There is no evidence to suggest that the ‘racist’ circle encompasses all or most of the 17m leave voters, or that some racists didn’t vote remain -after all, the idea of a powerful union of the predominantly white nations of Europe is not without fascist resonances- but yes, probably most racists voted Leave, just as most Islamist terrorists are probably practicing Muslims, so feel free to put a smaller ‘racist’ circle on the diagram that has a largish overlap with the ‘leave’ circle and a smaller overlap with the ‘remain’ circle. Just remember that to conclude from that that all leave voters are racists is as lazy and unfounded as saying that all Muslims are terrorists.
But how about a circle representing voters who are less well off and more economically insecure? The evidence suggests that a larger part of this ‘left behind’ circle overlaps with the ‘leave’ circle, than overlaps with the ‘remain’ circle. (Of course a part of it overlaps with neither, because a lot of people didn’t vote at all).
On the other hand, a circle representing relatively prosperous voters -the ‘doing alright’ circle- overlaps more with the ‘remain’ circle, rather than the ‘leave’ one.
‘Ah,’ the doing alright remainers are prone to retort to this news-and I speak as a doing alright remainer myself- ‘but that’s because we’re the better educated and/or more able part of the population. Those left-behind people do not not understand the issues, and so are ruled more by prejudice, and are more easily duped.’
Yes, but we would say that wouldn’t we? It’s more comfortable for us than, say admitting that we voted for a status quo that has looked after us pretty well, or admitting that many leave voters may have voted the way they did because they were fed up with a status quo that (under Tories and Labour alike) hadn’t served them particularly well at all. It’s certainly more comfortable than admitting that a lot of us didn’t show much interest in whether they were doing well or not.
‘But can’t they see they’d be even worse off under Brexit?’ now howls the chorus of doing-alright remainers. Well, let’s leave aside how unappetising it must be to vote on the basis that ‘this lot will screw me over, but they might screw me over a bit less badly than the other lot.’ Let’s consider instead the possibility of drawing another circle, which represents those who understand how the economy really works. How big would that circle be? Would you be in it? And if you say you’d be in it, what exactly do you mean by that? Do you mean you really understand how the economy works, or do you mean you’ve read some articles which made sense to you, and were written by people you trusted? I’m certainly not in that circle, and, considering that I’m fairly bright and pretty well-educated, I do wonder how many people really are. In fact, I’m actually not sure that anyone is. (Ask yourself how many people predicted the crash of 2008, or what happened to that complete collapse of the Eurozone that pundits were predicting in the early years of this decade? Or consider whether there are any questions at all on which all economists agree in the way that, say, all biologists agree on the essentials of evolution?)
All of which is not to say that there is no such thing as economic expertise, or that experts are a waste of time, but rather to make the point that even professional economists are a very long way from certainty, and the rest of us form our views not on the basis of our own detailed understanding of how the economy really works, but on who we choose to trust. In that respect, I suggest, remainers are not so different to leavers as they may like to think. And I’d also suggest that ‘left behind’ folk would not be thinking in a wholly irrational way if they declined to believe experts who told them that the continuation of the status quo was in their interests.
What I keep coming back to is that no one wins elections by insulting the majority of the electorate. Politics (as I tried to portray in America City and Mother of Eden) is about doing deals. It’s about different groups in society, who may not have all that much in common, nevertheless entering into alliances with one or another. If you lose an election it makes no sense at all to blame the voters who didn’t support you, because you need to win at least some of them over to your side. The side that lost is the side that failed, the side that was trusted the least. It should be looking at itself to find out what it was doing wrong and what it could do differently, not casting around for scapegoats.
[PS The tweet included above was intended an illustration of the way that Remainers, just like Leavers, are prone to simplify, and not to single out the guy who tweeted it, who was entirely up for a conversation about this.]