So, which are you? Are you an uneducated, probably elderly and therefore worthless, racist driven by blind hatred of immigrants? Or are you an out-of-touch snobby metropolitan liberal who doesn’t believe in democracy and loves sneering at the poor? Pick your side!
Perhaps the most worrying thing about the referendum has been the polarisation it continues to produce, accompanied by a vast and growing gulf between the social worlds of leavers and remainers. (FWIW, I was an abstainer myself, but one whose social circles have been very heavily remain.) More than once I’ve seen people on social media challenging anyone who voted out to unfriend them, as if trying to shut 52% of the population out of your world was a workable or even desirable thing to achieve. And if we accept that the leave vote was at least partly driven by a feeling of powerlessness, a desire to shake things up and force the establishment to listen to voices that have traditionally been ignored, then it’s hard to imagine anything more likely to increase that distrust and resentment than the widespread reaction among remainers of trying to find some more-or-less anti-democratic way of overturning the vote, exemplified by the widespread sharing of the petition for a second referendum.
The Occupy slogan of “the 99% versus the 1%” from five years ago was a bit corny, and very simplistic, but it expressed some important truths, and it did go some way to summing up the antagonism between the small, wealthy minority who benefit from this society and the vast majority who would benefit from changing it. In contrast, I don’t think a polarisation between 48% and 52% of the population is helpful to anyone, but that’s where we seem to be headed.
So how do we row back from here? A good starting point would be to recognise that neither side has a monopoly on virtue, that there’s good and bad on both sides. Any movement I’d want to be part of would need the internationalism and solidarity with migrants that many remainers voted for, as well as the scepticism, rebelliousness and hostility to authority showed by many leavers. We certainly need to fight against the racism that characterised sections of the leave campaign, but we also need to fight the more coded, socially acceptable bigotry shown by many remainers – particularly the patronising dismissal of older voters that, as tensions rose, escalated from a kind of dogwhistle ageism to outright dehumanisation.
Against the temptation to view all leavers as hopeless racists, it’s worth bearing in mind that 49% of those polled gave their main reason as “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. It’s hard to disagree with the principle that people affected by decisions should have a say in making those decisions (although some of the more openly authoritarian remainers do seem to have given up on that idea).
The rise of racist/nationalist violence and hatred since the referendum is real, worrying, and should be combated. But the tendency among many remainers to try and equate everyone who voted leave with the worst, most hateful elements of that camp is no more useful than trying to blame everyone who voted “in” for the dead bodies that continue to wash up on Mediterranean beaches, victims of the nice, tolerant, liberal EU border regime.
Ultimately, ideas – whether those ideas are British nationalism, Islamist fundamentalism, or internationalist socialism – don’t arise in a vacuum; they’re formed by the conditions that exist in society, and taking on those ideas means fighting the conditions that allow them to make sense. Solidarity with migrants and anti-racist/anti-fascist work are definitely important tasks in the days ahead, and tasks that have to involve anti-racist elements of the 52%, not just those who can prove their “officially not a racist because I voted in” credentials, but they need to be accompanied by the broader work of creating projects that can bridge the growing social void between the two camps. Building workplace organisation is something that benefits both migrant workers like the cleaners striking in London and white British workers who may have voted to leave; similarly, practical community projects, from the organising around housing happening in London and Bristol to things like the socialist clothing bank in County Durham, can both reveal our shared material interests and needs, and bring us closer to meeting those needs. The politics of nationalism have led us to a very dangerous place; we need the politics of class to get us out of it.