Now to be poor is a sin and you are attacked from every direction, so there was an element of a “stuff you” protest vote.
To understand what happened, we must listen to those who made it happen. We must demonstrate empathy and suspend judgement. Above all, we must stop dismissing 52% of the voters as old, bigoted, racist or short-sighted, lest we fall for the very same simplistic stereotyping we accuse them of.
The profile that emerges for Leavers is one of “communities that feel left behind” (John McDonnell), and of “deeply entrenched national geographical inequality”. Of disenfranchised and marginalised people who have been economically abandoned for a long time.
Leave votes, we realise now, were not really about immigration, the economy, or the aftermath of the financial crisis, but about something deeper: “the dignity of being self-sufficient, […] in a communal, familial and fraternal sense” (Will Davies).
A dignity that “has been eroded and mocked by globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, [and] the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties” (Michael Sandel).
What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it.
The critical mistake from the Remain campaign was to debate – or worse, justify – the symptoms without addressing the cause.
Are you afraid of immigration? Don’t be, immigration is good for you, stop being racist.
Are you appalled by the amount of money sent to EU? Well, they did their sums wrong, it’s only 140 million pounds per week. That abstract number should surely reassure you.
Are you worried about your jobs? You have to understand we are in a financial crisis, but trust us, things would somehow be worse if we left the EU.
Whether Remain was factually correct turns out to be irrelevant. Rational arguments are never the right answer to people’s feelings and frustrations.
Worse, they are interpreted as a rejection of those feelings many people hold toward a society they no longer feel part of.
Promising the status quo isn’t enough for the disenfranchised who long for a brighter future for themselves. Can they be blamed to put all their hopes in the fantasy sold by the Leave campaign, one in which they regain control of their destiny?
This was more than a protest against the career opportunities that never knock and the affordable homes that never get built. It was a protest against the economic model that has been in place for the past three decades.
We may call it a protest vote, but we must see it for what it stands for: people demanding a fairer society.
As a Swiss citizen who votes on referendums several times a year, I know from experience that to best wield that dangerous tool of direct democracy, you have to ask the right question. Whether to ban minarets is a good example of a terrible question, to which you can only get a terrible answer.
In the EU referendum, the people who voted Leave were not asked the question they wanted to answer.
They weren’t interested in the details of the immigration policy, the exact amount of our contributions, or the difficulty to negotiate international trade deals.
But they answered anyway, because they were given a voice, a more powerful voice perhaps than they realised, having been numbed to a broken electoral system where many votes genuinely do not count.
And when it came to tick their choice, they picked the one with the most hope. Not the status quo, but the promise of change, of regaining control, of a better life, more valued, more plentiful, more safe, whether a realistic possibility or not. It felt a risk worth taking.
This dream would explain the shock of many of them on Friday, when frantic backpedalling already started hinting at its unravelling, along with brutal realities (pension funds lost, poorer currency, plans to retire to a house in France) tarnishing that vision of a better future.
Combined with the sudden lack of clarity and energy from the Leave leaders, buyers’ remorse crept in. Many seemed genuinely surprised that the emperor had no clothes, and no real plan.
Daily Mail explains how Brexit will affect your holiday money, mortgages, passports, health cover. Comments tragic. pic.twitter.com/lr388vQTMD
— Claire Murphy (@DougalMurphy) June 25, 2016
More surprising however was the shock amongst Remain voters at the discovery that a majority of the country thinks so differently.
An telling reaction to what is simply a genuinely democratic result, unlike that of a general election. The anti-democratic shield of first-past-the-post many count on to block out the extremes (a single UKIP MPs in spite of the party’s 12% plebiscite) artificially altered the public perceptions.
This is the true voice of the people. Nobody has taken the country away.
This was Britain all along, we just weren’t used to hear her.
But the real tragedy is that there are no winners. As Laurie Penny put it, “This was a working-class revolt, but it is not a working-class victory”.
Whether or not last ditch attempts succeed in aborting Brexit, the profound economic inequalities that led to it won’t be solved unless drastic policies are instated to share economic prosperity.
If the Leave camp takes control, it is more likely to accelerate rather than restrain the neoliberalism that failed to provide Leave voters with new prospects. For all its empty rhetoric, it is no less an integral part of the political and economic establishment it purported to fight.
And with both main parties unravelling, there is plenty of room for populist currents from the extremes, as has been the case throughout Europe.
Which leaves us with a darker question: if nothing is done to improve the fate of masses that can be swayed with mediatised populism, what will that anger be direct to next time?