The EU Referendum was a seminal event in our political history for many reasons. One, however, was unique in modern times. In reaction to their defeat, the losing side’s leaders unleashed their inner contempt, not just for the result, but for the mass electorate, and arguably even for democracy itself.
The several distinct strands discernible in the Ultra-Remainers’ interpretation of the referendum result were, and are, all intended to justify either ignoring, diluting, or overturning it. That the flaws in them are so self-evident and so easily debunked highlights their desperation.
‘The Leave vote was driven by racism and xenophobia, to stop all immigration’
This first, knee-jerk, reaction has endured, its latest adherent being the habitually self-unaware Owen Jones, who in effect repeated it approvingly in his recent blog criticising the Remain-Elite’s demonisation of Leave voters (yes, really!). But, apart from the logical fallacy that wanting to stop all immigration (a minority view even among Hard-Leavers) is not prima facie evidence of either racism or xenophobia, how the accusation explains the large number of BME and Eastern-European-origin Leave voters is unclear.
The definitive rebuttal, though, emerged from Lord Ashcroft’s polling which found the majority of Leave voters voted on ‘Sovereignty and Democracy – the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. Even the second choice – ‘for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’ – is about control, not prohibition. The usual Remainer accusation of ‘to stop all immigration’ is therefore exposed as just anti-Leaver prejudice.
‘Leave voters were predominantly uneducated, “low-information” people who didn’t know what they were voting for’
Even discounting its inherent repugnance – when did a vote’s democratic validity under universal adult franchise suddenly become conditional on educational or knowledge qualifications defined post facto by the losing side? – this meme’s central tenet, that mere possession of any old university degree makes your opinions and vote valid, but those of your not similarly-endowed fellow-voters invalid, is risibly false. To give just one example, 55 per cent of graduates apparently believe that both poverty and income inequality are increasing, when in fact the exact opposite is true.
‘The Leave vote caused a spike in hate crime’
This imprecation was made possible at all only by the balefully imprecise definition of ‘hate crime’, an ‘offence’ requiring neither complaint, victim, evidence nor corroboration to be accepted and recorded. Rightly described by Brendan O’Neill as ‘the most cynical, politically motivated crime panic in memory’, and ‘the invention of a crime epidemic to the cynical, political end of defaming Brexit as hateful and dangerous’, it has now largely subsided, leaving its levellers looking especially malevolent or foolish.
‘The Leave vote was secured by Russian influence and bots on Twitter’
With this allegation, Remainer desperation descended into fantasy. It was rapidly demolished, not least by Matthew Goodwin’s comprehensive dismissal of the so-called ‘evidence’ for it. In summary, approximately 86 per cent of the allegedly ‘Brexit-influential’ tweets, which themselves represented only 15 per cent of the total analysed, were actually sent after the polls had closed, and fewer than 1 per cent of voters polled cited Twitter as their preferred information source.
‘They didn’t vote to be poorer, or to leave the single market and customs union’
Actually, they did. The repeated insistence by Cameron and Osborne alone that a Leave vote involved quitting both the EU’s principal economic institutions meant that no one could be unaware of those consequences of their Leave vote. The prominence given to them, plus the findings of the Ashcroft poll, suggests that Leave voters recognised there were economic risks in leaving, yet were still prepared to risk a temporary financial downside for themselves to ensure their children’s future in an independent, self-governing democracy.
Varied as all the above reactions are, they do have one common factor which appears both unprecedented in recent history, and very disturbing. Albeit in different ways, they all seek, not merely to condemn or oppose the Leave vote, but specifically to de-legitimise it, as justification for ignoring, negating or overturning it. As historian Robert Tombs puts it:
Previous unexpected election outcomes produced shock, as in 1992 when John Major’s Tories won, or noisy street demonstrations by the losers after the 2015 Conservative victory. But I cannot recall a previous vote in modern UK political history after which the losers have embarked on a blatant campaign to invalidate the votes of the winners, and to such an extent as to challenge the legitimacy of democracy itself.
Why? Well, those of what we can accurately label the Ultra-Remainer mindset, even carried over into regular general elections, have not been on the losing side in any election for approximately 25 years. After 1992, they got in succession Blair, Brown and Cameron: in effect a continuum of Blairite government reflecting their politics, right up to its abrupt repudiation by 17.4million voters on 23 June 2016.
For them, losing is a new experience, one which they don’t like, and can’t handle. And the underlying reason is that, as they’ve now shown and continue to show, they actually hold a low opinion of the masses, and, by extension, of mass democracy, especially when it delivers an outcome unwelcome to them.
It’s clear that, for so many, the overriding attraction of EU membership is because it enables as much politics as possible to be made immune from the need for popular consent – to be put beyond the reach of the capricious domestic democratic process and the electorate whose views they not only by and large do not share, but for whom they actively feel contempt.
In a way, we should thank them. Their Referendum-denying, insult-hurling, anti-Brexit demonisation and attempted de-legitimisation of 17.4million votes has revealed starkly the sheer extent to which this country’s elites tolerate mass democracy only for as long as it produces the results they want. When it doesn’t, they’re viscerally eager either to disparage it or suspend it.
And they are still disproportionately influential and vocal in politics, government, the media, academia, and big business. As we go into 2018, Brexit is still not certain, despite being the largest vote for any single policy in British political history. It’s starting to feel as if democracy itself is dangling by a very tenuous thread.