Concerning Brexit, I’m aware that the dust isn’t so much settled as being furiously blasted directly into our eyeballs. Everywhere we turn, all we see is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit: Government warnings on the sides of bus stops; furious, red-faced people shouting at each other on TV; newspapers with headlines that scream about THE TRAITORS WHO RUINED BREXIT or ‘BREXIT WILL KILL THE ELDERLY,’ SAYS NEW REPORT.
The radio, especially the godawful joy-vacuum that is a BBC 5Live debate, is little better.
The fact of the matter is that we, as a nation, are absolutely sick to death of Brexit. It’s both alarming and wearisome in equal measure, like cleaning a plug-hole that’s full of hair, but you live alone and it’s not your hair.
Yet, on both sides of the argument, the debate rages on with almost more verve and vigour than when the referendum was contested all the way back in 2016. The gaps in our society have been ripped into chasms, with the most passionate of both the far left and far right, Leavers and Remainers, and even the divides within our two ruling parties, splitting us further in two.
Those of us left in the moderate, “functional liberal soup” that is centrism, to quote from Hugo Rifkind, are the ones caught in the crossfire of the shouting match, covering our ears and praying for it all to end, one way or another. At some point, there will be inquiries into this utter nightmare, and some serious questions need to start being asked.
Why are we in this position? For many, it is easiest to apportion blame to the easiest targets: “Those idiots in the North voting for Leave when it will make them poorer”; “Those bigwigs in Westminster who run the place like a public school debating society”; or even “Those bloody Millennials with their avocados and their top-knots and their naive, Free-Hugs-For-All attitude.”
But this is exactly the cause of the problem. While certainly not helped by some absolutely appalling figures in politics trying to coerce, dupe and outright lie their way into relevance by throwing unsubstantiated hyperbole into the ether, we as a society have become increasingly divided by our own making. It might be comforting to blame those we disagree with, passing the buck firmly onto the “other” viewpoint, but unfortunately we must all share blame.
We, as a society, lack the ability to think critically about other viewpoints. It is an inherent part of human nature, as our “flight or fight” mechanism still remains firmly lodged in our heads despite being the top of every conceivable food chain (unless you decide to wrestle a bear, in which case I think your “flight or fight” mechanism might need some logical WD40).
Matthew Inman, creator of the Exploding Kittens board game and The Oatmeal webcomic, created a superb comic about this, which you can find here. You wouldn’t think the creator of a game called Exploding Kittens would be capable of so much nuance, but it’s a brilliant read.
Essentially, when we are presented with evidence that conflicts with our established world-view we go straight into defensive mode – to our most basic instincts, this new information is seen as a threat. This means that we start putting up walls and coming up with counter-arguments before we even begin to consider that the other person might have a point. Consider as well that we live in a society of click-bait, biased journalism, Piers Morgan, and a multitude of other factors that sensationalise news stories. These deliberately fan the flames of more extreme views in order to increase sales, influence or fame.
It is so easy for us to find examples that agree with our world-view – all we have to do is follow someone who agrees with us on Twitter, read a certain newspaper or even just Google something. The internet is a free-for-all where anyone can simply vomit their opinion onto a web-page, call it fact, and tell people to believe in it.
No, the irony of me writing that sentence as an internet writer is not lost on me.
But my point is that it has never been easier for us to succumb to our smaller minds and to shrink away from argument. Nowadays, we can simply thrust an iPhone into someone’s face to demonstrate that, um, actually, this guy with 67 followers on Twitter and has #MAGA written in his bio says that Trump isn’t a white supremacist, so there. We, as a Western society, simply cannot understand a different point of view because we are shouting at the other and they are shouting at us. We are both building up our own walls while trying to tear the other’s down.
So how does that tie in to Brexit? Put simply, Remain vs Leave.
The split within the Conservative Party over Europe has been there since we first joined the European Economic Community way back in 1972. The Prime Minister, Ted Heath, was leading a Conservative Party that was completely divided over whether or not to join the European project. He decided to press on, but the Eurosceptics in the party have always been there and have never been truly silenced. The referendum in 2016 was supposed to be the final say on the matter – “You’ve had your chance, the people have spoken, we’re staying in Europe and that’s final.”
Instead, we chose to leave.
The split within the Conservative Party spilled out into society, with fantastically moronic political grandstanding from prominent MPs like Boris Johnson and public figures like Nigel Farage leading the charge. Through using very clever (if arguably highly deceitful) rhetoric, they played on the hearts and minds of those people in society feeling most threatened by a post-financial-crash economy. They promised them nirvana once we escaped the clutches of those dastardly EUrocrats who straightened our bananas and flogged us dodgy meat, despite not having the faintest clue as to what comes next.
They inspired people to believe in a better Britain, yet gave them absolutely no assurances as to how it might happen.
Almost three years later, very little has changed. Yes, there have been considerable political developments, but the sentiments remain the same (aside from levels of boredom and despair increasing exponentially with each day that passes). It remains a case of Us vs Them: Brexiteers baying for blood if Brexit is delayed, Remoaners crying into their teacups about how stupid everyone is.
This is where our “fight or flight” mechanism comes into play. We are actively pitted against each other in the media because it sells copies and/or increases traffic. We refuse to listen to the other side of the story. Leavers are idiots, Remainers are snowflakes. One way or another, whatever the outcome, someone is going to be disappointed.
But I want to talk about a different way. It’s a very simple concept, but it requires a huge amount of self-awareness (and self-confidence). For many, it is probably impossible. But it is just one, simple idea:
This writer voted to Remain, and for the best part of the last two and a half years I fell wholeheartedly into the trap of thinking that Leavers were all deluded. Why wouldn’t they listen to facts? Why would they vote in favour of something that almost all financial institutions claimed would badly affect our economy and our most vulnerable citizens? Why are they doing this to us?
And then, when I started Between the Lines, I realised that if I was going to call myself unbiased and be true to my word then I would have to step out of my liberal echo chamber. I forced myself to follow some prominent right-wing politicians and figureheads on Twitter, I forced myself to read articles by Leave-supporters and I tried to figure out what made them tick.
I realised, after two years of blocking out those perspectives that disagreed with mine, that Brexit can be boiled down to something really rather simple.
Hearts vs. Minds.
Leavers are not idiots. Yes, the financial and economic outcomes of Brexit are predicted using detailed data analysis and modelling, and the facts do fully indicate that, in the short-term at least, Brexit would be damaging to our economy. But whereas before I thought that disregarding facts was wilful ignorance, I have come to realise that for Leave voters it is simply them putting up their barriers against those who threaten something that they truly believe in. The very message, no less, that they were sold by Farage and his ilk – a better Britain.
This isn’t a concept that should be ridiculed, despite its proponents, but rather promoted far and wide. In fact, I now have a profound respect for Leave voters. As something of a romantic, I deeply believe that to live life by statistics and numbers alone and suppressing gut instinct and feelings is to live a life half-lived. Who is to say that this shouldn’t apply to politics?
Tempered with the concept of realpolitik, or the notion that politics can only ever be a game of pragmatism, some idealism could actually give us some much-needed clarity of vision. A better Britain is something that everyone can agree on, yet simply reverting to the status quo of before the referendum would simply be to shrug, hold up our hands and say “Well, things are ok, so why bother changing them?”
This, despite the fact that as a relative giant on the global stage, we have a staggering number of people who are sleeping rough on our streets and rising child poverty levels. Both of these things, in a nation such as ours, should never happen.
Leave voters, admittedly somewhat less restrained by verified facts (for better or worse), have something bigger in mind than just reverting back to what came before – positive change to help those in our society who need it most, because normality will not achieve it. Even if the reality is that Brexit might not achieve this, and certainly won’t in the short term, we must listen to this organic sprouting of positive ideology – but they must listen to factual temperance, too.
All it takes is for a few of us to reach out a hand, tell the others that we are prepared to listen and hear what they have to say. To really hear it, not just give them their dues – to listen, to understand, and to try and find a solution.
Imagine a government that actually reached out across the House to try and form a real consensus, rather than trudge relentlessly on to deliver a compromise that satisfies no-one.
Imagine a political landscape where yes, there are opposing views, but the best aspects of both were accepted through constructive debate and something new and better was formed.
Imagine a society where we listened, we engaged, and we challenged ourselves, rather than others.
That sounds like a better Britain to me.