What was the referendum about, anyway?

I went to bed on Thursday night, fully expecting that when I got up on Friday morning, the main headline would be that Britain had voted “Remain”. After all, that was what the experts were saying. However, the experts, it turned out, were wrong. Just as they had been about the last UK General Election, just as they had been about Britain joining the Euro, just as they had been about the state of the economy just before the 2008 financial crisis hit, and apparently, just as they had been about full cream milk.

They were not actually that far out – they reckoned that it would be about 52 to 48 in favour of Remain; it actually turned out to be 52 to 48 in favour of leave. What’s a mere 4%? Though of course it must be said that for many people, that 4% was the difference between joyfully celebrating, and weeping, wailing and gnashing one’s teeth.

The results, however, were interesting. And what was particularly striking was that it was immediately obvious that the UK was divided into three. There was Scotland, where the Remain vote was 62% ; there was Northern Ireland, where the Remain vote was 55.8% ; and there was England and Wales. Yes, there was a difference between England (46.6%) and Wales (47.5%), but it was pretty small.

And, as I looked at the results, two things struck me.

First, there was a massive difference between the way that traditional urban Labour areas in the North of England voted, and the way that urban areas in the central belt of Scotland (which traditionally supported Labour) had voted. The question I asked myself was “These areas are, on the face of it, very similar. Why then was the ‘Remain’ vote in Sunderland 38.7%, when the ‘Remain’ vote in North Lanarkshire was 61.7%?”

Second, when one compares the results of the 2016 EU referendum with the 1975 EEC referendum, there is a huge difference. In 1975, Scotland had been one of the most Euro-sceptic parts of the UK. While England had returned a “Yes” vote of 67.8% to remaining in (and Wales, 64.8%), in Scotland, only 58.4% had voted “Yes”. (In Northern Ireland it was 52.1 %.) Today, the opposite is the case: Scotland is apparently much more enthusiastic about the EU than England.

On the face of it, Scotland hasn’t changed that much. Just as the SNP was doing well in the mid-1970s, so it is today. And the economic history of the central belt of Scotland over the past 40 years has been pretty similar to that of the North of England. So why have Sunderland and North Lanarkshire gone in opposite directions? Why has the situation flipped around?

The more I thought about this, the more I became convinced that this isn’t really about what people think of the EU. Or, to be more precise, what people think about EU membership is strongly affected by other factors.

What do you think of this flag?

The results of Thursday’s referendum in Northern Ireland illustrate this perfectly. The most pro-Remain constituencies were Foyle (78.3%) and Belfast West (74.1%), while the most anti-Remain constituency was North Antrim (37.8%). That is a big difference. What it tells us, broadly speaking, is that Unionists were much more likely to have voted “Leave” and Nationalists to have voted “Remain”.

Thus, in Northern Ireland, the underlying question seems to have been “What do you think of the Union Jack?” If you really don’t like the Union Jack, you probably voted “Remain”. I suspect that was a huge part of it in Scotland, too. Why did North Lanarkshire vote so differently from Sunderland? Because hardly anyone in Sunderland has a problem with the Union Jack, whereas in North Lanarkshire, there are a lot of people who do. And that does sort of fit with the way that in England, love of the Union Jack seemed to be a big part of the Leave campaign.

So while, economically speaking, one would reckon that the interests of Sunderland and the interests of North Lanarkshire are fairly similar, and one would think that if leaving the EU was good for one, it would be good for the other, either this isn’t about economics – or the voters of North Lanarkshire differ from the voters of Sunderland in their views on economics.

Of course, one might say that a lot of people in Scotland reckoned that voting Remain was a good idea largely because the SNP said so, and that similarly, in Northern Ireland, a lot of people voted remain because Sinn Fein said so. But I don’t think this is very different to saying that for these people, the referendum was basically about the Union that is the UK.

What do you think of this poster?

That, of course, is not the whole story. There were other factors which are very similar. One of the most important factors – and this is something that probably affected England and Wales more than Northern Ireland and Scotland – revolves around two closely related questions. The first is “What do you think of immigration?” The second is “What do you think of the anti-immigration people?” (Or “What do you think of the ‘Breaking Point’ poster?” Or even just “What do you think of Nigel Farage?”)

Indeed, one gets the impression that a lot of people voted “Remain” simply because they believed it was a way of being positive about people from other European countries, whereas voting “Leave” was a basically a sign that you were a racist – or at least xenophobic.

And following the murder of Jo Cox, it seemed to go even further. The word hatred started to be used. For example, Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, told the Guardian:

The hatred that cut down our friend in the prime of her life must be rejected, but the current climate also requires us to ask a bigger question: what sort of country do we want?

As a new generation of Labour MPs who entered parliament with Jo, we want to honour her memory by fighting for what she stood for. She was a relentless campaigner for equality and human rights in Britain, and around the world.

Against the backdrop of the toxic and febrile atmosphere in our political life, it’s time to bring out the best of Britain: a country that is socially just, open and inclusive, and that looks to the world with optimism, confidence and leadership. As Jo said: ‘we’ve got more in common than that which divides us’.”

There is no mention of the referendum or the EU – but it is difficult to believe that the words “a country that is . . . open and inclusive, and that looks to the world with optimism, confidence and leadership” were not intended to be associated with remaining in the EU.

And that became explicit in a Remain campaign leaflet: “The Leave campaign’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has stoked the British public’s fears to the point that we now find ourselves in a country riven by hate. History tells us that scapegoating those we think are not like us always has terrible consequences. Jo Cox’s tragic murder is possibly only the start.

Under these circumstances, one suspects that for some people, the referendum went beyond questions like “What do you think of the Union Jack?” and “What do you think of immigration?” and “What do you think of the Breaking Point poster?” – to the more basic questions of “Where do you stand on hatred?” and even “Are you on the side of love?” For these people, voting ‘Remain’ was being on the side of love, voting ‘Leave’ meant being on the side of hatred.

All of which led one commentator to suggest that there was something very strange about saying that the definition of love is “allowing a lot of unelected unaccountable bureaucrats to dictate to your country”.

I’ve given my thoughts about what I think the referendum was actually about elsewhere. But I will say that I think that to believe that it was mainly about immigration or about the unity of the United Kingdom is incorrect, and to think that it was basically about racism*, xenophobia, or even hatred is so mistaken as to be positively worrying. But many people are under the impression that these were the main issues at stake in the vote.

So not only is the UK split down the middle about whether to remain in the EU or not; it is actually completely divided about what the question is actually about. In fact, one could say that not only is the country not sure what the answer is; after months of discussion and debate, the country isn’t even sure what the question is.

And that is frightening. It makes one wonder about whether holding referendums is a good idea. In fact, it makes one wonder about democracy. Winston Churchill famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” Sometimes it’s hard to disagree.

Wouldn’t it be better if the decision was made by people who actually knew what the question is? At first sight, that might seem like a good idea. But what that would mean, of course, is that the decision would be made by the experts. And that is even more terrifying than throwing the decision open to the whole country in a referendum. There are some things that are scarier than democracy, and one of those is being ruled by the experts.

* Addendum: On the subject of racism and the referendum, Brendan O’Neill’s comment is worth repeating:

Just about had a gutful of Remain commentators saying the masses’ vote against the EU has sanctioned racism. These Remainers voted for an institution that discriminates against African and Asian migrant workers in favour of white European ones. They voted for an institution whose Fortress Europe policies have contributed to the deaths of thousands of Africans at sea. They voted for an institution whose agricultural policies have pummelled food industries in Africa (causing thousands of people in Swaziland to lose their jobs and Mozambique to lose £100m a year on its GDP, for just two examples). They voted for an institution whose restrictions on GM products has prevented African nations from creating a plentiful food supply: such “hypocrisy and arrogance comes with the luxury of a full stomach”, as one Kenyan scientist put it. And they voted for an institution that has *paid* African dictators to keep their horrible, pesky peoples from coming to Europe. Racist much?

Please, stop with the racism stuff. Your beloved EU is not some happy-clappy multicultural outfit. It is discriminatory . . . and it forces non-white migrants into the most degrading, life-risking situations. You voted for that, and we voted against it, so come down off your high, white horse.


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