This monumental day has been a day of firsts: my first vote in a referendum, the UK being the first country to ever leave the EU, and finally the first working class revolt in the UK for many years. Granted by Cameron to appease twitchy Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers and the insidious creep of UKIP, like many referenda this has not really been about what is asked on the ballot paper. Instead it has been about British identity, compounded by more than just class, but by income, race, geography, age, gender, profession, education, nationalism and inequality.
The reaction to Brexit on social media has been furious. Accusations of Leave voters ‘shafting’ the country, Leave voters making people ‘ashamed to be British’, and some just calling Leave voters ‘fucking idiots’. The friends I have on social media, like myself, are nearly all staunchly middle class, university educated and living comfortably. Many of them of who voted Remain can’t understand why people voted to Leave. A friend tweeted saying the silence of the Leave voters on Facebook implied that they were embarrassed with their decision.
But the problem isn’t that Leave voters are too embarrassed to speak out, but that my friends aren’t friends with the large swathes of people who voted out. As Owen Jones predicted, we came out of the EU as a result of ‘votes cast by discontented working-class people’. Andy Burnham was right when he said that the Remain campaign had been ‘too much Hampstead and not enough Hull’. Whilst those in Hampstead have been the winners of globalisation, those in Hull feel they have been left behind. Increasing in work job poverty, zero hours contracts, the collapse of the manufacturing industry, deindustrialisation, a shortage of council housing and struggling public services have seen working class communities feel that not only is nobody listening, but that nobody cares.
Diane Abbott said that this vote was ‘foremost a roar of defiance against the Westminster elite’. Obama, Cameron, Corbyn, corporations and large swathes of the media told us to Remain. They warned of economic catastrophe and uncertainty, without realising that for many communities, this was already a daily reality. The frustration felt by those failed by our system has spilled over. Rationally and clearly, the working class have come to a consensus rejecting the message of the elites.
It is easy to tell ourselves Leave voters are just Nigel Farage in waiting, dripping in England flags and bigotry, racists who didn’t do their research. It is easy to believe that those who voted Leave did so on the back of a misunderstanding, and that if only they’d listened to the right people that they would have come to their senses. It is easy to accuse those who voted to Leave of being stupid, gullible, led astray.
Yes, there will be racists who voted to Leave. There will also be racists who voted Remain. To paint all concerns over immigration as racist, often whilst living in a metropolitan bubble, is condescending. It is patronising to imply that working people failed to understand the gravity of the question asked. So many who voted to leave feel disconnected from the rest of the country already, and the anger, disdain and snobbery I have seen on social media will do nothing to patch this up. We must look at how 75% of people in Islington can want to remain, whilst 72% of people in Castle Point want out. The division in the UK between Hampstead and Hull, Islington and Castle Point, Brighton and Sunderland contributed to our decision to leave the EU. We must seek to understand, not to resent.
This division was not created by the EU referendum, nor will it be removed by the result. Rather, the referendum has shone a light on a chasm that has been deepening and widening for years. I hope that this referendum can help us begin to address the pain felt by so many, and ignored for so long.