If anyone in British politics knows the pain of defeat, it is the Eurosceptics. For more than 40 years – longer than I have been alive – we lost on almost everything. Aside from keeping Britain out of the Euro, those four decades were a story of defeat after defeat – Maastricht, Nice, Lisbon, the erosion of the British legal system, the partial loss of the rebate, the transfer of more and more powers from Westminster to Brussels, the emergence of EU diplomatic and defence functions, the sacrifice of veto after veto. At every turn we were outgunned, outmanoeuvred, outclassed and outwitted.
That hurt. So we of all people can understand the grief – and that’s the right word for it – that many Remainers felt after their referendum defeat. It’s not a nice experience, and we shouldn’t mock it.
That isn’t to say that we should indulge all expressions of that grieving process, though. The claim, indulged by too many broadcasters, that there was some widespread trend of remorse among Leave voters which somehow invalidated the result was bunkum – based on nothing more than some TV vox pops, and not backed up by any objective evidence. In a way it’s understandable that some might hope against hope for a silver bullet to make the result go away, but it is unhealthy to give any credence such straw-grasping.
Far less forgivable are those who don’t even pretend that the result was somehow unrepresentative, but instead deny the right of Leave voters to have an equal say in the future of their nation. It should be emphasised that they are a minority – most Remain voters have honourably if sadly accepted the result – but the irreconcilables are still a sizeable group. The petition trying to implement a retrospective supermajority rule now stands at three million signatures – though that’s at the more moderate, and thus more numerous, end of the spectrum.
Other responses were much worse. Suddenly, on Friday and Saturday, it became fashionable to argue that older voters’ views were less legitimate as they would have to live with the consequences of the decision for less time than the young. Leave aside the absurdity of an idea which by implication suggests that pension policy would be better decided by toddlers than by people of working age, and consider how personally unpleasant the argument is. “You’re going to die soon, your views don’t count,” is one hell of a line from those who claimed on Monday to “be kind”. Ought the terminally ill, as well as just the elderly, be denied the right to vote, too? And if younger voters are the only source of valid authority on the future of the nation, why did most of them fail to turn out?
It isn’t just the old who are the target of this contempt. Like many others, my Facebook timeline (populated mainly by friends fortunate enough to go to university) was filled with an outpouring of bile against those less well-educated and less well-off than them. “Morons” had made the wrong decision, they should never have been allowed to vote, they didn’t represent the real Britain – I’m sure none of those writing such things would have acknowledged it as such, but this was a rage against the dispossessed, against the poor and against the left-behind, as well as against the old.
Many of those sentiments may well have ebbed in the 48 hours since. Rage, like grief, can do funny things to otherwise reasonable and decent people when it is at full flow, and things said in its depths are often regretted afterwards. But we need to talk about the fact that these feelings exist and are increasingly acceptable among a certain section of our society. This rejection of a democratic defeat wasn’t a one-off – we saw it to a lesser but still vitriolic degree after last year’s General Election, and in the protests outside Conservative Party Conference.
As I wrote above, grief and pain at defeat over something about which one cares deeply is entirely understandable. What I suspect intensified this feeling for some Remainers, though, is that the experience was a rare one. If you’re part of the group who have the dominant, centre-left view of the world, things have broadly gone your way in recent years. Yes, you dislike the Conservative Government and austerity, but the wriggle room is always there to blame that on Murdoch and the First Past the Post system. Now, in a massive democratic exercise on a binary question, you have just been outvoted by millions of people whom you can’t understand and whom you are unlikely ever to have met. If you do come across them in daily life, your reaction might be tinged with that of Matthew Parris when considering the people of Clacton:
‘Clacton-on-Sea is going nowhere. Its voters are going nowhere, it’s rather sad, and there’s nothing more to say. This is Britain on crutches. This is tracksuit-and-trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain.’
If you are indeed in this situation, there’s something you haven’t yet considered: this undoubtedly painful experience of being outvoted by people you do not identify with and do not understand is most likely a first for you, but for many Leave voters it is the story of every single day of their lives until now. When they wanted the right to elect and sack the people who made their own laws, they were mocked as “little Englanders”. When they were concerned about immigration, they were dismissed as racists. When they wondered why their jobs had been lost and not replaced but London was still booming, they were ignored as mere occupants of a regional scrapheap. When they put an England flag outside their house to support their country, they were sneered at by Shadow Cabinet ministers. They felt grief and confusion of being endlessly defeated on issues which they believed were common sense and obvious – the same grief you feel now, and not just once but for years on end.
There was a wonderful moment in a clip on Newsnight on Friday, in which a Vote Leave activist in Burnley learned the result on camera in the early hours of that morning. Her face lit up, then dissolved into tears: “We did it…everybody woke up in time…everybody listened, everybody understands. Yes, it’s gonna be rough at the beginning, but…we’ve done it.” Her vote and her voice had counted, perhaps for the first time, and it was visibly a life-changing experience.
People dismissing this result as the product of ignorance, hate and stupidity ought to take a moment to try to understand her tears and her joy. First, because they deserve to be acknowledged and understood and accepted as every bit as legitimate as the opposite feelings on the losing side. But also because a retreat into denial will take Remainers nowhere. Ranting that it isn’t fair, and that everyone else is to blame for your defeat, is a road to nowhere. Trust me, I know – I’m a Eurosceptic.