The UK’s decision to leave the EU was one which shocked and upset many. It acted as a political upheaval, and forced us to change the way we think of politics and also to reconsider our assumptions of other people’s views. Whilst perhaps an imperfect result, it is useful in guiding us with regards to where liberal politics needs to be headed in the future, in order to counter the more hostile attitudes which have emerged since 2016. Here are the most significant things which Brexit has taught us.
1. “Racist Britain”
Perhaps the most troubling lesson learnt from Brexit was the extent of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee feeling in Britain. The leave campaign exploited xenophobia; in one infamous poster, a photo of a queue of refugees was accompanied with the words ‘Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all’, which Nigel Farage then smugly posed in front of. Whilst many were appalled by this rhetoric, it found an audience who shared this mind-set. Racist feeling has always existed in Britain, but such public displays of bigotry from respected politicians served to legitimise these feelings and make them seem acceptable. The very real consequences of this were illustrated by the 41% rise in hate crime after the Brexit vote. However, whilst the referendum may have encouraged these feelings, it did not create them, and racism can no longer be dismissed as a thing of the past.
2. Working Class Discontent
For many working class people, Brexit represented a backlash against a political system which is increasingly weighted against them. Predominantly working class areas were much more likely to vote Leave. The referendum came to represent middle class interests versus that of the working class, and a vote to leave came to represent a withholding of support from a system which had no respect for their concerns. The scapegoating used by politicians throughout the Leave campaign politicised the struggles of the working class into a dangerous energy, which was primarily the fault of those who allowed the working class to feel so desperate to escape their current privation. Even in the response to Brexit, intellectuals have dismissed and blamed the working class for the result of the vote, with no concern for the ways in which middle-class rhetoric and exclusionist-politics set the groundwork for such discontent to exist. Brexit emphasised the power that the working class have over politics, and fundamentally emphasised the political danger of allowing any group of people to feel so discontent, which will hopefully force liberals to include them within future political debates.
3. The Myth of the Honest Politician
Whilst politicians have never been known for their honesty, both sides of the Brexit campaign showed unprecedented amounts of manipulation, which meant that voters were unsure of what to believe at all. One of the most famous lies was Nigel Farage’s statement in an interview that the £350 million currently spent on the EU would instead be spent on the NHS, which was quickly revoked once the vote had come back towards Leave’s favour. This left Leave voters furious, especially those whose vote was dependent on this promise. The campaign demonstrated the importance of personal research over faith in politicians, for whom personal agendas will always be prioritised over integrity.
4. Do Not Trust What You Hear
In the run up to the referendum, many Remain voters were lulled into a false sense of security as a result of the impression given to them by social media and polls. Preceding the vote polls had all suggested that the referendum would result in a narrow win for remain, which turned out to be the opposite of the case. This called into question the whole system and reliability of using polls at all. This was not the only misleading source in the lead up to the election, as the biased perspective given by social media also misled people. As the referendum was divided heavily by class and age, people were signing into their social media accounts and hearing opinions much like their own, failing to consider that the people we follow on social media are a reflection of our own opinions rather than the general opinions of a nation (known as the Echo Chamber effect). Brexit has emphasised the danger of casting assumptions in politics and the need to never feel too secure in a political outcome.
5. The Importance of Voting
The results of the referendum left many people, especially the younger generation, feeling disappointed and concerned about their future. According to a study by the London School of Economics, 64% of people between the age of 18-24 voted – more than double the percentage initially reported – and whilst this is a large amount, it does not compare to the 90% of those aged 65 and older who voted. This huge older turnout had a great effect on the outcome of the vote, emphasising the importance of using voting as a way to reclaim our stake in the future of our country, and especially for young people. Brexit, and the resulting disappointment, emphasised how important it is not to be complacent in matters of politics.