Understanding Leave Voters

Why did and do so many people support leave? I’ve been struggling to understand this ever since the referendum. While I’ve been stuck at home recently I’ve been able to look into it a bit more. Here are some of the impressions impressions I’ve gained.

I fully appreciate that some leave voters have considered the implications carefully and made their decision based on their rational interpretation of the situation.

There are also, for want of a better term, the ‘Little Englanders’ who hark back to the 1950s and the days of Empire. I rather liked this piece in the New York Times on 15 February which attributes this view to Theresa May. One quote: ‘Brexit is rooted in imperial nostalgia and myths of British exceptionalism, coming up as they have — especially since 2008 — against the reality that Britain is no longer a major world power.’ In a post-Brexit world which other countries will want to trade with Britain if they don’t think we are any longer a major world power?

But I cannot think that the rational thinkers and little Englanders represent all the 52% leave voters. With the assumption that people vote for something if they think it will be beneficial to them, I’ve tried asking questions on some forums but have had hardly any answers and none that give any specific positive benefits.

So I turned to the pro-Brexit press, particularly the Daily Mail which has a huge online readership. An article in the Independent on 6 March 2017 reported on a study that shows that negative coverage of the EU in UK newspapers has nearly doubled in 40 years and positive coverage fell from from 25 per cent to 10 per cent. By the mid-2010s, 85 per cent of EU coverage in the Daily Mail was negative, compared with less than 25 per cent in the mid-1970s. This is the newspaper that branded the Supreme Court ‘Enemies of the People’ after the Gina Miller case.

In an article by the Deputy Political Editor of the Mail Online, the speech by mild-mannered Sir John Major on 27 February was described as ‘incendiary’. There were over 4500 comments on this article by 4 March when comments were closed. Most of these were not about the content of the speech but were critical and derogatory about Sir John. A good many of them mentioned only his supposed relationship with Edwina Currie. I have to ask what this has to do with Brexit.

The tone of many of these comments is negative, indeed insulting, with almost no constructive suggestions. Similarly most comments on Tony Blair’s speech a couple of weeks earlier were personal insults on Blair with no critical assessment.

Most comments on the House of Lords amendment on 1 March, which was described by the Daily Mail on 2 March as ‘an insidious plot to thwart democracy’, were also derogatory and focussed on getting rid of the Lords, not on the subject of the amendment.

As expected, immigration features widely in the Mail comments, but there is a good deal of misunderstanding. I didn’t find anybody able to separate EU immigration from non-EU immigration which presumably has nothing to do with Brexit and until very recently has involved larger numbers of people.

One person thought that all immigrants who have been here less than 10 years should be made to leave now. Had this person not thought about what effect this would have on the NHS, care homes, the hospitality industry, food processing and pricing, and education and research in our universities?

Among the comments there is definitely a perception that very many immigrants are claiming benefits. One person thought that these numbered ‘hundreds of thousands’. In fact studies have shown that EU immigrants are making a net positive contribution to the economy.

There are plenty of horrors in the spelling and grammar. One that caught my eye was the description of Theresa May as a ‘heroin’. I was very tempted to write a response about the consumption of this drug, but didn’t.

This was just a brief foray into the very many comments. I did respond to several of them, for example quoting the House of Commons Briefing Paper on payment of benefits to immigrants and the EU Directive that allows EU governments to put some restrictions on the movement of people, but got no response at all.

I also looked briefly on some other articles about Brexit in the Mail and found a very similar pattern in the comments.

I have to conclude that the Daily Mail and similar newspapers are driving the Brexit agenda. I am frankly extremely disapppointed in our politicians who are colluding with them and who are letting this happen. Are all our politicians really afraid of Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail? And what do his readers think of him? A glance over the private life section of his wikipedia entry indicates that he seems to epitomise all that the Mail commenters despise.

I was also disappointed at the apparent lack of knowledge and the inability to make any informed response among many of the commenters. Is this what our education system has come to? The recent BBC study showed a high level of correlation between remain voters and a good education. If we do leave the EU and lose many of the skilled EU immigrants who currently live in the UK, we are going to need a better educated population and one that can think constructively and positively with appropriate critical analysis where needed. For this we need a lot more investment in education rather than endless budget cuts.

I am reminded of a conversation we had with an American and a British couple on a cruise ship a few years ago. There was a lot of anti-immigration sentiment among the passengers on this ship. We were seated with these two couples at breakfast on the last day. They immediately started up about immigration but there was a total silence when I said ‘Don’t you think that the price of food will go up if there are fewer immigrants?’ It seemed that they had been unable to make the connection between cheap immigrant labour and food picking and processing.

This is little different from the areas of the UK for example Cornwall, the north-east and parts of Wales which have had large amounts of EU regeneration funds but voted leave. Had they not been able to make the connection?

Britain used to have a reputation as a fair and tolerant society. Fostered by the Mail and other pro-Brexit tabloids and enabled by free-for-all social media, this is no longer the case. Vitriol and misinformation abound. Is it right to let these drive the most important decision this country has made for decades? I hardly think so.

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