When the attack came, it was calm and assured.
“Is revoking Article 50,” Catherine asked during a pre-election Question Time, “confirming to 17.4 million people that you think we’re stupid and we didn’t know what we voted for?”
Jo Swinson, the target of the attack, reassured Catherine that a simple, disagreement did not amount to a Declaration of Stupidity. “Not for one second,” she replied, “does that mean that I think that you or anybody like you is stupid.”
There, in one simple exchange, is the reason Swinson lost her seat and the Red Wall of the North collapsed. It’s not the only reason, of course. The humourless incompetence of Jeremy Corbyn, laced with his demand for ideological purity that’s only a clipboard away from State-sponsored re-education classes, played its part. Take the moment he walked alongside Boris on the day of the Queens’ Speech, stiff and stony-faced while Boris smiled, an impish Puck to Corbyn’s Tom Buchanon. Corbyn would dislike Buchanon’s politics but the latter’s lament to Gatsby, “I know I’m not very popular, I don’t give big parties,” might have been written in Labour HQ.
We must not, however, allow earnest zealots, with a wish list plucked from a child’s letter to Santa, to obscure the psychology of why Boris and Brexit won. If profiles of Leave voters are to be believed, their main aim is to close the doors of the country to Polish plumbers and Bulgarian berry-pickers. They’ve lost themselves in a haze of nostalgia for a mythical time of Morecambe and Wise and Maypoles, for the Queens’ speech and the spirit of Dunkirk, for warm beer and the summer sound of bat and ball.
If it ever existed, that world is not coming back and I suspect those left behind or seeing their mobility decline in the wake of the 4th Industrial Revolution, know it’s never coming back. Workington Man knows Brexit won’t re-open the mines and Catherine knows she won’t be living in a mansion after Brexit. That was never their gripe.
What, then, do they want?
Listen again to Catherine: “…you think we’re stupid.” And again: “…you think we’re stupid.”
In the dregs of afternoon tea and the uneven progress of a country, hobbling from its industrial past to a digital future, where the division between rich and poor, North and South, Town and City, grows bigger by the nanosecond, Leave won because a mass of Leave voters wanted the one thing they’ve been denied: dignity.
In London’s leafy lanes, there is a curious, uncomprehending interest in a Dickensian hinterland, a strange, undiscovered country nestling in the dark potholes of the urban imagination: It’s the lack of clear thinking that gets me – who, in their right mind, would want to make themselves poorer?
And that’s where the point is missed. Millions of people voted Leave not because they thought it would bring them bigger houses, faster cars or bloated bank balances. It won’t and I’ve written elsewhere about the logic of Brexit. They voted Leave because they wanted the dignity of being heard, they wanted a voice that mattered, they wanted to have their grim experience of vanished industries, deserted high streets, declining living standards and the long wait for payday, to be vindicated.
It may, on the surface, be the politics of resentment, the xenophobic rage of the dispossessed and there is no doubt the Leave campaign fed on those emotions. The Breaking Point poster, with its knowing nod to Nazi propaganda, was one of many examples. And yes, they lied. “Boris,” according to David Cameron, “rode the bus around the country and left the truth at home” but that isn’t a reason to invalidate the result of the referendum.
What Catherine and many of the 17.4 million who stood alongside her wanted was a voice. Those whose voices are heard have to acknowledge that is not the experience of the many. In the arms race of algorithms, the future will not serve the many any better than the present. But what we must do is credit Leave voters with the intelligence of knowing their lived experience has passed by without acknowledgement. They are not stupid and the best way politicians can show that is by listening to them.
In a final coup de grace, Catherine interrupted the well-meaning waffle of Jo Swinson. “You can disagree with me,” she said, “but you lost.” And there it is in a nutshell: Remain lost. By truth or trickery, it doesn’t matter. Like it or loathe it, the mandate was clear and should have been acted on. And Remain was destined to lose from the moment Cameron reduced a complex mass of social, political and psychological elements to a binary choice. If he was as smart as Catherine he would have known that emotion always trumps reason and defeat was likely.
As if any further evidence were necessary, six simple words, Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done, proved more powerful than the self-satisfied reasoning of experts who talked smugly only to themselves. The European obsession with endless balance sheets of what people can and can’t do, of prioritising prohibition over permission, its mistrust of exceptions, is a poor model for human enterprise. We crave simplicity and that’s what a binary choice delivers. It’s Yes or No, Remain or Leave, Degradation or Dignity. The toxicity of what followed was inevitable given the fact that Leave, an apparently simple concept, hid a labyrinth of demons that now roam free to frame our future. But you can’t complain about the outcome when you set the terms of the debate.
Neither Brexit nor the election were about the economy. They were about millions of decent, working people who feel they have no voice and the depth of their protest is the measure of their pain. Brexit will likely make that pain worse but that doesn’t make them stupid. Most Leavers voted to be heard. They voted for a better future not the resurrection of the past and there’s wisdom in that, regardless of the outcome.