Post-Brexit thoughts: How to move on in a land where no one understands

By Chris­tine Hübner.

There would be no need for more ink to be spilt on #Brex­it if it weren’t for one view astound­ing­ly miss­ing from the post-ref­er­en­dum-debate: that is a view on how to move on from here. With a pop­u­la­tion almost even­ly split into win­ners and losers, we need to ask how to rec­on­cile those who vot­ed ‘Remain’ and those who vot­ed ‘Leave’ in the UK’s EU ref­er­en­dum. Ral­ly­ing against #Brex­it or demand­ing a repeat ref­er­en­dum – albeit unques­tion­ably healthy reac­tions of civ­il soci­ety – will not help to move on. What will help is a seri­ous dia­logue between both camps, where there is a true effort to under­stand the mul­ti­tude of rea­sons in favour of and against #Brex­it.

Electoral Commission_EU referendum results

A coun­try almost even­ly split into win­ners and losers (Elec­toral Commission)


A split runs through the country

In post-ref­er­en­dum-Britain it seems as if ‘Leave’- and ‘Remain’-voters could hard­ly be fur­ther away from each oth­er: that is in terms of geog­ra­phy, gen­er­a­tion, or social class. A split runs through the coun­try that sep­a­rates the young who were more like­ly to vote ‘Remain’ from old­er gen­er­a­tions vot­ing ‘Leave’; the well-edu­cat­ed high-and mid-income earn­ers from vot­ers with no for­mal qual­i­fi­ca­tions who earn less; ‘Remain’-voters liv­ing in the big urban cen­tres from ‘Leave’-voters in the de-indus­tri­alised north, south­east or south­west of Eng­land; Scots, North­ern Irish and Lon­don­ers, many of whom vot­ed ‘Remain’ from peo­ple liv­ing in Eng­land and Wales, who more often vot­ed ‘Leave’.

Brexit vote correlations

Kier­an Healy: “The eco­log­i­cal cor­re­la­tions are pret­ty strong. Edu­ca­tion, Class, Income, Age.”


Dif­fer­ent real­i­ties, yet not an excuse

These sta­tis­tics are now being used to jus­ti­fy the lack of under­stand­ing that char­ac­teris­es the post-ref­er­en­dum debate: ‘Remain’- and ‘Leave’-voters live in dif­fer­ent real­i­ties. They nev­er get to meet. As a con­se­quence ‘Leave’-voters only know oth­er ‘Leave’-voters and ‘Remain’-voters only see mes­sages of oth­er frus­trat­ed ‘Remain’-voters in their social media feeds. Hard­ly any­body is able to under­stand who the peo­ple behind these votes are and what their rea­sons were.

Yet, the tale of the divid­ing lines is mere­ly an excuse for a lack of dia­logue between the ‘Leave’- and the ‘Remain’-camp. After all, these are aver­ages over 46 mil­lion vot­ers. There are indeed stu­dents who vot­ed ‘Leave’ just as there are ‘Remain’-voters in the north of Eng­land. And even in Scot­land not every­body is a die-hard fan of the EU: 1 mil­lion peo­ple (that is 38% of Scot­tish vot­ers!) vot­ed to leave the Euro­pean Union. It should not be so dif­fi­cult to find and ask them why they did.

In a land where no one understands

The true rea­son is that no one is mak­ing any effort to under­stand the rea­sons behind vot­ing ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. The appalling qual­i­ty of the polit­i­cal cam­paign ahead of the ref­er­en­dum has giv­en way to hos­til­i­ty, resent­ment and a gen­er­al lack of under­stand­ing. Espe­cial­ly for dis­ap­point­ed ‘Remain’-supporters it is all too easy to argue that ill-informed ‘Leave’-voters took stu­pid deci­sions against their own inter­ests. Yet, this view is not help­ful at best and extreme­ly patro­n­is­ing at worst.

With 17 mil­lion vot­ers in favour of leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, there can­not be one sin­gle rea­son to vote ‘Leave’. Indeed, vot­ers may have been ill-informed. And some of them may even have tak­en a dif­fer­ent deci­sion on the basis of oth­er infor­ma­tion. But there are many oth­er rea­sons why peo­ple vot­ed ‘Leave’:

It’s truths, not facts that matter

In a demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem it does not mat­ter whether we deem these good or bad rea­sons, fac­tu­al­ly right or wrong. What mat­ters is how we engage with them. Lib­er­al thinker John Rawls argues how at its essence demo­c­ra­t­ic delib­er­a­tion is about “rea­sons aimed at con­sen­sus”.[1] In that, these rea­sons do not have to coin­cide with what is fac­tu­al­ly right – as long as they jus­ti­fy and help us under­stand why peo­ple feel the way they do.

With many ‘Leave’- and ‘Remain’-voters liv­ing in dif­fer­ent real­i­ties, there are mul­ti­ple truths about the con­se­quences of a #Brex­it. If, for exam­ple, ‘Leave’-voters believed the argu­ment on the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of immi­gra­tion to be true, ‘Remain’-voters need to take that truth seri­ous­ly rather than dis­miss it as fac­tu­al­ly incor­rect. This is unde­ni­ably eas­i­er to do when facts and rea­sons coin­cide. How­ev­er, even when they do not (or maybe espe­cial­ly then) we need to try and under­stand the truths on either side to work towards a con­sen­sus. Demo­c­ra­t­ic act­ing is about see­ing one’s fel­low cit­i­zens as ratio­nal autonomous agents capa­ble of mak­ing judge­ments about what to believe.[2]

Loser’s con­sent and how to move on

Once an elec­tion such as the UK’s EU-ref­er­en­dum is over, the legit­i­ma­cy of a demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion hinges on the losers’ con­sent: that is the will­ing­ness of those los­ing in an elec­tion to over­come any bit­ter­ness and resent­ment and be will­ing, first, to accept the deci­sion of the elec­tion and, sec­ond, to con­tin­ue play­ing the demo­c­ra­t­ic game.[3] In that, play­ing the demo­c­ra­t­ic game does not mean demand­ing a repeat ref­er­en­dum; it means work­ing towards con­sen­sus and mov­ing on. A sim­ple what-if-sce­nario illus­trates this: imag­ine the vote would have turned out 52%-to-48% in favour or ‘Remain’. It is easy to envi­sion how the win­ning ‘Remain’-camp would have asked of the ‘Leave’-campaigners to accept the public’s deci­sions and to stop ral­ly­ing in favour of #Brex­it.

The nor­ma­tive ques­tion: what should hap­pen next

The appalling qual­i­ty of the polit­i­cal debate and a sig­nif­i­cant lack of loser’s con­sent demand that we start think­ing about how to rec­on­cile ‘Leave’- and ‘Remain’-voters soon­er rather than lat­er. A seri­ous engage­ment with all views in this debate is called for. Here are some ideas on how this can happen:

  1. Politi­cians in any part of the UK (yes, that includes Scot­land!) need to engage with both ‘Leave’- and ‘Remain’-voters. They need to lis­ten, under­stand and talk about the var­i­ous rea­sons that con­vinced cit­i­zens to vote either way.
  2. We need to cre­ate spaces for ‘Leave’- and ‘Remain’-voters to inter­act with one anoth­er and dis­cuss their con­cerns. This can hap­pen at the local pub, but also at a region­al or even nation­al con­ven­tion. Although it may be more or less dif­fi­cult to find them, there are vot­ers of either side in each region.
  3. Giv­en the divid­ing lines, the nation­al media has to play a role in the process. While the British press is not exact­ly known for its con­cil­ia­to­ry tone, its role may be more impor­tant than ever. Also the BBC has the poten­tial and reach to act as a voice of rea­son for all.

It is almost like what we need is a ‘Leave’- and a ‘Remain’-campaign all over again, just now in the much-better-quality-edition.

Chris­tine Hüb­n­er is a part­ner at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] John Rawls. 1993. Polit­i­cal Lib­er­al­ism. New York: Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

[2] Michael P. Lynch. 2012. Democ­ra­cy as a Space of Rea­sons. Truth and democ­ra­cy. Philadel­phia: Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Press. 

[3] Christo­pher J. Ander­son, André Blais, Shaun Bowler, Todd Dono­van, and Ola Listhaug. 2005. Losers’ Con­sent: Elec­tions and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Legit­i­ma­cy. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 

Pic­ture: “Brex­it” by Sam via Flickr, released under Cre­ative Commons.

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