‘Fear and Trembling’ or ‘An Idiot Sandwich’?

In response to my American friends who asked me my thoughts on Brexit in the days following the vote, I could honestly answer that I was simply surprised. They of course assumed, correctly, that I would’ve voted to Remain in the European Union. This bothered me, particularly as my friends, my peers and journalists appeared uncomprehendingly inchoate at the ‘stupidity’ of Leave voters. I’m no great patriot, but feel confident declaring that the United Kingdom is neither 52 percent ‘stupid’ nor 52 percent racist. Concerns about immigration were deemed to be the prime mover of Brexit, yet even so, I was reluctant to myopically interpret this as simple racism. However, I also believed that the usual mainstream narrative should have won – not from any kind of belief in a moral inevitability, but from a historical one.

BrexitRecent campaigns reveal a recurrent strategy. In the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, a multi-party campaign heavily influenced by Conservative party stratagems based on fear won. The rhetoric of the unionist political mainstream relentlessly emphasised not only the predicted costs – ‘Independence will cost Scotland X amount in GDP’ – but also sowed uncertainties – ‘What will Scotland’s currency be?’ Polls right up to the vote showed a neck-and-neck race between decided voters, so it seems that the psychology of fear, as opposed to the reasoned economic arguments of either side, proved decisive in swaying the undecideds. To say that it was ‘rational’ to, confronted with uncertainty, vote ‘No’, glosses over the difference between the reasoned argumentation of politicians and the careful arousal of fear by politicians.

The Conservative party then used similar tactics again in the 2015 General Election to win a majority in Parliament. They portrayed themselves as safe hands for the economy, against a Labour party who, when last in government, apparently recklessly spent the country into debt. The certain stewardship of the Conservatives, their supposedly necessary austerity, was placed against a Labour that ‘couldn’t be trusted’ to cut government spending. The veracity of their claims was unimportant; the Conservatives played to their stereotype of solid if regressive government. Heightening this by sowing uncertainty about Labour, they beat poll predictions of a hung Parliament to win an outright majority. Sound familiar?

The third political layer in this exceedingly British trifle is of course Brexit. However, the familiar pattern of sowing uncertainty did not sway voters to David Cameron’s cause as before. In addition to articulating the definite benefits of the EU, such as ease of travel, the ‘Remain’ campaign made much of the innate uncertainty of changing a longstanding economic, judicial, and legislative relationship. Even as the ‘Remain’ poll lead narrowed, strategists (and myself), many having experienced this phenomenon in 2014 and 2015, were confident that, just as before, a tight race would yield a comfortable victory. But, as we all know, it didn’t.

It would appear that the uncertainty argument didn’t succeed in the immigration-fixated debate of the latter part of the campaign. However, the immigration argument which was the deciding factor for many ‘Leavers’ bears the hallmarks of the uncertainty argument, merely in a different guise. The ‘Leave’ narrative trilled that an essentially open border with the EU means there is no certainty about the quality and quantity of immigrants who can enter – there is complete ‘freedom of movement’. On the other hand, a UK outside the EU could have complete control over who enters the country, as it currently does with non-EU migrants. Whether (a) there are population pressures on public services and jobs in one’s area or (b) that initial concern with immigration admits of race or creed, the mere presence of that concern, coupled with that uncertain border, is enough for a fear-based vote, along the lines of the ‘Remain’ economic uncertainty narrative, to secure the border; leave the EU.

The blindness of myself and others to the merits of Brexit comes from a lack of an initial concern with immigration, and thus an absence of the fear which was played to. Thus, it is wrong to dismiss the Brexiteers as complete racists, even if some of them maintain that “it’s about the Muslims”, because that xenophobia can co-exist with a fear which looks just as ‘rational’ as the ‘Remain’ one based on the uncertainty of leaving the EU. If vague worries about a change in the UK’s economic situation, with no certain future situation, are rational, so are concerns about completely uncertain future migration. It simply appears that one fear (surprisingly) won against another. This detail was missed by Remain strategists, who stuck to their message of economic uncertainty, and did not address this immigration-based uncertainty in the Leave argument.

Several surprising features of the vote and its aftermath support the view that it was not manifest experience of immigration-induced pressures or local tensions that motivated Leave voters, but rather fear of what might happen. In the first place, Leave majorities were highest in areas with the lowest net migration, and lowest in the areas with highest net migration, which cannot be easily dismissed as only UK citizens could vote, and not newly-arrived EU migrants. Secondly, a wide-ranging poll of opinions on immigration suggested that it was more fear of the uncertain consequences of immigration, than direct experience, which motivated opposition, concluding:

“When we think of immigrants as individuals, we often see the way they enhance our public services – but when we think of immigration as an issue, we link it to government failure and economic insecurity.”

The same poll also found that 75 percent of Britons want to see migration lowered, so that immigration clearly has a strong pull on the electorate. And yet, another poll found that 84 percent of Britons, including 77 percent of Leave voters (and 78 percent of UKIP supporters) think it is important that current EU migrants be allowed to stay in the country after Brexit. What seems to be motivating Leave voters may indeed be immigration, but it is not the liberal bugbear of blind xenophobia. Nor is it even that patronising, if well-meaning, diagnosis of misplaced working-class anger at public service pressures or job competition, caused by government cuts, but blamed on immigration. Rather, it is genuine, ‘rational’ concern over the possibility of future issues – a kind of fear which has been shown to win votes on other issues, and to have some sway over at least 75 percent of Britons.

So, despite memes and racist attacks, it seems likely that opposition to migrants is based on the same kind of economic fear that motivated pro-EU voters. A fear that it makes a situation created by austerity and economic decline worse. Thus, the Americans who have asked me those leading questions about Brexit, expecting spluttering anger at my country’s stupidity, and perhaps a neat comparison to Trump, were perhaps somewhat disappointed at my simple surprise; they will be even more disappointed with this article. However, my surprise was another symptom of a liberal bias which failed to discern the real import and rationale behind immigration-motivated voting; a rationale which was based on the same types of arguments we liberals responded to, and which have held sway over the common-sense mainstream. And not to disappoint you Americans, I will make a trite suggestion on articles regarding Trump: don’t be complacent.

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