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How Not To Talk To Brexiteers

by Samuel Hooper – 10 Oct 2017

If Remainers truly want to reverse or soften Brexit, they should spend less time flaunting their own enlightenment and more time engaging with the valid concerns of Brexiteers

I am continually astonished that otherwise intelligent, politically astute Remainers repeatedly choose the catharsis of insult, showing off to their peers and “talking down” to their opponents over engaging with wavering Brexiteers on terms which might produce some kind of compromise, if not a total change of heart and mind.

Say what you want amongst yourselves, Remainers, in university lecture halls or March for Europe demonstrations, but speaking and acting in public as though the Brexit vote was motivated primarily by ignorance or xenophobia is a surefire way to harden opinions and fail to convince potentially winnable Leave voters. Besides the fact that such a blanket statement is patently untrue, how many political arguments are won (permanently) by the side which mocks and taunts their opponent?

In order to change hearts and minds in debate, one must find a common frame of reference or (where that is genuinely impossible) at least feign to understand and sympathise with the underlying motivations of the opposing side. Tell somebody that you hate them and everything they stand for and you have permanently destroyed any chance of building the rapport needed for persuasion. But tell someone that while you understand their deepest motivations yours is the better path to satisfying them and maybe you have a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, so much of political debate is now little more than preening and performing for one’s own side rather than genuine attempts to inspire or change minds. I am guilty of this myself at times, having written pieces that I know will be eagerly picked up and shared by my “Amen chorus” of fellow conservatives, libertarians and Brexiteers. But this is inreach, not outreach. And the losing side cannot indulge forever at inreach as a substitute for doing the harder work of talking to those who disagree. This approach is guaranteed to shrink your base to a diminishing band of Ultras rather than grow the broad – in this case, huge – coalition that would be required to overturn the EU referendum result.

While facts are important, emotion plays a big role when it comes to Brexit (on both sides). And at the risk of opening myself up to public ridicule, I will share some of the non-factual claims and actions which rub me (and at least some other Brexiteers) up the wrong way, and immediately make me less receptive to Remainer arguments. I do this as a public service, and because I am getting really tired of encountering the same insults, straw men and non sequiturs in my social media interactions with Remainers.

I don’t claim to be the archetypal Brexiteer, but hopefully some of what I say may be generally applicable and fall on receptive ears. So here goes.

First of all, as with other Brexiteers I am quite patriotic. That is not to suggest that many decent Remainers are lacking in patriotism. But it cannot be denied that there is a coven of hardcore anti-patriots harboured within the Remain community, people who actively dislike or (at best) are ambivalent about the nation state in general and the United Kingdom in particular.

For pity’s sake, stop giving these people the microphone. And take the conch away from AC Grayling, JK Rowling and Ian Dunt while you’re at it. I readily concede that true patriotism and love of country goes much deeper than jingoistic flag waving – the national anthem NFL protests in America, whilst I personally disagree with them, show that it is possible to make a calculated snub of certain national symbols while remaining more true to the country’s founding values than any shallow populist. But if you think that you are going to persuade Brexiteers by painting a negative or pessimistic vision of Britain then you are sorely mistaken.

Brexiteers believe – quite rightly – that Britain is a great, powerful and influential country, and while we personally may have played no part in making it so we are nonetheless proud to be part of this cultural (not racial) heritage. It is not that Britain “punches above its weight” in the world, to use that tiresome phrase surely coined by the pessimistic days of 1970s national decline. On the contrary, we punch exactly in line with our weight given that we have the world’s sixth largest economy, second most deployable military, nuclear power status and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, not to mention our unmatched contributions to culture, commerce, arts and science.

So talking about Britain as a “small” country in terms of geopolitical power not only flies in the face of objective reality, it actively raises the hackles of many Brexiteers who are justifiably proud of our country’s status. You can disagree as to whether this pride is justified, but descend into mockery and you will not get a hearing from many Brexiteers, nor deserve one. Shrieking that the UK cannot survive outside the EU is not a smart debate tactic. If your parents continually told you that you were useless and totally unable to succeed on your own in the world without their smothering helicopter parenting, would you stay living in their basement forever or become even more determined to move out and prove them wrong?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you cannot make a compelling argument that Britain will be economically or diplomatically harmed by leaving the EU – indeed, this staunchly eurosceptic blog has repeatedly warned that Brexit done wrong could be calamitous. But far better to make the argument in terms of future growth and prosperity at risk rather than paint a picture of a small, helpless Britain adrift in the world, buffeted by “great powers” like Malaysia or Mexico. It’s really annoying.

Then there is the tedious “Open vs Closed” talking point, voiced endlessly since the referendum result came in. It goes something like “we voted Remain because we are open-minded, forward-looking and ambitious while you voted Leave because you are closed-minded, backward-looking, insular and fearful of the future”. Stop for a moment and think about how you would feel if somebody tried to win you over by condescending to you in this manner.

I am an ardent Brexiteer, but like many of us I speak a foreign language, am married to a foreign-born citizen and have travelled and worked abroad. I read the Economist, for heaven’s sake. There are doubtless many unsavoury words which could be thrown at me with some justification, but “closed-minded” and “ignorant” are probably not on the list. If your post-mortem analysis of the EU referendum is telling you that Brexit appealed exclusively to a group of people who are paranoid, stupid, vaguely racist and fearful of the future then your analysis probably needs fine-tuning more than my values.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about education. Yes, a majority of people with formal higher education voted to Remain. But aside from academia’s general left-ish bias and desire to maintain current systems and sources of funding, this is a youth effect as much as an education effect – far fewer people from older generations went to university. Are these people not clever enough to understand geopolitics, unlike the sagacious newly-minted gender studies graduate? Some of my best friends from home have become smarter and more well-rounded than me, and I went to university while they cracked on with work. So enough sanctimony about being smarter and better-informed, please. I can count the number of Remainers I have interacted with who possess a basic understanding of the EU and its institutions on two hands, with fingers to spare.

Next, stop assuming that Brexiteers mean something other than the words which come out of their mouths. If they complain that mass immigration is straining local services and infrastructure or changing the nature of their communities, then uncomfortable as it may be for you to accept, that is probably what they mean. It is not code for “we want massive increases in taxation to deliver gold-plated public services” or “stop unscrupulous businesses from undercutting the minimum wage”.

If you are a more economically successful Remainer, try to check your “wealth privilege” (to use the current stupid social justice terminology). People in poorer or more suburban communities often have quite a different experience of large-scale immigration than city slickers, who tend to see only benefits and no costs. If you want to make traction with those Brexiteers for whom immigration is a major issue then some empathy will be required, even if deep inside you feel like you are palling around with Hitler.

Next, let moderate or more thoughtful Remainers finish speaking before jumping down their throats. There are probably twenty other things which I could say about Brexit which might add some nuance to my own views and enrich the broader debate slightly, but I am never going to say them because they can be so easily misinterpreted, made to sound bad or otherwise used as a weapon against me and my side. The national debate would benefit from hearing some of these things, but if talking openly about doubt, provisos and exceptions is going to be used by short-term charlatans lacking the patience to reel in the big fish then they will never see the light of day. Again, the short-term urge to perform and score easy points undermines the long-term goal of changing minds.

Finally, be more honest and open about your own beliefs. If you are a closet euro-federalist, probably better to just come out and say so at this point. Half of the antipathy and resistance to the European Union in Britain is borne of the fact that all these years of steadily-deepening integration have taken place under furious protestations from the ruling class that anything significant was happening at all. You will never get what you want (or be able to properly enjoy it if you do) through deception, so be honest about your vision for a federal Europe and try to win people over on the merits.

But even if you are not a beady-eyed euro-federalist with EU flag pyjamas as I once was (well, an EU polo shirt and lapel pin at least) you should still make your case honestly and positively. As Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn can attest, people respond warmly to positive messages and coherent narratives, while looking sceptically on constant fearmongering and haphazard messaging. People grudgingly respect Jeremy Corbyn because he says what he actually believes and doesn’t moderate his message (much) for short-term political expediency. Be like Jezza.

Don’t be like all those pro-EU campaigners and politicians, trotting out the same tired catchphrases about needing to cooperate with other countries or allowing the doe-eyed youth to “live, work and love in Europe”. Newsflash: Brexiteers know that international cooperation is important, they just don’t see why Britain necessarily needs the EU to facilitate this for us when even small countries like Norway and Switzerland are outside political union, and while other continents and parts of the world have conspicuously not followed our lead in setting up supranational governments of their own. If the EU model of cooperation is so great, show off that superior education of yours by telling us why. Best use lots of pictures, though, because us Brexiteers are a bit thick.

But if (as I sneakingly suspect is more likely) deep down you also believe that the EU is ill-designed, dysfuntional, furiously resistant to change and unnecessary for most international cooperation outside the realm of trade, then come clean and say that, too. We will respect these concessions to reality far more than if you just keep on humming Ode to Joy and telling us that Brussels is the only reason our parents were not annihilated in a nuclear war.

So in summary, if you want to have a fruitful discussion with a Brexiteer instead of just retweeting AC Grayling and feeling smug, remember these simple tips:

Acknowledge the UK’s genuine strengths and do not denigrate patriotism.

Stop talking about the “Open vs Closed” dichotomy, as though Remainers represent the apotheosis of human enlightenment and Brexiteers the dismal nadir. It’s really, really annoying. Talk about “Somewheres vs Anywheres” if you must, because that at least is actually rooted in reality and can spawn a useful debate.

Stop banging on about education as though a 2:2 degree in a soft subject at an unremarkable university makes you Henry Kissinger and uniquely qualified to hold forth on matters of statecraft and diplomacy. It doesn’t. And when evidently simple people start prancing around as though they are Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla combined, by sole virtue of the fact that they voted with the Remain herd, it can rapidly become quite tedious. Some very smart people voted to remain in the EU, but so did some complete and utter cretins.

Stop trying to divine secret hidden motives in what Brexiteers say, and take them at their word. Their concerns about sovereignty are not actually an inchoate cry for a new NHS tax, or any other left-wing pipe dream.

If you encounter a Brexiteer with whom you think you might have a productive dialogue, engage with them in good faith. Don’t just mine your exchange for nuggets of Brexiteer stupidity to titillate your Twitter followers.

And finally, be honest about your own beliefs. If you want a United States of Europe, just own your euro-federalism and wear it with pride. If you have a more nuanced position, stop feeling like you have to pretend that the European Union represents everything that’s good in the world as though this will do anything other than attract bovine applause from other Remainers.

I probably should not be offering these words of advice. Indeed, it is very much in my short-term interest to see Remainers carry on exactly as many of them have been doing since the referendum result was announced last year – it makes you look shrill and hysterical, and only hardens many Brexiteers in their convictions.

But I also have a longer-term interest in living in a country where the standard of political discourse is set a few levels higher than two monkeys throwing faeces at each other, and good (or at least productive) political debate requires at least some degree of empathy for the other side’s position. In this spirit, I have tried to explain a little bit of what makes some Brexiteers tick, and what downright ticks us off. You can laugh at this information and ignore it, or you can use it to improve the quality and tenor of your arguments so that we don’t just keep shouting the same talking points at each other ad nauseam.

Remainers, the choice is yours.

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