Dear Fellow Brits,
You are upset. I get that. I am hardly sanguine myself. Leaving the European Union is a massive undertaking that cannot help but have profound consequences for our country, our people and our relationship with the rest of the world.
Many of you are convinced that we are committing a deranged act of catastrophic self-harm, which will crash our economy, cut off our access to essential foods and medicines, restrict our freedom of movement, cost us countless much needed jobs, severely damage international relations, reduce our status on the world stage, alienate our European residents and make life even more difficult for the poorest people in society. Meanwhile, others are equally convinced that the EU is a disaster waiting to happen, if not already happening, and that membership of it endangers, diminishes and constrains the UK, empowers only the ruling elites, holds the British people accountable to unelected governance, undermines national sovereignty and disempowers the average working Brit.
These all sound like serious and valid concerns. In reality, however, Brexit isn’t primarily a battle over material consequences and realities. It never has been. While there are those who have researched the issue thoroughly and formed a nuanced opinion taking in all the pros and cons, the most vocal are obsessed by grand themes. The zealous warriors of the Brexit battle—whether Remainers or Leavers—are not engaged in heated but informed debates about trade agreements, travel, immigration, Northern Ireland, the pound or the fishing industry. Instead, they are participating in yet another manifestation of the culture wars, with its accompanying grand narratives, tribal loyalties and personal identities.
For those of you who are zealous Leavers, the big themes are sovereignty and democracy. Those two words have tremendous power, and your tribes and identities form around them. Those who voted Leave are your ingroup, and you appeal to the values they profess to uphold. Your outgroup is those who voted Remain who, in your view, are clearly bad people: unrealistic fools and sellouts who hate our country, its history and its autonomy, who care more about foreign interests than our own and who despise democracy generally. You zealous Leavers know that you represent the honest British people, bravely fighting the unpatriotic and shameful liberal elites.
For you zealous Remainers, the big themes are broader ones, but they are also wrapped up in the need to feel that you are good people. Your tribe is obsessed with being open-minded, sophisticated European citizens, who despise xenophobia, nationalism and Little Britain attitudes. Those who disagree with you—the Leavers—are, in your view, clearly horrible people: reactionary xenophobes, who are nostalgic for Empire and probably racist. You zealous Remainers believe you are the true modern Britons, who are currently being embarrassed by those you like to refer to as gammon-faced boomers.
Thus, the Brexit tribes have formed, and their members have defined their identities mostly in relation to what they are not, which, in turn, is largely a crude caricature of what the other tribe is perceived to be. Meanwhile, reality continues unperturbed, and the vast majority of Britons are neither unpatriotic elitists nor reactionary xenophobes. Nevertheless, we are now all under pressure to signal our furious denouncement of whichever imagined villain is the worst and thus identify ourselves as unambiguously on the side of good.
This is yet another example of the existential polarisation James Lindsay and I have described elsewhere in this magazine, in relation to the increasing divisions between Left and Right. We argue,
Under existential polarization, more and more everyday citizens are forced to side repeatedly with a team they deem to be the lesser of two evils and to galvanize themselves within their moral team against the perceived existential threat coming from the other side.
This results in nearly everything becoming yet another political battleground, every election is an existential fight for the “soul” of the nation, and extremists on one’s own side are repeatedly excused and defended in the name of the Greater Good.
Is this not what we are seeing right now? Sadly, much of this is happening among people who are otherwise sick of the culture wars. It is very disappointing to see Brits whom I respect for their principled stand against polarisation and tribalism and in favour of viewpoint diversity and communication across divides suddenly abandon these principles when it comes to Brexit. Many who both see the problems with the Social Justice Left—for example, their tendency to call almost everybody racist—and are equally tired of the anti-SJW faction insisting that the sky is falling because of woke excesses are still prepared to catastrophize about one side of the Brexit division or the other.
Brexit is a concrete thing that will have measurable results. We are likely to soon know whether it will be a catastrophe, a liberation or something in between. The biggest problem right now is that we, as a nation, are not in remotely the right frame of mind to address and adapt to the changes that will soon be coming our way. The most vocal elements of both the Leave and Remain factions are way too invested in proving themselves to have been right and in portraying one half of the population as the innocent victim of the other half’s selfishness & idiocy. This is unlikely to result in realistic analyses of the situation and workable solutions to problems that arise and much more likely to result in further finger pointing and name-calling, while the rest of the world looks on.
So, please, Brits, calm down about Brexit. Calming down isn’t only a virtuous stance, but a practical one. We need to get through this and that will require addressing issues that arise calmly and with proportionate action. Even if the issues turn out to be disasters of catastrophic proportions, it will not make anything better if we all respond to them with finger-pointing rage. Accept the reality that, of all the people who care and talk about Brexit, it is very unlikely that anyone is actually trying to destroy the country. It is highly probable that we want what is best for the country and its people. Some of us are certainly terribly mistaken about what that is, but we need to stop assuming the other side is evil.
Remainers, if you find yourself hoping that everything is going to fall apart so that you have the satisfaction of saying I told you so, have a stern word with yourself, recognise this as unworthy, and stop it. If the worst case scenario that we all fear (yes, I am a Remainer) comes to pass, our country is much weakened by Brexit, and this affects the poorest people most, we will need to come together as a country to find solutions. It will not help matters if we encourage further polarisation by arguing over whose fault it was and how evil they are. Scouring the news for evidence of things going wrong, so that we can bash Leavers over the head with it, will not make anything better.
Leavers, you need to have the humility of the winner and take responsibility for the outcome. If you decide to ignore any problems, present them as creations of resentful Remainers, or pass the buck somewhere else, this is going to be a disaster. It isn’t enough to get a slight majority of people on your side at a ballot box and make change happen. You need to see it through. You need to be able to admit if it causes serious problems you didn’t anticipate and lead the way in fixing them.
We have a tough road ahead and none of us really knows where it will lead. We need less polarisation and more pragmatism, less hyperbolic zealotry and more keeping calm and carrying on. We will need to stiffen our upper lips, put the kettle on, and deal with it. Most of all, we need to calm the fuck down.