Who is really poisoning public debate? Who is it that has turned what ought to have been a smart and deep discussion about Britain and the EU into a prejudice-fest? I know we’re meant to think it’s the Leave campaign, with its cries of ‘The Albanians are coming!’ and ‘Oh my God, Turkey!’. Leave stands accused of fomenting xenophobia, of tapping into a ‘brainless paranoia’ among certain sections of the public, of ‘unleashing furies’.
But what about Remain? The Remain side, to my mind, has proven itself just as adept at spreading prejudice. Scratch that: over the past few days Remain has proven itself better than Leave, a world-beater in fact, at fostering disdain for certain sections of society.
Now I will admit that, as a Leaver who is also very pro-freedom of movement, I’ve bristled at Leave’s leaflets and its peddling of the politics of fear. I wish it had invited us to offer solidarity with our European brothers and sisters who have also had a gutful of the EU’s petty, undemocratic interventions, rather than asking us to fear these foreigners.
But Leave’s prejudices are being outdone by those of the Remain side. Yes, Leave has generated concern about border-crossing foreigners, but Remain has stoked up an ugly distrust of the old, the working class and the uneducated, who are right now being talked about and depicted in as foul a way as I can remember.
The language being used by Remainers risks becoming unhinged. Polly Toynbee, in one of her many recent columns slamming white working-class voters for being ‘impervious’ to cool, rational information about the EU, says the Leave side has ‘lifted several stones’ and let out a ‘rude, crude’ extremism. We all know what lives under stones, right? Nick Cohen, sounding like one of those early 20th-century people-phobic writers documented by John Carey in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, says it is almost as if ‘the sewers have burst’ and out has pumped the effluence of stupid opinion.
Running with this theme, a Guardian cartoon depicted the resumption of the referendum campaign at the weekend as the opening of a sluice gate, with prominent Leavers being washed away by a river of puke. It featured rats vomiting their bile into the river. You know something has gone awry when cartoonists start depicting certain political constituencies as rats. Another Guardian cartoon shows anti-EU internet trolls as dogs, salivating at their computers, spreading hate on the internet.
The message is that Leave is tapping into horrible, ill-informed, animalistic sections of society. These anti-EU people — who, let’s not forget, include a majority of the working class and high numbers of the non-university-educated — are always depicted as irrational. Their position on the EU is not a considered one, apparently: it’s just rage. They are making a ‘howl of frustration’, says JK Rowling (howling is better than vomiting, I guess). They are ‘confused’, says Cameron. For these people, emotions ‘play a larger part than rationality’, says a writer for the Guardian.
This is now the key Remain outlook: where We, being clever, have considered all the facts, They, being dim, are howling and emoting rather than thinking things through. I wouldn’t mind so much if this was an original prejudice, but it isn’t. It’s the view that has informed every elite feeling of agitation with the expansion of democracy, from the claim that women were too emotional to have the vote to Arianna Huffington’s screed against the American electorate’s ‘inner baby’ and the ‘millions of voters’ who now make political decisions with their ‘more emotional right brain’. This snobbery now finds expression in the Remain camp, in its fury with howling voters, in its conviction that the issue of the EU is ‘much too difficult and detailed to be left to voters who know no economics’, in the words of Richard Dawkins. On the EU, the public is ‘wrong about nearly everything’, says the Independent.
As part of this sneering at the emotional public and their sewer-like minds, certain constituencies are being singled out for special ridicule. The old, for example. The ageism of the Remain side has been astonishing. They have depicted older people, who are far more likely than the young to be anti-EU, as selfish and uncaring, as ‘stubborn’, that classic ageist prejudice. A pro-EU columnist for GQ even suggests that they should be banned from voting, because this ‘grey army’ is obsessed with returning to ‘an idealised Britain that never was’. Hipster bible Vice, predictably pro-EU, rages against anti-social old voters ‘who took all the cream and now want to put a cap on the thin milk they left behind’.
And then there’s the white working classes, such a terrible disappointment to the well-to-do leftists of the Remain side. Surveys consistently show that around 60 percent of those in the two lower social classes want to leave the EU. Barely a day passes without an anthropological-style article in the Guardian trying to work out why these voters are so fearful and angry and emotional (they can’t possibly be rationally anti-EU). Toynbee slammed these people, with their ‘crap jobs’ and their tendency to say ‘Fuck off Europe’, and their temerity to reject the ‘facts’ of Polly and her band of ‘eager young London graduates’. Seriously, can these people hear themselves?
This is the terrible irony of Remainers’ handwringing over the poisoning of public debate: they have played a major part in said poisoning, in stirring up prejudice against the allegedly dim, the overemotional, the confused, the old, the plebs, the howling, brainless throng. How can they pontificate about hatred while communicating some pretty hateful views of their own? Simple: because their kind of hatred is so longstanding, so entrenched in certain political and media circles, that they don’t even think of it as hatred. It’s just reality, right, this situation where we clever people must endure the howls of those politically uninformed people? The chutzpah of it: under the guise of taking a stand against prejudice, Remainers are resuscitating one of the oldest prejudices.