We used to think it was noble when people made sacrifices for their beliefs, when they were happy to endure hardship in the service of a political goal or moral cause. Now we call it ‘extremism’. Now anyone who is so devoted to an ideal that he’s willing to see his own daily comforts diminished to make that ideal a reality is likely to be branded a nutter. I mean, what kind of loon puts his beliefs ahead of his bank balance?
Consider the mouths-agape response to new YouGov research published yesterday, showing that many Leave voters are willing to pay a high price for Brexit. Judging from the lingo being used – YouGov calls these people ‘extremists’ and much of the press has murmured in agreement – you’d be forgiven for thinking Leavers were plotting suicide attacks or a violent purge of parliament to get shot of Remainers and Soft Brexiteers. In truth, all they’ve said is that they’d be cool with going through some economic difficulty if it means their democratic cry for Britain to split from Brussels is realised.
YouGov was startled to discover that, in its survey of 2,043 Leave voters, 61 per cent said ‘significant damage to the British economy’ is a ‘price worth paying’ to make Brexit happen. Twenty per cent said it was not a price worth paying, and 19 per cent are undecided. Cue screwed-up faces among a technocratic class that is deeply suspicious of passion in politics. Predictably, the Brexit-fearing sections of the Twitterati held up the survey as proof that the only thing Leavers have so far taken leave of is their sanity.
Even more deliciously – at least in the minds of those who think Brexit is a nasty, selfish, Little Englander assault on decency and future generations – the YouGov research found that the willingness to take an economic hit in the name of making Brexit happen increases with age. So where 46 per cent of 18-to-24-year-old Leavers think economic damage is a price worth paying for Brexit, 71 per cent of 65-plus Leavers think it is. We can expect more oldiephobic outbursts in response to this, more head-shaking from under-40 Europhiles who fancy – wrongly – that the vote for Brexit was in essence a massive moan by wrinkly nostalgics who don’t care about the fortunes of future generations.
I have a different reading. I find it deeply inspiring, moving even, that my fellow Brexiteers are willing to have it rough in the name of democracy, in the name of bringing law-making back to where every progressive of the modern, Enlightened era believed it should be: in the nation, under a people’s oversight.
I straight up got a lump in my throat when I read the bit of the YouGov research that says many Leave voters would even be okay with losing their own jobs, or seeing a family member lose a job, in the name of Brexit. Thirty-nine per cent said such personal hardship would be a price worth paying, against 38 per cent who said it wouldn’t be. Now that’s devotion. That’s idealism. And if it seems alien to us, that only goes to show what a flat, grey political era we live in.
Indeed, the rather elitist alarm that has greeted the revelation that people are willing to suffer for their democratic ideals sums up what a baleful influence technocracy has had on our political imagination. In the technocratic era, when politics has been drained of big ideas and reduced to a box-ticking exercise that is all about managing society, its inhabitants and their aspirations, political passion can seem threatening. Strong feelings, democratic devotion, self-sacrifice – these have become foreign bodies in a time when politics is about making things chug along as uncontroversially as possible. To the technocrat, to the EU suit who drafts laws far from the madding demos, the utterance ‘I am willing to go through hardship for what I believe in’ seems perverse. It’s disruptive. It is because we inhabit such a beige world of spun, small politics that the willingness of us Brexiteers to suffer for our beliefs can look like ‘extremism’.
As to this ‘Brexit extremism’ increasing with age – that isn’t down to oldie selfishness, but rather to the fact that older generations have, in my opinion, a better-formed sense of sacrifice to ideals. I think it’s wonderful that 46 per cent of 18-to-24-year-old Leave voters think economic damage is a price worth paying for Brexit. This explodes the myth that the young are all selfish navel-gazers who want to live in a safe space bubble-wrapped against hardship. That this stat rises to 71 per cent among the over-65s merely suggests our older citizens have a deeper, more historic sense of principles-before-comfort; they know from experience that progress, as us Brexiteers see it anyway, always comes at a price.
History is peppered with people who went through hell for what they believed in. Who put their jobs and even their lives on their line for an ideal they believed would make society a better place. Some Leavers echo this. And I know how they feel. Brexit is the first thing in my lifetime that I think I would go to the barricades for. That I would take an economic hit for. My name is Brendan O’Neill and I am a Brexit extremist.
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