Much has been made of the Brexit Party’s insurgency amongst people in Leave-voting communities, who have been subject to disparaging and patronising establishment contempt ever since they dared to vote the ‘wrong’ way in the EU referendum. But far less attention is given to the minority of Leave voters who work and live in the professions and other areas where support for Remain is the default position.
One woman who approached the Brexit Party stall in Chester last week told me his:
“I am a solicitor; my friend here is a physiotherapist and we are both fed up of being shunned by colleagues because we voted Leave. I just don’t tell people anymore.”
She speaks for millions. Maybe it is because I am part of the media/ policy intelligentsia circle (or, at least, I was until I became an apostate and decided to stand as an MEP), but over the past three years I have come across a wide range of Secret Brexiteers who dare not admit they voted Leave.
This is how it goes: when I speak at universities, literary festivals, science festivals and arts gigs on a wide variety of topics, and mention in passing I support Brexit, one or two people always sidle up at the end and whisper – yes, whisper – “I agree with you, but I am not ‘out’ at work”. I have no intention of outing anyone here, but here are a few examples of the phenomenon.
Jane Robins and Julie Burchill wrote a fictionalised take on the topic in their witty and insightful play People Like Us. It is the story of a fall-out in a book group once the literary set discover that some lovers of literature didn’t love the EU and voted Leave. I attended the play with a friend from the world of publishing who explained her colleagues could never conceive that anyone educated would vote Leave, so have assumed – wrongly – she was part of their Remain gang. She admitted she now hates her job because she can’t divulge an important principle she believes in and is always on her guard about what she says about politics.
An artist mate confessed it was easier to come out as gay to his Christian family than coming out as a Brexiteer in the Federation of Creative Arts.
A leading medic tells how he nervously chastised colleagues for the disparaging way they were discussing 17.4 million voters as “racist fools”, reminding them that “they are our own patients. Maybe we should have more respect.” As all eyes turned on him, glowering and seething, he backed off, adding: “Not that I think they voted the right way.” He did, but he couldn’t fess up.
These are groups that often pride themselves on their tolerance and their commitment to social justice, working for organisations that expend oodles of energy and spend millions of pounds on access schemes to involve the disenfranchised “hard to reach”.
So, it’s extraordinary that when those same communities have the temerity to use their voice in a way that goes against the received opinion of the bien pensants, they are howled down. And how extraordinary that professionals can be shamed and marginalised for admitting they were on the winning side of a national referendum, that they agree with the majority of their fellow citizens about how the UK should be governed.
I am particularly disappointed that this closed-minded groupthink is so prevalent in education. At a pre-Oxbridge debate dinner two years ago, a Lib Dem student on one side of me and a self-described “socialist feminist” on the other both admitted to voting Leave in hushed tones. They only found out about each other’s views when I revealed all.
At an Oxford college event, an international relations student had to pretend to be smoking with me afterwards to admit he agreed with me, and physically jumped when his tutor walked past:
“I don’t trust he won’t mark me down if he knows – he is a virulent Remainer.”
Numerous sixth formers, from both state and private schools, have confided to me that they felt bullied by teachers because their families actively campaigned on the Leave side in the referendum. One said she would probably have voted to stay in the EU, but was upset that her sixth-form head had described Vote Leave as full of “neanderthal xenophobes” and was at pains to point out her Mum wasn’t racist:
“She’s lovely. What my teacher said really upset me.”
This might seem rather like youthful paranoia, but two articles that have appeared in the Guardian – anonymously – make the same point. One Secret Teacher column penned by a Labour-supporting comprehensive school teacher in June 2017 noted:
“I have watched teachers react incredulously – almost to the point of tears – when colleagues have tried floating a reasonable case for Brexit.”
One dreads to think of what the environment for critical thinking and debate culture is like for pupils if teachers are so partisan.
In September 2017, one university lecturer wrote:
“I voted for Brexit – why do academic colleagues treat me like a pariah?”
The author admits that although universities are supposed to be founded on traditions of freedom of thought and expression, too many in higher education “leave tropes about respecting diverse opinions in the seminar room. In more informal collegiate settings, dissent can easily be met with passive aggression… I worry that admitting I voted for Brexit might harm my prospects.”
There is a whiff of McCarthyism. I know senior news broadcasters on three different channels who have told me it would be “professional suicide” if anyone knew they voted to leave the EU. No wonder there is growing disillusion with the tone emanating from mainstream media outlets. Two people I know have recently been asked to stand down from professional associations for supporting the Brexit Party. (I hope they will tell their own stories in due course.)
The crime seems less being a Leaver than breaking some sacred pact. Certain views have become verboten in polite society’s echo chambers. Perhaps those in powerful positions are unused to having their views and values challenged. Having forgotten how to persuade and argue, they resort to lashing out at those outside their own comfortable, self-reinforcing tribes.
The good news is that the mood is changing. The Brexit Party has done a great job in selecting a diverse crowd of people representing all professions. In the North West, where I am standing, we have a dentist, a doctor, a lawyer, a manufacturer and an IT businessman as candidates. This means voters can see they are not alone and are beginning to come out “loud and proud”. My two Chester professional women returned to the stall after shopping and picked up car stickers and window flags. “Why should we be ashamed of being democrats?” Indeed.
Claire Fox is a Brexit Party candidate for the North West