Report: Listen to the leavers

It’s not a surprise to learn that ordinary leavers, the kind of people who just don’t like the EU and shovel the blame on to Brussels for lots of local problems that are really about austerity and the dominance of London, think all remainers want to steal their Brexit. Not a surprise; but it’s important.

In a chilly village hall this last Saturday morning I sat and listened to a dozen or so voters in rural Wiltshire, a county that voted leave by 54%-46%, talking about CommonGround’s report, Tackling the Causes of Brexit. CommonGround supporter Molly Scott Cato, the Green MEP for the south west, was there as guide and chief fact checker. The group was predominantly remain – leavers really really don’t like coming to meetings where they think they’ll be told they were misled, or racist, or simply wrong – but several of them had come to think that the Brexit vote had to be honoured.  This random group of people in a muddy village on a wet winter’s day had some tough lessons for the People’s Vote campaign.

First, it’s not all about economics, on either side. There was Simon, who’s built up a small sheep farming business from nothing, voted out (and would again) because as far as he’s concerned, EU subsidies pump up the price of farmland and tax policies make it advantageous for anyone who owns land to claim to be a farmer,  and pocket the subsidy, whether or not they know the front of a sheep from its rump.

There was also Ed. He too built up a business from nothing, sold it and became a landowner. He admits that the real reason he’s a remainer is nothing to do logic. It’s emotional. Another participant said she didn’t like the EU but she thought it was better to try to change it from the inside. Molly Scott Cato acknowledged that 15 years ago the Green party itself had a painful journey from opposing the EU for its capitalist consumerism to learning to love it for its power to get good things done.

Nor is it about facts. Leavers blame the EU for everything that makes them angry, but leavers don’t want to be told that they’ve got it wrong, that they don’t understand. They counter, not unreasonably, that remainers don’t necessarily understand either. It’s too easy to bolster an argument by claiming to understand how the other side voted but, as someone more or less said in another context, you can’t make windows into people’s hearts.

What it is about is an attitude to life: there is a fault line, partly about risk, that some leavers reckon divides them from remainers: a resilience and appetite for a challenge against caution and dislike of change. In a way, it’s about the most fundamental political divide of all, about the balance between self interest and the common good.

This is bleak listening. It raises really hard questions about how to counter an argument when it’s not about substance and reality but a state of mind, and how to persuade half the country that a second vote wouldn’t be a betrayal when leavers remember they were told it was going to be a once in a generation vote that really mattered.  More facts about the consequences of leaving will just be treated – as one leaver who wouldn’t come to the dialogue put it – as if only one side has a crystal ball, only remainers know the future, and leavers just need to realise they are wrong.

But maybe this is a moment when, at least in terms of helping the country live with itself, the process matters as much as the outcome. The strength of discussions like Saturday’s doesn’t lie in changing people’s minds, it’s in persuading people to come together and listen to one another. Even if the People’s Vote campaign were to fail, and regardless of what the country’s relations with Europe are in five years’ time, it will be a better place to live in if we can, even at this late stage, start to rebuild respect.

By Anne Perkins