Already there is a historical quality to how things were pre-2016, above all in the way we talk about them, that feels entirely alien now.
Deeply ideological acts, like austerity and the hollowing-out of the state, are no longer talked about in a parlance that makes them appear reasonable or common sense, for ‘common sense’ (if it ever existed) is no longer the all-pervasive means of silencing dissent that it used to be. Politics in general, it seems, has moved on from being strictly a conversation about macroeconomics carried out by politicians defined more by their managerial style than their political creed.
It’s surprising we didn’t get into trouble sooner. For the problem with technocracy is that the world is not merely technical, that very few of the decisions we make are, in fact, impartial. The Brexit vote did not merely show that a ‘new’ way of talking about politics—in terms of cultural identity, nationalism, as fundamentally zero-sum and tribal—was effective, but that it resonated deeply with huge swathes of the population. People had become tired with a discourse that did not appear to bare any correlation to their day-to-day reality. If common sense meant rising inequality, less social mobility and more money funnelling upwards—then to hell with common sense.
Bursting the bubble
Two years ago when I wrote my initial response to the Brexit referendum result, my reaction was one of grief. Over time that grief has turned in on myself. I’ve come to realise that back then I was guilty not merely of my own bias, but of the same presumptuous thinking that had justified the likes of austerity and all those other ‘common sense’ neoliberal policy measures I so vehemently opposed.
It has become a common anecdote: I did not speak to a single person leading up to the referendum who had voted to leave, across two different cities. No one in my family did. None of my friends. The closest I would get was through passively witnessing the rants and raves of barely-known acquaintances on social media, which merely emboldened my worldview that voting to leave was not a position anyone with their head screwed on could support.
When we talk about the social media bubble, what we forget is that it suggests more than just a lack of exposure to views that are not our own: it also means that when we do see those opposing views, they can be more easily dismissed. I never bothered to consider leaving the EU as anything other than an unreasonable decision, and there was very little incentive for me to shift on this stance. Is there reason to doubt this was not also true for those on the other side, who did vote to leave?
It turns out that the kind of liberal, globalist narrative I adhered to was in fact just another kind of parochialism. My values were not part of some universal humanism, but an intrinsic aspect of an identity that not everyone did, or indeed could, share.
The case for another vote
In a way, my views have not changed, while in others they have changed profoundly. I no longer accept equality, diversity, the right to education and healthcare as self-evident goods that need no more explanation than the words themselves, but values that can be opposed and that need to be upheld. More importantly, I know I need to understand why people might disagree with them; and that involves spending less time on social media, and putting myself into—or promoting the creation of—shared spaces that better represent the society we live in.
But, as the magnitude of the shift in politics the world over becomes more real every passing day, very little about contemporary public debate has led me to believe we are able to occupy that kind of shared space—just as we weren’t two years ago. And nothing exemplifies this more than the way we talk about a second vote.
As more evidence of corruption, ineptitude and lying that formed not just the slogans but the very foundation of the leave campaign become known, the only truly democratic response is to hold a second vote. On a fundamental level democracy is a system of governance built on trust. If that trust is ever abused, for the sake of democracy alone (never mind the consequences of lying in the first place) those abusers of trust should be vigorously held to account, while any decision made on the basis of those lies should be annulled. A second vote should not be held because Remain lost and leaving the EU was simply the wrong choice, but because the way in which Leave won has far wider implications for democracy.
But I’m concerned we are not justifying a second vote in this way. Despite a rebrand that perhaps better reflects the lighter tone of voice of Vote Leave, a ‘People’s Vote’ is still widely perceived, no less by those who support it, as a way of reversing a decision rather than protecting democracy. As a ‘get your own back’ on the people we still do not talk to, and still do not understand, why they voted the way they did. Even with all the polls I remain deeply sceptical that all that is needed to win another vote is simply to run one.
A new way
As for any new Remain campaign itself, it must avoid falling into a conservative narrative of a common sense, reasonable return to the status quo, and not merely because that option is unappealing but because it is impossible.
Such a task will be difficult. In the last campaign, any sign of disaffection with the EU was seized upon as a sign that, deep down, everyone knew the EU was an irrevocably flawed institution and support for it only fuelled by ulterior motives (the irony of that thinking now). In general, it is much easier to embrace a hypothetical idea wholesale than it is an institution already tired and disillusioned by decades of reality. But this does not have to be a negative. In Scotland, ‘the idea of Europe’ has become a central tenet of an independence movement looking to carve out an identity based on social democratic ideals and international co-operation. In a sense, it may well have been this idea alone that fundamentally separated the referendum discourse of 2014 from the one in 2016. Spreading that same idea now, across the rest of Britain, would be the only real chance a second Remain campaign would have to win. If not in a People’s Vote today, then at whatever point tomorrow that Britain—or perhaps, England alone—starts to toy again with returning to the European fold.
The status quo that brought us to Brexit will not get us out of it. While that time has gone, it is clear a new way of talking about the future was sorely needed anyway, even more so two years on. Meanwhile we are presented with an opportunity: in the breaking down of established common sense comes an opportunity to recreate and redefine.
Either way, we cannot choose but to take this opportunity. Because if we don’t, there are only too many others out there more than happy to do it for us—some of whom with definitions of common sense that leave very little space for any kind of democracy at all.