It’s time we stopped viewing Brexit as a zero-sum game

A binary vote on EU membership was flawed in the first place, so why are we still so attached to ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ as proxy representations of our views on Europe.

Last weekend I attended the people’s march. I hadn’t been before. Previously I’ve been reluctant to align myself with a movement I’m unsure I agree with. I went mainly to observe but as I stood in Parliament Square listening to the crowd shouting ‘Hear Us’, I realised without doubt I shared their objections to Boris’ Brexit.

On Whitehall later, I stopped to watch a short film about Northern Ireland. Tony Blair and John Major are not my favourite politicians, but what they said about the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement was undeniably powerful. As the clip was coming to an end a small group of EDL supporters, or similar, walked past and aggressively shouted ‘Losers, You lost!’ at the crowd. They are certainly extremists and don’t represent the majority of leave voters, but nevertheless it was an absurd reminder of how detached and abstract identity politics over Brexit have become.

It is now widely believed the United Kingdom is divided. It seems so long ago it is easy to forget however, that during the days and months following the referendum, this split wasn't assured but created. Amidst the collective shock many politicians and commentators hastily accepted and then repeated the belief the vote signalled a divided Britain. So entrenched are the positions ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ in the national psyche, it is also easy to forget how insubstantial they actually are. When you stop and think about it, categorising the population according to the results of a binary in/out vote on the UK’s position with Europe is absurd. It tells us very little about the people who make up the two sides and when it comes to people’s opinions on the EU, offers only a crude choice.

The Brexit axis may now be accepted as the front line of UK politics – with more people identifying strongly with their side of the Brexit vote than with a political party – but to overstate the extent of polarisation is to lose sight of the bigger picture.[1] According to the authors of a report published by Kings College last month, although many people on the different Brexit sides view each other negatively and interpret the same Brexit events completely differently, when it comes to issues such as the NHS and services rather than moving further apart people’s ideas are converging. Emotional attachment to our Brexit identities is getting in the way of discussing the issues, which affect us all.

So how did we get here? Part of the reason the leave/remain dichotomy has endured is because Brexit is yet to be resolved, but it is also because identity politics bring people together, but can also push them apart. A person’s identity is an important part of their life story. It provides a sense of purpose and meaning and in so doing can increase self-esteem and reduce depression and anxiety.[2] When people are marginalised or under threat, the ability to reconstruct their identity as part of a wider group that reflects their ideas or experience can help establish a sense of security and belonging. This process when politicised can be advantageous for challenging established norms, as the civil rights, feminist and labour movements of the 1960s and 70s demonstrate. However, as Brexit shows, strong identification with a group, or viewing issues through a singular lens of identity politics, can also lead to reduced social interaction, greater misunderstanding and the hardening of divisions.

The chasm created by the Brexit chaos has created a space in which unscrupulous politicians and parts of the media have been able to exploit people’s insecurities and their desire to belong, for their own political gain. Rather than attempting to bring the country back together, we have seen an escalation of polarised leadership with those seeking power appealing to one side or the other. This has occurred on both sides of the Brexit split, but it is Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage who have been most successful at exploiting the nationalist aspirations of some leave voters. At the same time the splintering of the traditional political landscape into different interest groups, organised around single issues and according to positionality has weakened common opposition to a Brexit plan, which arguably will strengthen advanced capitalism in this country.

The ways in which Brexit has impacted on people’s identity is undoubtedly complex. The referendum result cuts through traditional political and class allegiances, while general patterns may be identified according to age, education and geography. Despite the number of sophisticated and contradictory academic studies out there investigating who, and why people voted the way they did, when most people imagine the Brexit split, it is stereotypes which frame their understanding of the left behind, nationalistic leave voter vs. the superior metropolitan remoaner. But perhaps by focussing on people’s attributes rather than their views, feelings over facts, we are missing the point – instead of falling into two decisive camps, people’s position on Brexit might be better understood as being situated on a scale between leave and remain. After all we are a diverse nation and there are both advantages and disadvantages to the EU.

[1] Divided Britain? Polarisation and fragmentation trends in the UK, The Policy Institute, Kings College London

(Which might explain why, according to the polls, Boris Jonson’s hard line stance on Brexit is popular, while Jeremy Corbyn’s more ambiguous attempts to bring the country back together have so far not seen the results hoped for).

[2] Belonging: Solidarity and Division in Modern Societies, Montserrat Guibernau