It’s often said the Britain’s referendum will be decided on emotions rather than facts. Well facts belong to the past, and the referendum to the future, so perhaps that is as it should be. The critical question is about the sort of country we want Britain to be. There is a difference between factually based opinion and raw emotion – but usually the former is just a tidy veneer on the latter. Our attitudes are driven by who we are, amongst the middle classes anyway.
There is clearly something cultural about it. It is very striking that amongst my friends and family, those with whom I feel able to talk about politics, the almost universal wish is for the country to remain in the EU. I have been politically active in the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors for 35 years, so perhaps this is not surprising. But it includes people who support Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens too. It also spans a wide range of ages; it is an issue where the younger generation agrees with its parents.
Who are we? We are middle-class, usually university educated, professional, civically minded, and political and social liberals. We hold a wide range of shred beliefs about the world, which go beyond the EU, including, for example, a belief in man-made climate change and the priority to reverse it.
And middle class folk who take the Brexit side, whom we hear every morning and evening on our radios and see on TV, are the fellow-citizens whom we most detest. We view them as self-interested, greedy hedge-fund managers and businessmen, or the sort of annoying intellectuals who take pleasure in disrupting consensus and ruining any kind of cooperative progress. Interestingly, from what I can make out, the Brexiters view us as the soft-minded, cosy consensual ruling elite, and themselves as the brave tellers of truth to power. They reject a whole range of our beliefs, including climate change, or what to do about it. Funnily enough, we Remainers, most of us, don’t feel that we rule anything more than school governing bodies, and we feel besieged. Indeed we trust our ruling elite so little that restricting them with constitutions and systems of rights seems to be a good idea. We don’t think that driving out he EU means taking back control – just handing it to an even smaller elite whom we distrust. The “elite” is always somebody else.
I think that this clash of values is based on civic-mindedness rather than liberalism. Many of the Brexit middle classes (think of Douglas Carswell the Ukip MP) have a basically liberal outlook. They like engaging with foreigners, are socially liberal, though some struggle with the idea of cultural diversity within their own communities. But they invest more effort in self-promotion, or individualistic activities, as opposed to cooperative, or civic ones (being school governors, helping at the church, and so on). Of course many Brexiters take part in civic activities, like supporting their local Conservatives or local business networks – but these seem to have a strong self-promotion agenda. People who join the Lib Dems after being with the Conservatives remark on how different, and less dominated by personal ambition, the culture is – though the Tories have many civically-minded people in their ranks too.
The idea of individualism against cooperation seems to be the central one. Individualists distrust government structures, and struggle to understand the point of cooperative ventures like the EU. Some think the EU is a plot to establish control over our lives by a shadowy elite. One such is the pseudonymous Alexander Niles, whose latest book on Europe I was asked to review. But it was so paranoid as to be unreadable by somebody not already in sympathy with that way of thinking. Cooperative ways of working seem simply to be beyond the imagination – they are either futile and ineffective, or a cover for a hidden elite, covering their tracks with lies. And yet to many of us cooperation (and attendant compromise) is the very essence of how a complex society must operate. And the process of engagement with others often gives us energy. We are disposed to like other people rather than despise them. We are slower to condemn people as fools.
What has this to do with the EU? It is in essence a cooperative organisation, of course. That gives it permission to exist in the view of cooperativists, but it does not necessarily justify it. There is something about freedom of movement, and the right to go to another part of the continent and take many of our civic rights with us – or invite people from other parts of the continent to join us- that we like. We feel this openness is the surest path to human progress. It expands our horizons. And European-ness is part of our identity – it is particularly useful in setting us apart from Americans, that nation of individualists whom we struggle to understand.
If the polls are to be believed, we cooperativists outnumber the individualists in Britain’s middle classes – there is a solid majority for Remain in social groups A and B. But the vote will be decided elsewhere, by people with a very different outlook. Traditional working classes, a dying breed, but with a substantial hinterland of retirees and victims of economic advance, are disposed to vote to Leave. The arguments and passions of the middle class Remainers will cut little ice. They are not culturally adventurous; freedom of trade and movement seem more threat than opportunity.
I suspect that the decision rests a new working class of service workers, whose jobs are often insecure, but for whom opportunities remain. I’m thinking of the “new affluent workers” and “emerging service workers” from Mike Savage’s recent book on class. These are more culturally diverse and adventurous than the traditional working classes, but less secure than the middle classes. They may worry that free movement of people is a threat to their job security or pay; they may also fear the damage that the disruption of leaving the EU is likely to wreak, even if it is only for the short-term.
We, the divided middle class, rehearse our arguments about the EU in front of this decisive audience. But neither of us really understand what will make up their minds. And it really is very hard to see who will end up on top.