There are lies, damned lies and pretending to back Remain. I lie because I am a coward. I hug friends who burst into tears, petrified by life without the European Union. I sympathise with strangers, who act like Lady Di just died and there’s nowhere to lay flowers. I obfuscate, I mutter, I am evasive. And I am not alone. There are hordes of us who’ll not admit we voted Leave to our best friends, our next of kin.
We learned to keep schtum a long time ago — thanks to social media — since they’d defriend us if said we’d vote to leave. Now they are outraged, deeply confused — and unsure which of us to blame. ‘Literally no one on my timeline said they voted out, so it was just an echo chamber of smugness,’ says one of my friends — who has at least 500 on Facebook. Now they are howling: ‘I am never one to be political but you are racist scum.’ Or, ‘I can’t stomach a single thing today, let alone a scone or some cream tea.’
Just as the Stepford Students deny a platform to anyone with a view they disagree with, Twitter was purged of Leavers who — knowing the vitriol they’d attract — No Platformed themselves.
Of all the things to fall out about, for ever, the EU debate seemed most absurd. But it’s been weird to realise how personally others will take an EU voting preference that is the opposite of theirs. We learnt early on: vote Remain and you were pro-sunshine, a cure for cancer and world peace — a perfect dinner-party guest. Vote Leave and you were for fascists, rabies and the apocalypse — and not worth a handshake, even in gloves.
Young people voted overwhelmingly to stay in — or at least that’s what they told YouGov — so it’s not surprising that they treat the referendum result as a mortal insult. ‘Who the hell are we walking among?’ demands one whose status is: ‘Disillusioned. Sad. Looking on Rightmove Europe.’ But what’s genuinely concerning is the number of mothers who have gone online to advertise that their very young children are sobbing inconsolably thanks to Leave. There is reason to suspect Project Fear was part of the school syllabus. A Spectator colleague had to comfort his son because he’d been told that if he voted against the EU in a mock election, he’d be left all on his own, and did he really want that? At high school, such dunce-cap teaching would be inappropriate. When meted out to five-year-olds, it’s downright cruel.
We are all of us supposed to be soul-searching since the result was declared. Leavers are supposed to agonise and regret their decision. Remainers must come to terms with, uh, democracy. But most of all, we’re in a state of shock because the political class, the pollsters, the bookies told us that this wasn’t going to happen. And by the bookmakers, I mean we the punters — who created a market that reckoned staying in the EU was 80 to 90 per cent likely.
Partly, the odds were skewed by ridiculous bets by Remainers with loadsa money (such as the woman from London who staked £100,000 in her first, and most likely last, ever flutter), but I think the betting markets were also manipulated by something quite new: bare, shamefaced lying. When telephoned by pollsters, we lied. When directly asked by neighbours, we lied. When accosted by In campaigners with stickers, we smiled and we lied. Or perhaps it’s kinder to put it like this: we kept quiet. We did not tell the truth. Because there was, among Remainers, total and absolute intolerance for the (ironically) more popular point of view. They didn’t just reject Leave — they’d eject Leavers.
Punters staked the largest amount of money ever on a political event. Betfair took more than £60 million by Thursday afternoon. But weirdly — for people all hoping to make a fast buck — nearly all of it was squandered on the wrong result. And that’s because we were not merely evasive with each other, we were really convincing, so nobody suspected.
Pollsters have been fooled with increasing frequency. At the last general election, the pollsters called the election wrong thanks to the ‘shy Tories’ — voters who claimed they’d vote anything but Conservative when asked to declare publicly, while secretly planning to restore David Cameron to No. 10. Also busy fibbing were ‘lazy Labour’ voters, who promised to back Miliband but on the day couldn’t force themselves to bother. In 2015, the pollsters were fooled but the punters were not — since shy Tories confessed their true preference to those closest to them and bets were cast accordingly, losing bookmakers millions.
This time, however, something strange happened. Of the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU, the overwhelming majority went to bed believing they had voted alone and would wake up to Remain. In a society that feels increasingly compelled to share everything online, picturing it, cataloguing and preserving it, so it can be ‘liked’ by people we know, the ballot box is beautiful — and rare — for its secrecy. It is private. You don’t have to tell a soul. Although usually you do. Last week the atmosphere was so toxic — Remain so very ‘right’ and Leave so evidently ‘wrong’ — the truth only revealed itself in that furtive, pencilled cross.
Now, of course, there’s no point admitting what we’ve done: it’ll only make things worse. Like a cheating husband whose dalliance is done, it’s better to deny how it felt, or that we ever wanted to be free. If it comforts a broken-hearted Remainer to believe that we are leaving the European Union because of bigoted ‘stupid people who read the Daily Mail’, as a man ranting into his phone on the Thames path had it, or thanks to ‘peasants revolting’, as another mate’s lawyer claimed — then let them. They might cheer up quicker, as we all hope, if they can blame how they feel on bogeymen on a council estate far, far away. Not their neighbour, their sister, their son or their friend.