Brendan O’Neill

Why Leave voters are my heroes of 2016

Why Leave voters are my heroes of 2016
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It’s rare that an opinion poll brings a tear to my eye. But this week one did. It was the CNN/ComRes poll published on Monday. It found that 47 per cent of British adults would vote Leave if the EU referendum was held today, and 45 per cent would vote Remain (eight per cent said they didn’t know how they’d vote).

This means, as the CNN headline put it, that ‘Six months on, Brits stand by EU referendum decision’. Leavers haven’t budged. Regrexit is a myth. Even after months of being branded as idiots, libelled as racists, and charged with bringing about a hike in hate crime and possibly the end of decent politics as we knew it, Leavers remain devoted to their choice, convinced of their cause. Such steadfastness in the face of months of intense verbal persecution is moving, and inspiring.

The reason the poll made me feel a little emotional is because I know how hard it can be to be a Leaver. A schoolteacher friend of mine tells her co-workers she voted Remain — she didn’t — because the Guardian-reading staffroom is crazily anti-Leave and she doesn’t want to be thought of as ‘Ukippy’ (she’s about as un-Ukippy as it’s possible to be). My brother, a Leaver, was at a well-to-do social gathering at which leaving the EU was being gabbed about as the biggest calamity to befall Britain since the war, so he told everyone he didn’t vote. I get emails from shy Leavers. One told me he fled social media because his social set were forever tweeting about Leavers being ‘ignorant, uneducated racists’.

Yet despite this, despite the pariah status that sometimes comes with being a Leaver, despite some Leavers feeling they have to hide their feelings, despite Leave being a result which, in CNN’s words, ‘shocked much of the world’, Leaver Brits are resolute. They’re not flinching. And it isn’t only this week’s CNN poll that shows this. An Ipsos MORI poll in July found that ‘Leave voters do not have buyers’ regret’. Yes, in July three per cent of Leave voters said they would vote differently given the chance, but so did four per cent of Remain voters. And let’s not forget what media and political debate was like in July: it was nuts, fizzing with shock at the result and a low, nasty politics of fear about Brexit-induced social instability in Britain and mayhem in the markets. And yet even in that unhinged climate, a mere three per cent of Leavers were having second thoughts. It’s amazing. It’s stirring.

For me, the most shocking thing about 2016 wasn’t Brexit, which I love deeply, or even the election of Trump, whom I’m opposed to. Such ballot-box revolts, such kickings against the pricks, are to be expected in an era when politics has become so paternalistic and government so estranged from the public. No, it’s the response to Brexit and Trump that has been disturbing. Especially the response from the fuming liberal media and the less guarded sections of the political class.

Their contempt for ‘low information’ Americans, for American white women who don’t have college degrees, for supposedly xenophobic Brits, for the North of England, Welsh workers, tabloid readers and the uneducated, has been truly alarming. Leave is talked about in the same breath as fascism, its backers viewed as so colossally dumb that they can’t even see what merry hell they have unleashed and what a dire impact it will have on their own pathetic lives. And how have Leave voters responded to these slurs and barbs? They’ve taken them on the chin, and stuck to their principles. In a beautiful little irony, their patient response to being branded dumb and fearful has shown they’re neither of those things.

So I want to pay tribute to the everyday, steadfast Leave voter: the heroes of 2016. They kept their heads while all around them lost theirs. They rejected the politics of fear, and the media’s foul attempt to scare them into changing their minds with talk of a mad new era of populism, and stayed true to their beliefs. And here’s the best bit: many of them voted, not out of self-interest, but for what they think is the greater, democratic good. Let me tell you about the bit in this week’s CNN/ComRes poll that really got me: 17 per cent of those who think their personal finances will worsen as a result of Brexit say they would still vote Leave. In short, they put their belief in how to make Britain a better, more democratic nation above their own economic comfort. There must be something in my eye.

Some leading Remainers think Brexit proves that ordinary people, being the kind of folks who, in the words of the New European, ‘make decisions on impulse, feeling [and] emotion’, can’t be trusted with big political matters. The opposite is the case. Brexit, and the continuing commitment to Brexit, proves that ordinary people can think for themselves; that they do not succumb to fear; that they’re not the easily led, fickle creatures of chattering-class legend; that they very often put what they view as society’s interests above their own interests; that they are good and decent and patient, not hateful.

Ignore all the nonsense about 2016 being the worst year ever. This year has confirmed that huge numbers of people are unafraid and unbowed, and are willing to revolt against established opinion and sweep aside institutions they consider unjust. Leave has been the best thing to happen to British politics in a generation — all hail its army of authors.