Following the decision of the British people to exit the European Union, supporters of the Remain side immediately lashed out in hateful, alarmist, and dangerously illiberal ways. As the proud citizen of a non-EU country, much of the reaction struck me as bizarre, and plainly absurd.
Today in the New Yorker, remain supporter Bee Wilson wonders whether Britons will be able to continue eating the foods they love, suggesting that outside of the EU access to such simple pleasures as apricots and olive oil will be in jeopardy. Others seem to believe that Brexit will somehow prevent them from international travel; my Facebook feed is filled with posts about folks enjoying their last holidays to Europe. Believe it or not, most countries in the world are not in the EU, and those of us from those countries still travel and eat fruit. Though you wouldn’t think it listening to outraged remain voters, some of us even have electricity.
What’s truly odd, however, is the assumption made by many that Brexit is a rejection of internationalism that will isolate Britain. I watched the vote in Paris, with a group that included Americans, Germans, French and English, and cheered as the UK voted to leave. Exiting the EU is not a pulling up of the country’s drawbridge, but an opening to the rest of the world. Accusations of racism seem particularly bizarre, though there were unfortunate attitudes held by some Leave campaigners. What could be more racist than an organization which ensures largely white Europeans can enter the country no questions asked, but those from the (largely non-white) rest of the world are routinely turned away, despite their qualifications and cultural or familial ties to the UK?
As Matthew Ellery of the Get Britain Out campaign has written, “We want an outward facing United Kingdom; we don’t want to be a part of an elite gentlemen’s ‘club’, which believes Europeans are superior to people from the rest of the world.” It is puzzling to me that students who fervently decry any perceived euro-centrism in university curricula are the first to laud its most obvious and concrete manifestation.
Even stranger are the attempts by supposed liberals who continually decry an elite they claim is out of touch and ignores the working class, to ignore the votes of that same working class because it’s members are allegedly unable to understand their own interests. Arguing for MPs to ignore the referendum or for a second referendum to be held on these grounds is tantamount to claiming that the working class are too stupid to be trusted with the vote. It is the worst form of elitism to suggest that we, being Oxonians after all, understand what’s best for disaffected voters in post-Industrial cities and towns better than they themselves do.
In this very paper, Toby Williams claimed that there never should have been a referendum because, “Many people have far more pressing concerns, such as putting food on the table and paying the bills, than ensuring they are sufficiently informed to vote on every piece of legislation that comes up in Parliament.” This is a clear suggestion that those who struggle financially cannot be trusted to participate in our democracy, plain and simple. Ordinary people understood the importance of this referendum, and thought carefully about it. If ordinary voters cannot be trusted to determine such fundamental questions regarding the nature of the British state as its membership in the EU, then why should they be trusted at all? This attitude is a shameful betrayal of the liberal principles central to Britain’s identity, which the remain campaign claimed to stand for.
There are many reasonable arguments against leaving the EU, and it will take time to see whether the economic forecasts warning against Brexit will pan out. However, the reaction to this vote by a vocal, elite minority has been hysterical, misleading, and deeply illiberal. Brexit is not isolationist – indeed, precisely the opposite is true. By separating itself from an elitist, insular, and implicitly racist club, the UK can now prosper even more by engaging with the whole world, rather than just a small slice of it.