Lessons from Brexit: The defence of globalism must appeal to more than mere pragmatism

Through passionate rhetoric addressing questions of identity and autonomy, the Leave campaign tapped into something the more cautious and technocratic Remain campaign failed to understand.

The referendum on Brexit was divisive in a way that went beyond simple disagreement between opposing camps; what was evident was a complete breakdown in communication between Leavers and Remainers.

This breakdown in communication was underpinned by the inability, for the most-part, of each side to comprehend the perspective of the other. With the referendum done and dusted, despite calls for the country to unite behind shared goals, this legacy of polarisation remains.  

The breakdown in communication was represented in an article by Brendan O’Neill, entitled I’m a ‘Brexit Extremist’ and proud of it.

In the article, O’Neill refers to a YouGov poll finding that 39% of Leavers (800 from a 2000 person sample) say that loosing their or a family member’s job would be a price worth paying for Brexit.

Many Remainers jumped on this poll result as indicative of Leavers being either irrational or stupid, labelling them ‘Brexit Extremists’. O’Neill took the opposing view: that the poll represented something laudable – a willingness “to endure hardship in service of a moral cause”.

What was apparent in the article was not only disagreement, but two perspectives completely isolated from one another, making rational debate impossible.

For the majority of Remainers, whether or not we should leave the EU was underpinned by rational calculations regarding wealth and security. For Leavers, more emotional considerations, deeply connected to personal and national pride were paramount. From this perspective, self-sacrifice could be rationally justified in its satisfaction of a desire for honour.

In order to engage in constructive debate, it is not enough simply to argue from one’s own perspective; one must make an effort to understand the motivations inspiring the other side too.

The successful Vote Leave campaign recognised the desire for honour and self-esteem that many British people – especially in the so-called ‘left behind’ communities – felt they had been stripped of.

Through passionate rhetoric addressing questions of identity and autonomy on a personal and national level, the Leave campaign tapped into these motivations in a way that the more cautious and technocratic Remain campaign did not.

Given the Leave campaign’s success, the values and concepts underpinning the rhetoric are worth further consideration, as they will continue to be a source of motivation as Brexit unfolds.

Firstly, there was the campaign slogan – Vote Leave, take back control – which appealed to a desire to reclaim autonomy in decision making. Maintaining autonomy is essential to ideas of pride and honour which were a source of motivation, mobilising voters behind Brexit.

Other themes which permeated the language of the Vote Leave campaign also appealed to a sense of honour. By labelling the Remain campaign ‘Project Fear’, the Leave campaign was able to promote Brexit as the optimists’ choice. By identifying Brexit with a patriotic belief in British potential, the Leave campaign was again able to galvanise voters by appealing to a sense of honour and national pride.  

Similarly, references to Britain’s historic achievements mobilised voters by boosting their collective sense of honour. Through idealising Britain’s past and referencing great historical figures such as Shakespeare and Churchill, the protagonists of the Leave campaign encouraged voters to believe that something inherent in the national character would allow Britain to succeed on its own. What’s more, voters were instilled with a sense of duty to live up to former glories by showing leadership, rather than hanging on to the coat tails of others in Europe.

Finally there was the notion of Britain having a unique destiny, to be brought about through action in the present. This vision of the future is intimately tied to the romanticised notion of the past.

In the words of Boris Johnson, Brexit would allow us to “recapture our voice”. This sense of a unique British destiny was a source of pride and confidence for many Brexit voters and is rooted in the idea of ‘exceptionalism’, common to many past and present imperial powers. Though the British Empire may be gone, the sense of destiny and the imperative to show leadership remains.

Self-sacrifice in pursuit of an ideal was implicit in the rhetorical themes running through the Leave discourse in a way that was missing from the more cautious and pragmatic tone of the Remain campaign. By relying too heavily on economic rationalism and by showing reluctance to emphasise the values of collective responsibility, the Remain campaign failed to appeal to motivation based in honour.

Conversely, the narratives of the Leave campaign wove together notions of personal honour and national pride, forming a coherent system of values with which people identified and found inspiring. Within this system of values, taking risks in pursuit of greater autonomy and in order to chose a path free from European hegemony made sense.

For those who support intergovernmentalism, co-operation and integration, the task is to understand the importance of these motivations and to argue in a way that not only appeals to people’s pragmatism, but inspires them to take risks in defence of cosmopolitan values too.

Christopher Morton wrote his Masters dissertation on the discourse of the Leave campaign leading up to the referendum.

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10 Responses to “Lessons from Brexit: The defence of globalism must appeal to more than mere pragmatism”

  1. Richard MacKinnon

    I cant agree. The referendum was lost before it was called. It had nothing to do with the difference in the approach ,or the commitment, or presentational styles of either side during the campaign.
    Here is my theory Christopher. Why did more people vote to Leave than were persuaded to vote for the staus quo?
    The staus quo was not working for them. They felt ignored, angry, frightened, used, lied to (choose your combination).

  2. Richard MacKinnon

    There is another point in your logic I take issue with. When you say, “The referendum on Brexit was divisive in a way that went beyond simple disagreement between opposing camps; what was evident was a complete breakdown in communication between Leavers and Remainers”.
    Of course there was division between the two sides. The debate was an ideoligical battle to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. There was no common ground. The question on the ballot paper was Leave or Remain. Division was inevitable.
    Communication did not break down. Both sides debated with each other to the very end.
    Please expand on your point here if I am missing something obvious, but when in a democracy the electorate are asked to choose between two polar opposite positions then ‘division’ occurs on polling day. That is democracy.

  3. Amanda Adlem

    Hindsight is a glorious thing in which we have 2020 vision. Calling the referendum at this time was enforced by political pressures. I wobbled on this decision and could see the arguments quite clearly on either side so now I find myself as a Re-Leaver I believe it is called. Cosmopolitanism is a cultural accretion on top of a good education. Not every one will feel it. I expect quite a few are happy to think of their world as ending at the borders, but the world will not go along with this it has to impinge on us in diverse mutually dependant spheres as the social and the economic. It must. We live in a global biosphere. I have a fondness for polycentricism so as much as a globalist economy is an efficiency of scale it is also a creator of unemployment via the same and creates overwhelming corporate power able to ignore governments. Globalism as working out in the world was not doing humanity or the planet any favours. Cosmopolitanism therefore is a boon but dependant on education and upbringing, globalism is a design with multiple flaws within it. There is no conclusion because this is still in process. A decision was made. Now, despite the ideological fracturing and economic consequences this causes it is a better path to a more democratic country. I am not a Lexit hopeful however. In fact I foresee a great deal of problems from Brexit. I am pessimistic in the short term but optimistic in the long, yet ever try to remain a realist.

  4. Chris

    Hi Richard, I agree that in any referendum there are going to be two differing points of view. My point is that when two the two sides of the debate reach their conclusions using a completely different framework for their logic, constructive debate cannot be had. In order to engage in constructive debate, the values and the goals that the other side are appealing to have to at least be recognised and understood. Whether Brexit will be harmful to the economy is a question that has a right and a wrong answer. But if a Leaver supports Brexit on the basis of considerations that are not purely economic, then a Remainer arguing that the Brexiteer is wrong from a basis of pure economic rationalism misses the point and leads to the two sides speaking past each other. (The same mistake can be made the other way round too)

    Of course it is not black and white and I do not want to say that communication has broken down completely between the two sides in all cases. However, in many cases, the two sides have appeared to be talking past each other rather than to each other. For me, having looked at the discourse from the referendum, this aspect of the debate heightened divisions in a way that remains evident..

    Thanks for your comment

  5. Will

    I was puzzled by the yougov poll showing that 39% of leave voters would accept they or a family member losing their job as a price worth paying for Brexit.
    How ever a more recent poll shows that Leave voters do not expect there to be any adverse economic consequences from brexit, so these “sacrifices” are seen as a remote hypothetical possibility.https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/11/02/year-remainers-warnings-havent-made-leave-voters-a/

    A majority of Remain voters do expect very severe economic consequences, both for themselves and the country, consequently the sanguine response of Leave voters appears wilfully perverse and incomprehensible.
    As most economic models do predict very severe negative economic consequences, impacting particularly harshly on Leave voting demographics and areas we will have the opportunity to see the reaction of Brexit voters to the reality of job losses and lower living standards. It will be interesting to see if they still consider the sacrifice to be worthwhile.

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