The seemingly endless Brexit process has paved the way for division between Leave and Remain supporters to become the new norm in British society. Nonetheless, there are indications of some similarities emerging in the preferences of Leavers and Remainers, in their mistrust of newspapers and detachment from a perceived corrupt elite.
Into this space has sprung a series of new and contrasting grassroot and cross-national campaigns, from the People’s Vote to Leave.eu. In a relatively short period, these campaigns have mobilised a growing number of people. About a million turned out to demand a second referendum in London on March 23, while a handful of hardcore Leavers travelled nearly 260 miles to show their disappointment when the UK failed to leave the EU on March 29.
Against this backdrop, my ongoing research into citizenship has given me the opportunity to talk to citizen activists, working on either side of the Brexit divide in the south of England – five from Leave groups and 24 from Remain groups. While some are part of the People’s Vote and Leave.eu, others are also active in more traditional party politics. While there are obvious differences in their perceptions of Brexit, there are also some key similarities in the motives for their activism and expectations for the future.
Preserving ‘our’ community
Most activists I spoke to found a desire to preserve their community as the most important motive for their activism. Leavers spoke of a more or less idealised form of English community. As one woman I spoke to put it: “On the whole, it’s an English character to be decent, to be good to your neighbour.”
Remainers focused on their “love” for Europe and its cultural, geographical or historical richness. They then placed both the English and the larger British community in the broader context of a European community. Or, in some cases they only referred to the former. As one man put it:
I’ve always kind of felt myself to be first and foremost European … British is not me, it’s just an accident by birth.
The women Remainers I spoke to felt that their community had a global scope – and anything to the contrary undermined “good global citizenship”. As one put it:
I feel very strongly that I am, and everyone should be, global citizens … you know, we’re all human. It’s about humanity and being compassionate, no matter what the borders are, or the rules are.
The EU is to ‘blame’
Predictably, Leavers didn’t expect the EU to last very long and disagreed with some of its inherent rules, mainly to do with freedom of movement. They found the current Brexit situation chiefly the result of the EU’s inflexibility at the negotiating table. One woman said she didn’t understand why leaving was taking so long. She added:
I think it’s a bit like a bad marriage, where your husband’s keeping you down all the time and you just think, well, ‘let me go and if it’s as bad as it seems, well, it is on my head.’
Remainer activists – usually the men I spoke to – appeared to have a similar reading of the underlying causes of the Brexit vote, but instead of leaving the EU, they stressed it needed reform urgently and from within. One man said a new conversation was needed within the EU about the upside and downside of free movement.
If one country does get inundated, as the UK feels it did, how do we deal with immigration? It is a major conversation that has to be had.
Some Remainers cited the success of populist and right-wing parties within Europe as an example of the political tides turning across the EU, with many other countries likely to support the introduction of new reforms, including on free movement.
Fed up with British politicians
All the activists I’ve interviewed so far expressed a sense of frustration with certain British politicians. Back in January, one Leave activist told me that she was unhappy with many MPs, some of who, she believes, go into politics for their own self-interest.
It makes me very cross now that, obviously, many members of parliament who (were) elected to do the best they can for the people in their community … are now all joining together and trying to rebel about what we are trying to do. To leave.
The resulting frustration served as a motive for continuing to support Leave. Yet, the exact same issue gave a new sense of purpose to Remainers and even helped in mobilising and recruiting further members. Nonetheless, they were quick to admit the Remain campaign had a continued lack of genuine leadership that could “rally the troops”.
Time and again I was told how therapeutic it felt for those I interviewed to share their experiences, concerns and aspirations about Brexit in a “safe”, yet “challenging” environment with me. Setting up similar opportunities for a chat, even bringing together members from the two sides of the Brexit argument, could be an important step in bridging their differences. The similarities in their motives and perceptions could act as a starting point for discussion and serve as a reminder on what many activists agree on – the key aspects of “good citizenship” in the UK and preserving their communities.