Why did Britain vote to leave the European Union? There can be no more important exercise in this country today than understanding that great divide. Some say it was to ‘take back control’, or ‘get our country back’, while others say people failed to understand the benefits of the EU, or worse still were lied to. Becoming a more united country is an essential part of a prosperous future, and we will work out how we get there only by working out how we got to where we are now.
I’m the Member of Parliament for what is, by some measures, the ‘most Brexit’ constituency in the country. Boston and Skegness voted by three to one to leave, and more than three quarters of all voters turned out. It is a constituency that could easily be labelled as racist – or worse. Even the briefest visit will demonstrate that it isn’t.
Indeed, it is far, far more complicated than that, so I am always pleased when the media want to see it for themselves. As a former journalist myself, with 16 years at the Daily Telegraph, I wonder if we best understand the debate not by visiting the extremes of leave or remain, but by asking why leafy suburbs with precious little immigration say immigrants drove them to vote as they did. Still, Skegness is a tourist destination for millions each year, so having Anthony Clavane in town for the New European was not unwelcome.
A few things about his piece and the accompanying cover, however, were not only unwelcome: I honestly believe the characterisation of Brexit voters as universally intolerant, ignorant and usually racist is not only inaccurate, but also deeply unhelpful to the country, its future and that vital bid to heal divisions. The New European sought to find remainers in Skegness and struggled, but that didn’t stop the casting of aspersions, or the retelling of basic facts about the resort or about Lincolnshire in general, presupposing that doing things differently would lead to ruin.
The iconic ‘Jolly Fisherman’ was recast as a malevolent clown, swearily telling others to ‘Go away’, while Brexit, as last week’s paper asserted, would destroy the town. It was a parody that had delusions of satire, but in reality it was a crass insult to many thousands of intelligent, considered voters. It is daft to imagine more than half the country shares such intolerant values, but that many do is symptomatic of how divisive the debate has become.
So, if I may, a few home truths: it is not news to the people of Skegness that people from Eastern Europe work in tourism, nor is it news to the people of nearby Boston that local agriculture now relies on migrant labour. People did not vote as they largely did because they wanted those people to simply leave, and nor did they do so because they wanted to turn the clock back to some fantasy 1950s idyll that never existed. Likewise, the reality of this has not dawned on them since the referendum – that vote that remainers simply cannot understand was cast with eyes wide open not just to the black and white yes or no on the ballot paper, but to the nuances of its consequences. In my many meetings around the vote, we discussed the single market, trade deals and much more. Even I, someone who just about voted to remain, was utterly convinced that people knew what they were doing – and did so not just because they were seeking a Britain standing on her own two feet a little further from Brussels, but above all, because they honestly sought the best for our great country. Never have I been more heartened; remainers and brexiteers all wanted the best for the UK, even if they differed sharply on how to get there. Now the result is declared, we must work out how to make the very best of it.
What struck me most about the response to the New European’s cover was one single thing: how patronising so many remainers are to those who voted to leave. There was an absolutely fixed view that racists, bigots and idiots voted to leave the EU, and no desire whatsoever to seek to reconsider that view or to understand it. I don’t know where that divisive thinking leads in a civilised country such as ours, but it is not to a happy place.
There is, of course, the argument that politicians should go with their conscience and block Brexit. For me, to do so would be to do two bad things: first it would undermine democracy itself, making people think politicians only seek to serve themselves even when they have handed the reins over on a vital issue for a referendum.
But second, and more importantly, it would be to ignore that the EU failed to make a case for itself – and voters have a right to make a judgement on that failure. Those who seek to make the European case anew would do better to try to understand than to insult either individuals or whole towns.