Damned if you do, damned if you won’t


Astonishing new polling published by YouGov has revealed that 61 per cent of ‘Leave’ voters would be prepared to see the British economy suffer significant economic damage in order to ensue that the UK leaves the European Union. Even more stunning is the fact that 39 per cent would be prepared to see themselves, or their family members, lose their jobs for the same prize.

What is curious about this is that just before the Referendum, the polling had turned to the majority of Britons estimating there would be no personal economic impact from Brexit.

Now, people are beginning to expect an economic downturn – but Leave voters are prepared to weather it. The desire from voters who previously evaluated economic competence at the ballot box to now keep moving forward, to see Brexit through, regardless of the financial impact – even on their own families and communities, cements Brexit as a defining new ideological strand.

This development is particularly puzzling when one considers that prior to the Referendum being called, there was a considerably smaller portion of Britons who avidly championed leaving the European Union (24 per cent in 2014); the vast majority of the population was, as per our temperament, simply ambivalent.

The Referendum of June 2016, and the campaign that preceded it, has both revealed and activated a number of profound faultlines in British attitudes. And the decision by the Prime Minister and her Government to double down and press forward with a ‘hard’ Brexit without a substantive national or political conversation has deepened the sense of irrepressible movement.

In political ascendancies and downfalls, it is the sense of momentum that forms around a policy or a candidate that is crucial in encouraging broad swings of public opinion. We saw this in the recent General Election, around the so-called ‘dementia tax’, which saw a relatively sensible but difficult to sell social care funding model reduced to an utterly repellent slogan, which threw the Prime Minister’s seemingly untouchable popularity crushed within days. It also meant the urgent need to confront the issue of social care funding was all but lost from the campaign trail.

If we think back to the rise of Blair, Obama, even to Rudd in Australia, and the early days of Macron Mania, we see that momentum has also been just as important in the rise of political leaders, building an infectious aura of hope and possibility and goodwill around them.

In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, momentum of both the small and large ‘m’ kinds has propelled him even higher still, to a cult-like status – where (just like the economic conservatives willing to risk a calamitous Brexit) even the most ardent ‘Remain’ voters are prepared to turn a blind eye to his lacklustre performance in the Referendum campaign, as they ride the wave of socialist euphoria and his promises of disruptive change.

In an era where citizens’ risk-taking appetite is high, and political shocks are becoming shockingly routine, the direction of travel is shifting rapidly in unpredictable twists and turns. Careers can be made, or ruined, in one week. Macron built an entire party from scratch in a year. The British people chose to unravel decades of cooperation and inter-dependence in one day.

The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t make for a particularly effective policy-making environment. The business of government is not glamorous – much of the most fundamental, constructive progress we have made as a society has come about through incremental actions, through negotiation, consultation and compromise. Within parties, between parties, and between governments and their citizens.

Decisions are now being taken with swift hands and far-reaching consequences, but while politicians seem to be listening to citizens more than they ever have before, they have forgotten how to talk to them. Difficult conversations have been pushed aside; better to push forward and be on the right side of momentum, than to equivocate – or educate – and risk the people’s rage.

The Conservatives have made themselves the party to deliver Brexit, and their supporters are clear they want to see this happen. They are also now apparently clear that they are prepared to trade economic stability and security – for themselves and the nation – to achieve their Brexit ambitions. Just how a party that has modelled itself on its superior economic management can square this circle remains to be seen. Damned if you do, damned if you won’t.

But any politician worth their salt should greet this polling with immense trepidation – it goes without saying that public opinion is nebulous, and even the most fixed trajectories can be broken at astonishing speed. Moreover, basing policy positions around hypothetical scenarios is a fool’s errand; it is difficult to imagine, when facing immediate risks to their own, or their family’s employment, that the same percentage of citizens will still grasp for ‘sovereignty’ over food on the table.

Leave voters tend to be more optimistic about the country’s economic resilience, so there is likely an element of disbelief around these scenarios. But if a downturn does follow Brexit, and their lives are made more difficult, it is hard to imagine they will blame themselves; rather, their anguish will fall at the feet of the Government. Who will be left holding the baby?