Fellow Remainers, I trust you’ve all got a reasoned, well-researched and passionate pro-Leave friend you debate with regularly, yes? No, not the bloke on Twitter called johnsmithskova296749846 with the profile picture of someone who died in 1986, who joined in January and, despite looking about 93, shares and posts 200 purely pro-Brexit Tweets a day in solid 12-hour shifts. And not your mum. Someone who’s both well-informed on the true pros and cons of leaving the EU and, crucially, isn’t shut down by a St Petersburg caretaker at midnight to prevent overheating.
Mine is Som Wardner, the clued-up, plugged-in and fiercely intelligent singer of My Vitriol. He’s an atypical Brexiteer – well versed in global political history, socio-economic trends, deep-state new world order theories and being sexy but, by Christ, does he want to leave the EU. For months on end we’ve been locked in a WhatsApp battle of political wits and wills, firing news stories, economic predictions, secretive leaked reports and endless Nigel Farage speeches at each other in the name of healthy cross-Brexit debate.
He’ll claim our welfare system can’t operate with open borders; I’ll send him evidence that just two per cent of welfare payments go to EU immigrants, who are net contributors to the welfare state. He’ll argue, very convincingly, that the EU is a sinking ship that won’t survive a crash in Italy; I’ll question the logic of torpedo-ing our own economy first to avoid going down with it. He’ll even indulge a spot of the usual Brexit gammonspeak about being ruled by unelected bureaucrats and having fought wars to avoid such national slavery; I’ll point out that our forebears fought against violent invasion, not communally-approved trade agreements, and how much I’m looking forward to the great pomp and pageantry that traditionally accompanies the elections of the rule-makers at the WTO.
Antigua, I hear, holds the world-famous WTO Elections Carnival, where schoolchildren re-enact that historic first moment when Guatemala sold Norway a crate of “tarantula free, we promise” bananas for a fiver. In Burkina Faso, the elections mark the start of a glorious harvest festival, where revellers bathe in yam juice fountains to celebrate how membership of the most democratic and accountable trade organisation in the world has seen their economy thrive like an STD on a 1986 Motley Crue tour.
Many of Som’s points have weight and logic (the EU’s despicable power-grab of Greece’s assets following its crash; its pro-privatisation neoliberal agenda and framing of godawful treaties like TTIP), and certainly my view of the EU darkened. But not enough to want to purposefully plunge the UK into a thirty-year recession, blight my daughter’s future life prospects, allow the rich to duck the incoming EU tax avoidance clampdown, risk a return to the 40 years of conflict in Northern Ireland and watch the NHS get snaffled up like so much ‘medicinal’ cocaine by American healthcare companies with eyes full of dollar signs – well, £200-per-month health insurance contracts with small-print loopholes you could drive a ruinously expensive ambulance through.
To my mind, the most significant event in the Brexit debate, if not the course of British life in the 21stCentury, happened on Question Time a few weeks ago, and you probably missed it. Labour MP Richard Burgon was answering a question about his preparations for a no-deal Brexit and set about deploying more truth bombs than Bill Hicks in a B-52. “There’ll be people trying to use that chaos of a no-deal scenario to push through things that even Margaret Thatcher didn’t dream of doing,” he said, “things like selling off our NHS, opening it up to companies from the United States –” At which point Fiona Bruce shut him down before the truth detector implanted in her neck exploded and started urgently scanning the crowd for any UKIP plant who’d blame everything on Jeremy Corbyn.
But as the discussion between Som and I, once civilised and well-intentioned, descended into a repetitive spiral, it became clear our quickfire debate had turned to trench warfare. He wanted out of the manipulative, self-serving and doomed EU superstate with its encroaching army, I liked free healthcare, having a job and not getting cancer from hummus, and neither of us was budging.
As a one-time Remainer, and certainly no right-winger, who’d researched his way over to Leave, Som was waist-deep in IMF figures, official treaties and legitimate reports on the potential trading benefits of leaving, but also partisan sources: Sky News, Vote Leave YouTube videos and polls, ‘impartial’ surveys on sites called things like bringinghomethebrexit.com. He went so deep he guested on David Icke’s podcast to lay out his case against the “emotion-led” left. I, on the other hand, was blinker-focussed on my short-sighted, self-centred dream of feeding a family and not dying from credit refusal.
Our minds were set, we were entrenched; any argument either of us wanted to make, there was ‘evidence’ for it out there somewhere. If your timeline is full of reports that remain would win a second referendum hands down, Som’s has just as many predicting a leave landslide. YouGov, natch.
In that, we were a WhatsApp microcosm of the whole country. You only need watch five minutes of Question Time to realise that the UK’s collective psyche is in uncharted waters, fried with delusion, manipulation, lies and confirmation bias. Remainers are frothing at the mouth that Corbyn isn’t clicking his fingers for a second referendum he couldn’t get anyway, and the majority of Leave voters actually seem to be hellbent on blind, masochistic national self-harm, actively demanding the worst possible outcome for themselves despite all rational advice.
It’s like half the country has turned into one of those people who climb into lion enclosures to tickle their balls in friendship, or tries to mug an angry Liam Neeson. Or someone with a hang-nail demanding to have their arm amputated at the shoulder because their grandfather lost an arm in a woodchipper in 1947 and he coped fine – it took him ages to bleed to death. Losing an arm for a bit would do us good, some BBC vox pop pundits might argue, to make us appreciate what we had. Y’know, that second arm. That was cool.
Such a widespread, stubborn and nonsensical urge for self-annihilation is unprecedented in British society, and needs delicate handling. You don’t go grabbing a shotgun from someone’s forehead shouting ‘stop being a prick!’, People’s Voters, you inch towards them calmly, trying to understand their problems and encouraging them to think again. What’s painted as weakness and indecisiveness on Corbyn’s part is exactly this tactic; slowly swivelling the nation’s sweat-soaked barrel away from no deal towards a far softer (largely meaningless but far less damaging) Brexit, with the option not to pull the trigger at all.
When May’s no-deal bluff is finally called and the inevitable Article 50 delay and new public vote arrives, be it second referendum or general election, it’ll take exactly such empathetic persuasion to convince the country to do what’s best for itself. In an age when we all know how right we are and any contradictory information is just an inconvenient buzz from beyond the bubble, we’ve never needed to listen to and engage with our (reasoning, not yellow-vested) political opposites more. In the current state of ideological trench warfare, we need fewer mortars, more football matches. Pint, Som?