I met hundreds of you at an open meeting on Brexit held recently by South Cambridgeshire’s formidable pro-remain MP Heidi Allen. You are passionate about your cause and applaud wildly at any point made in support of your beliefs. Your fervent wish is for a second referendum which you always call a ‘people’s vote’ without any sense of embarrassment at the propagandist use of evasive language typical of demagogues. You have little interest in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement since this involves leaving the EU, albeit in a half-hearted way. You thus support Heidi’s intention to vote against the WA in parliament.
South Cambridgeshire is one of the UK’s most affluent areas, full of people working in high-tech companies and some of the world’s most prestigious research centres. The audience in the meeting thus included many mature and intelligent professional people. It was striking that you appeared to have used your intelligence and skills largely to collect evidence is support of your pro-remain views and were apparently content to quote figures from economic studies of which most of you can have little understanding.
This ‘confirmation bias’ is well known and modern research suggests that it is endemic among the well-educated in forming their views on a wide range of issues not just Brexit. Heidi Allen warned the audience that their views were not at all representative of areas further north, and one or two of you expressed sympathy for the people of these benighted regions who have been so wickedly misinformed as to vote against their own self-interest.
You place much weight on the fact that many elderly leavers have died since 2016 while several million young remainers have come of age. In your view, a second referendum would be easily won with this new electorate. Similar arguments were made in the 1960s that since young people voted Labour while old Tories were steadily dying, this meant the future was Labour. It did not work out that way partly because people forget that existing voters are steadily aging and becoming more conservative.
Talking to some of you after the meeting I was struck by how little you know about the EU. Few of you can name a single EU Commissioner or know who your MEP is. Nor are you aware that EU legislation is initiated by the unelected Commission and not by the EU parliament. Such details do not concern you because you see your ideals as much loftier than mere administration. What concerns you is being good, open and cosmopolitan, and feeling good about yourself and your country.
By far the biggest cheer of the evening went in support of a lady who said she was an EU citizen and was very worried about her future living in the UK. No mention was made of the fact that the existing rights of all EU citizens are totally protected with no suggestion that this would ever change, deal or no deal. You expressed your sympathy and felt better. The important point was the lady’s feeling of distress irrespective of whether her feelings have much basis in fact. More cheers greeted another highly articulate man who said his firm was trying to recruit a skilled German and offering a huge salary. The German was willing to come to the UK but his wife refused to bring her children to a society which had turned its back on the outside world! She might well have been describing North Korea, but the distinction mattered little to you. You felt her pain.
It was impossible to get in a question among the multitude who wished to express their opposition to any form of Brexit, but I did get a brief chat with Heidi at the end. Like all remainers she had said that ‘no deal’ would be catastrophic, and she had added that she had assessed the evidence and had talked to firms in her constituency who were profoundly worried about the prospect of no deal. Those who prophesy disaster from ‘no deal’ are almost never asked to describe the evidence for this apoplectic view, and I wondered what her evidence was. After an impressive, indeed bravura, performance on her part throughout the evening I was somewhat shocked when she said that 8 million jobs would be lost immediately if no deal occurred. Since this completely bonkers view is shared by no remainer economists and represents the loss of almost a third of all UK jobs, I repeated the figure to make sure I had heard her correctly. She said yes 8 million and the analysis was on her website (I have been unable to find anything relevant on her site and have emailed her for guidance – no reply yet).
What I usually do when people make outlandish over-confident predictions is to offer them a large bet. These are always refused since confidence always melts away when cash is involved and so it was with Heidi. I offered her a £10,000 bet that nothing remotely like that level of job loss would occur if there was no deal next March. She said what people always say in this situation, i.e. that she does not make bets, and smiled winningly. I was too polite to point out that her earlier claim that the Good Friday Agreement mandated no hard border in Ireland was also inaccurate. As a former special advisor to the First Minister in Northern Ireland I knew that the GFA included no mention of borders but I doubted she would have much interest in this level of precision.
The evening was what I imagined similar meetings must have been like on appeasement in the 1930s, on nuclear disbarment in the 1950s, or in opposition to cruise missiles or the Falklands invasion in the 1980s. The well-educated are so often on the wrong side of history that it gives me comfort that being surrounded by hundreds of passionate remainers in a school hall in Cambridgeshire tells me nothing about how history will pan out.
My leaver friends are compassionate and outward-looking people, fond of Europe and its wonderful cultures, but critical of the ambitions of a weakly democratic and economically under-performing EU. Yet, none of this would have had any impact on you remainers. You are totally assured of your correctness and you all went home happy, your progressive views on Brexit having been fully vindicated.
Yours in open-mouthed disbelief,