Liberals need to engage with the people again – or face the consequences

By Dominic Dixey

The lofty and disdainful attitude to the views of the millions, evident in the many discussions we have been having over the last weeks and months in this country, is symptomatic of a cultural war that has been reignited by the Brexit vote.

Previously, in the days of Messrs Blair, Brown and Cameron it was a complete non-issue. The “liberals” had won the cultural war. Disagreeing with this narrow elite inevitably lead to you being branded “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” or “cranks and gadflies.” This “liberal” tactic employed by David Cameron and Michael Howard in those two examples was part of an effort to lose the tag of the “nasty party.” Their strategy, of course, in true Guardian style was in fact to be nasty to anyone who disagreed with them. But with the support of mainstream media, and especially the BBC, they were able to maintain this haughty indifference to the views of many ordinary people. But, clearly, it wasn’t to be. Despite their best efforts, a wonderful thing called democracy prevailed.

It all really began with Nigel Farage and his UKIP growing within the European parliament, and the mostly silent Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers. They bided their time until eventually Cameron had to throw his political weight behind a referendum to quash them. The rest, as they say, is history. But somehow, for me, this isn’t about European politics. It’s about a cultural war between what the Mail love to call the “liberal metropolitan elite,” and ordinary people. Here in Durham we are able to have a privileged view of both. The vast majority of people in Northumberland, Tyneside, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Darlington, Gateshead and Durham voted to leave the EU. However, attending a university, we are clearly surrounded by the kinds of people who genuinely seem to believe that all these people are too ignorant or prejudiced to have any real say on the matter and are openly starting to question the value of democracy.

The trend to me seems pretty clear- Newcastle voted remain, but the entirety of remaining constituencies in Northumbria and County Durham voted leave. Leeds voted remain but virtually everywhere else in Yorkshire voted leave. Liverpool and Manchester voted remain, and yet pretty much all of the other declarations coming from Lancashire were in favour of leave. Apart from Birmingham, which itself voted leave, this is applicable to virtually every other city in the country- Bristol, Leicester, Cambridge, Norwich, Brighton etc. The inner city dwellers voted remain, and the poorer fringe communities voted leave. Clearly they voted for varying reasons because different issues affect their lives differently. And yet most people I know seem convinced it’s because they’re stupid and or racist. We need to get over the idea that policy and government decisions are best formed by superiors and bureaucrats as if they were a trade such as surgery or aviation which rewards skill and experience. Policy is about mediating conflicting interests. It’s called democracy, and many people seem to have forgotten about it.

Ultimately it’s about the poorer communities in the counties I mentioned above. It’s about places like Hartlepool, Doncaster, Bradford, Wolverhampton, Stoke, Derby, Burnley, Carlisle, Scarborough- the list is endless. Being offended by their views isn’t good enough anymore. Outsourcing policy to European bureaucrats so it’s out of the hands of the common man or woman isn’t good enough anymore. These are real people, with real issues and concerns. They’re being left behind by our political system and condescended to daily by the establishment and its discourse. It’s time to listen to them again, engage with their opinions again, and become a real democracy again. It’s not hard.

Photograph by Ungry Young Man via Flickr and Creative Commons


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