Almost every voter will remember where they were this day four years ago, and I am no different. On the morning of June 23 2016, I was walking down Islington’s Upper Street, on my way to work, having marked my ballot paper in the EU referendum.
During those summer months, Islington had become rather like an assault course, in which I found myself dodging smiling people in blue t-shirts at every street corner. Think Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment, only a less graceful, two-stone heavier version having to navigate a complex web of EU leaflets instead of lasers. That was me.
Blink for a second and two or more Remainers would suddenly appear, reminding me to “vote” (which never means “vote Brexit” or “Conservative”, of course). Eventually I snapped and replied that yes I had, thank you, and had chosen Leave.
I remember how transgressive it felt to utter those words – especially in Islington, where one always expects to be pelted with a Greggs vegan sausage roll when expressing any view other than “I love Jeremy Corbyn!”
Indeed, when the news came that Leave had won, a horrible atmosphere descended across London. As one of the three Brexiteers in my previous office, I tiptoed to the coffee machine, so revealing was the silence. At social events, whether parties, the pub, or the rest, I avoided political chatter – lest it be known I had the “wrong” views.
It seemed to me that much of the hostility towards Leavers was about shock; the most fanatical of Remainers simply couldn’t believe what had happened, and thus blamed their political opponents for being thick, racist xenophobic liars – and even “Hitler” (according to David Lammy).
But deep down I couldn’t help thinking that the anger was misdirected, as it was the media that led them so terribly astray. They have done this to voters repeatedly, culminating in the surprise of 2019’s election. Anyone watching BBC News in the run-up could be forgiven for supposing that the UK would soon be a socialist “paradise” of bowl haircuts and Linda McCartney food.
How many more election shocks will there be, one wonders. Particularly given recent events. Watching one Laura Kuenssberg report last week, it was easy to believe that everyone in the UK hates Dominic Raab for refusing to kneel.
Other headlines make out that the calls for JK Rowling to be cancelled are widespread, and that everyone thinks the UK has the “worst death rate in the world” for Covid-19.
But if the last elections are anything to go by, the opposite is true. The Brits are, as Paul Goodman recently put it, a patriotic lot, whose self-esteem is contingent upon “the conviction that they and their home and their country are worth valuing, as is its history and culture.”
They are socially conservative – wanting to maintain law, order and democracy – none of which we have seen in the last few weeks, resulting in anarchic scenes of statue toppling and the erasure of completely harmless TV series, like The Mighty Boosh.
Socially conservative sentiment was reflected in the Brexit vote. People wanted borders to be protected; they wanted to end free movement after the Blair years, and they wanted to be independent on the world stage. In short, they wanted to “take back control”.
Instead, Britons have felt demoralised by attacks on innocuous traditions. Who wants to be told, after all, that they’re bigots simply for singing Swing Slow, Sweet Chariot? An activity which has no ill-intent whatsoever.
It’s difficult to speak out about these matters, due to the media climate. Think what would happen to a high profile rugby star who complained. They would find themselves the inspiration of tens of angry comment pieces, and maybe even losing sponsorship, in an age when common sense is the new controversy.
Much of this is due to the media treating Twitter, where far left opinions are rife, as reflective of the “real world” – and blowing them out of all proportion.
As a London-based journalist, of course, I know that I am not immune to the Twitter effect – or the media “bubble”. But I believe what has helped ever so slightly is moving out of Islington with my family when I was 12 to live in Maidstone.
While it didn’t seem this way at the time, I’m convinced my wilderness years were the most useful education I had – a wake-up call as to how different views are up and down the country, a fact that gets forgotten when one is filing pieces and socialising in the big smoke.
The BBC claims to care about diversity – indeed it is investing £100m into improving it on TV – but this term never seems to extend to the need for “ideological diversity”, especially when it comes to views outside of London. How often do we hear from Red Wall voters?
On the occasion the media does travel outside its bubble, it often accosts ordinary men and women outside supermarkets, in the same way as David Attenborough might stumble upon a new species. “And what do we have here… we have a Brexiteer; very rare… very rare indeed! Let’s see what he has to say”, one can imagine one of these reporters asking.
What is the answer to all this, you have to ask. There is no tangible solution, unfortunately, particularly as outrage sells, and so there will be more and more stories about sports anthems and TV series being cancelled, all the while the silent majority kicks back harder with each election. What does the media want, I wonder? It seems self-defeating.
Four years after Brexit, there have been many surprises – how long it’s taken; the machinations to thwart the result, and so forth – but perhaps the biggest is that this chasm – the difference between the media’s definition of “public” mood and “actual” public mood hasn’t gone away, and has, in fact, become worse. Conservatives will do well to remember that.