Anyone who has ever read the comments under online newspaper articles will be well acquainted with Godwin’s Law. As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis becomes a near certainty. Over the last few years, however, reductio ad Hitlerum has been rivalled by reductio ad Brexitum. The magazine Delayed Gratification runs a regular feature which reveals how quickly online comments on unrelated stories mention Brexit. No matter the topic, pretty much anything can degenerate into squabbling between Leavers and Remainers. Whether Liverpool winning the Club World Cup (third comment in The Independent: “Great news for Liverpool – football champions and Remain supporters”) or the first sub-two hour marathon (seventh comment in The Telegraph: “Brexiteers have got balls while remoaners can only stand by and gaze”). Of course, people who write online comments are hardly typical of the electorate, but it is remarkable how ingrained Brexit divisions still are. My research, with Sara Hobolt at the LSE, has tracked the ways in which people have adopted these new identities of Leave and Remain over the last four years.
Given the intensity of the referendum campaign, it is perhaps not surprising that society divided along Brexit lines in 2016. What has been more surprising has been the persistence and intensity of these loyalties. In April 2017, 69 per cent of people were willing to say that they thought of themselves as Leavers or Remainers, evenly split between the two sides. In July 2020, 69 per cent of people again thought of themselves as Leavers or Remainers. And, again, the proportions were pretty much evenly split between the two. Nothing had changed in three years. This is also true when it comes to the strength of those identities. In July 2020, three quarters of both Remainers and Leavers still said that their identity was very or extremely important to them, even though, in the meantime, Britain had left the EU, a global pandemic was raging and the greatest economic recession on record had just begun.
The labels “Leaver” and “Remainer” have become social identities that mean much more to people than simply the voting choice in a referendum on EU membership. These labels divide us into in-groups (who we like) and out-groups (who we dislike). This division into “us” and “them”, and the resulting sympathy and animosity, is part and parcel of being human. We are all driven to want to feel part of a group and, once we identify with that group, we stubbornly defend it. A key part of any social identity is social comparison. Comparing oneself with an out-group normally creates competitive, and antagonistic, inter-group relations. These relations become intwined with labels that can be wielded pejoratively or, like the “deplorables” moniker in the US, even appropriated as badges of honour. When Nye Bevan said that Conservative MPs were “lower than vermin” in 1948, young Conservatives set up The Vermin Club in response. A few years ago, The Guardian was selling mugs emblazoned with the quotation, presumably, to Labour supporters.
Out of the blue?
What is remarkable about Brexit identities is that they almost came from nowhere. A year before the referendum, less than 10 per cent of people identified the EU as one of the two most important issues facing Britain and the issue of EU membership played virtually no role in the 2015 general election campaign. In fact, the relative importance of the issue that divides people is often not that relevant. Psychology experiments have shown, time after time, that people form group attachments based on very little. A classic experiment divides people into two “minimal groups”, ostensibly on the basis of their preference for the paintings of Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky, but actually completely randomly. The Klee group consistently favours other Kleeists in all sorts of tasks and the Kandinsky group consistently favours other Kandinskyites. Whatever the reason is that you feel part of a group, you will want your group to win because you’re in it and the success of the group is therefore also your success. Ultimately, people leaving online comments about evil Brexiteers, or moaning Remainers, are largely doing so to try and boost their sense of self-worth by making their own group look better and the other group look worse.
Our own research has shown these biases very clearly. We asked people in 2017, and again in 2020, to pass judgement on the positive and negative characteristics of their own side and the opposing side. We asked people to rate both Remainers’ and Leavers’ levels of intelligence, open-mindedness, honesty, selfishness, hypocrisy and closed-mindedness on 1-5 scales (high scores indicate that someone strongly agreed that the characteristic described the group). Neither side had many good things to say about the other. In 2017, for example, Remainers’ average score for the three positive characteristics about their own side was 3.9, while their average score for the three negative characteristics about their own side was just 1.9. The gulf between agreement with negative and positive attributes of the out-group was also large. For Remainers’ perceptions of Leavers, the average score for the three positive characteristics was 2.4, yet the average score for the three negative characteristics was 3.6.
Flaws of perception
This has changed a little over time. Remainers developed slightly more negative views of Leavers by 2020. Leavers, on the other hand, became a little less enamoured of their side and a little more sympathetic towards Remainers. The basic picture is the same, however: people judge those on their own side as fantastic and those on the other side as awful. And those biases are not really rooted in anything substantial. It seems very difficult to claim that there are any real differences in the average intelligence or honesty of people who voted differently about belonging to a customs union four years ago. People who voted Leave think the economy performed substantially better than people who voted Remain. Note that this is not a prediction of how the economy will perform, but an assessment of how it has already performed.
Why have these identities remained so important to people? There are a number of linked reasons. Perhaps most importantly, these are not “minimal groups”. They are based on existing policy divisions about social liberalism within the electorate. Prior to the referendum, if I wanted to refer to someone who likes immigration and thinks that children shouldn’t be hit, I would be flailing around for a label. Now I might call them a Remainer. Second, and obviously related to this, is the fact that age, education, race and class were good predictors of the referendum vote. This means that we can identify, at least to some extent, the Remain and Leave tribes by their appearance, job and accent. We know who’s one of us and one of them. Third, the fact that parties have, again, to some extent, realigned around the Brexit issue means that Brexit identities have become more connected to party identities.
When Sara and I sat down to think about this project four years ago, we envisaged a book entitled The Rise and Fall of Brexit Identities. We have yet to see the fall. It may be that the end of the transition period will mark a point at which people stop putting themselves, and others, into these groups defined by Brexit, but the experience of the last six months suggests not.
James Tilley is a professor of politics at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford