“I virtually floated to work on a cushion of pure joy and a real sense of liberation,” said one voter, reflecting the day after the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. Another said: “I don’t think grief is too strong a word for what I felt in the aftermath: I cried daily for a while and felt quite destabilised by what had happened.”
Brexit was – and is – emotionally charged. Questions of immigration, sovereignty, national identity and even the economy have all come to feel deeply personal.
We can see that in accounts sent to Mass Observation, a social research project started in 1937 to produce an “anthropology of ourselves”, partly by asking volunteers how they felt about a huge range of issues. The project, most famous for allowing us to see the lot of ordinary Britons during the Second World War, also ran two questionnaires on Brexit – immediately before and a year after the referendum.
These accounts are drenched in emotion. One respondent – one of the so-called Mass Observers – said: “It’s so gratifying and brilliant to see people who feel exactly as I do, so much pent-up anger at the Metropolitan elite who have controlled us for so long.”
But here’s another: “Brexit – even the word aggravates me. I call it BREXSHIT and its followers BREXSHITTERS. I am still angry. We don’t govern by referenda so how legal is it?… I will never forgive Cameron for his treachery.”
After reading the hundreds of Brexit responses, a few things stand out.
The media worried about voters choosing between “head and heart”. There was a lot of talk of people who might be persuaded to set aside their desire to leave the EU once they were confronted with the cold economic facts.
But looking at the accounts of Mass Observers, it is clear that voters were not separating feelings – however strongly expressed – from the thinking and reasoning that ran alongside them. These are not separate processes.
Instead, citizens turned to a far messier organ: the gut. References to “gut feeling” came up time and time again. Rather than pitting the wistfulness of “heart” against the cold rationality of “head”, Mass Observers described something different. Having digested as much information (and disinformation) as they could stomach, they had to make the call on what felt right.
A Remain voter who “thought A LOT about it and was obsessed with the news coverage”, explained that she “thought about why did I vote to Remain” and concluded that “It was always my gut instinct… I liked being part of the EU, part of something bigger.”
But here is the rub: we are also squeamish about this. We want – against all the evidence – to believe that pure reason can exist. Some Mass Observers apologised for voting emotionally, others lashed out, using the idea that others were voting emotionally as an insult. Leave voters were characterised as hateful, fearful and selfish, but Remain voters were also cast as “bitter”, “spiteful” and as “toddlers throwing toys out of the pram”.
You might think this was simply the nature of such an extraordinary event. But do not count on it. This may be the future of politics across the western world.
First, this is the end-product of a long journey – a trend identified by Claire Langhamer, a professor at the University of Sussex, as “the right to feel”. During the 20th century, we became more comfortable asking people how they felt about current events, rather than how they thought. Our feelings – the emotions of ordinary people – were recognised as a valid source of social and political knowledge.
Second, this has run alongside the decline of deference. We no longer want to vote with, say, union leaders, or take the advice of professors. Nor do we trust politicians to represent us via the parliamentary system, or the news media to tell us the truth.
The referendum grew out of, and amplified, these tendencies. It asked each of us to take a binary position on a highly complex question. Yet without these established structures for decision-making, our feelings seemed to be all we could rely on.
As one Mass Observer put it: “Apparently there are ‘facts’ to consider but amazingly these can be totally different depending on which camp you belong to. Everything else is conjecture. Nobody can actually predict the outcomes. So how do we decide? Gut feeling probably.”
This is toxic. Not because we have sacrificed reason to emotion, but because we want to have it both ways. We want to believe that feelings are authentic expressions of our true selves – and that those selves have a right to be heard and represented. But we also hold on to the idea that we (and particularly others!) should be able to suppress them in favour of perfect rationality.
That has left us in a mess. We want to have political disagreements about the nature of customs arrangements – but hear each other’s positions on fish exports and tariff quotas as attacks on our innermost selves.
One Leave voter who felt “disgusted with the egotistical ‘Luvvies’ of the media world pontificating about how narrow-minded and stupid we all were”, went on: “I am certain that my blood pressure has suffered so immensely through continuous indignation that I should consider issuing a lawsuit against them.”
A year after the referendum, one Mass Observer described “a nasty atmosphere everywhere. There’s uncaring, snide remarks, rudeness, prickly self-defence and general outrage and huffiness about nothing.” We need a political culture that can channel this maelstrom of individual feelings into collectively accepted positions. Otherwise this may be the future of democracy – and not just in Brexit Britain.
The author is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sussex
- Clare Langhamer, a professor of modern British history at Sussex, sets out the idea of “the right to feel” and how emotion came to take a greater legitimacy in public discussion.
- Other academics have been grappling with questions around emotion in the referendum, such as Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a professor at Cardiff University.
- Uta Staiger, director of the European Institute at UCL, raises questions about whether it makes sense to try to separate head and heart – and whether we get more emotion in our voting because we now see less emotion in our politicians.
- John Curtice, a professor at Strathclyde, has found that the faultlines which emerged in 2016 are perhaps now the UK’s deepest political divisions. A lot more people associate more strongly with “Leave” or “Remain” than the parties.
Illustrations by Francesco Ciccolella