BREXIT STILL PUZZLES many Britons, especially those in possession of a good education and an impressive Curriculum Vitae. The “better sort of persons”, those with a genuine “stake” in the nation, still cannot understand why so many of their fellow citizens voted “against their own interests”. It seemed like utter madness.
Those who supported the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union denounced this “Remain” response for displaying both a lamentable ignorance of the issues involved and a disgraceful measure of condescension towards more than half the British population.
All true, but the Remainers were on to something, nonetheless.
One of the reasons the Remain campaign was so shocked by the result of the Brexit referendum was that their pollster (allegedly the best in the business) was assuring them, right up until the last minute, that the “Leave” campaign would fall short by two or three percentage points. What he and his clients had failed to factor-in to the Brexit equation was just how irrational people can be when they feel ill-treated by and excluded from “mainstream” society.
Those on the left of the political spectrum like to pin the blame for this unlooked-for eruption of political irrationality on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. But, they didn’t create the ill-treated and the excluded, that was the work of decades – of centuries. All they did was find these people and allow the Leavers to talk to them.
The fatal assumption of the Remainers was that people this alienated from the “System” simply didn’t vote. Their pollster shaped his raw data with the assumption that the Britons who didn’t vote in the General Election of 2015 would also sit out the Referendum in 2016. That’s why his predictions consistently overestimated Remain’s support. He simply had no idea that the Leavers were in contact with three million potential voters that almost no one knew anything about.
And what did the Leave campaign tell these voters? Simple. It told them that, for just this one time, they had the power. All those high-and-mighty people who always ended up winning – regardless of which party was in power. The rich and the powerful with all the good things in life – the things they’d never have. These, the so-called “elites”, wanted to remain – needed to remain – in the EU. Losing the referendum was, quite literally, inconceivable. Impossible.
But, it wasn’t impossible. If, just this one time, they got up off the couch and voted, the Leave campaigners told the ill-treated and the excluded, they could throw a gigantic spanner into the System’s works. “Take Back Control” they whispered across the wilderness of social-media. Just this once – make the bastards weep!
New Zealanders are not Britons. But, like the United Kingdom, this country also has a large – albeit largely invisible – population of the ill-treated and excluded.
Most of the time their ill-treatment and exclusion isn’t that much of a problem. Oh sure, they cost the taxpayer a lot of money in benefits, police officers, courts and prisons – but not as much as it would cost the System to bring them out of the shadow and into the light. Which is why they are left to rot in damp and unhealthy houses, in decaying suburbs without amenities – or hope. Places where a career in crime offers one of the few proven exits from poverty and misery – at least for a while.
The ill-treated and the excluded know very well that they’re being ground-down by the System, they have just despaired of ever making the Powers-That-Be listen to them.
With the Delta variant of Covid-19 raging through their communities and pumping up the number of community cases to new and frightening levels, it’s beginning to dawn on the ill-treated and excluded that, for once in their lives, they have the power. If the System is so desperate; dammit, if all those nice, comfortable people, in all those nice leafy suburbs they’ll never visit are so desperate for them to get “the jab”; then refusing to get vaccinated is flat-out certain to drive them nuts. How often, in the past, has anybody listened when they said “No.” Well, they’re listening now!
Irrational? Yes. Immoral? Yes, again. But, if we offer our poorest citizens nothing but physical and spiritual blows, then should we really be surprised when they strike us back?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 October 2021.