Raw nerves: challenging Leave voters in a rural community

Photo by the author

Note: Names have been changed to protect identity. Ed.

After seven years of abuse and apathy, I’ve called time on my local campaign against Brexit.

Beyond the bubble

They call it reaching “beyond the bubble”. The key to successful campaigning, say social media experts, is to win over new groups of supporters beyond those naturally sympathetic to a cause. This is particularly important in the campaign to reverse Brexit: if Britain is to re-join the EU, a sizeable proportion of those who voted Leave in 2016 need to change sides.

After the 2016 referendum I began campaigning vigorously to stop Brexit. I joined Devon for Europe (DfE) and, from early 2018, ran its street stalls activity, which you can read about in DfE’s publication, Words on the Street. Campaigning on the streets was put on hold after the 2019 general election, which made Brexit inevitable – and then the pandemic added its impact. But street activities resumed in the autumn of 2022, when polls suggested public opinion had begun to shift decisively against Brexit. DfE volunteers started touring Devon towns and cities with a “Democracymeter” – a tool that samples the views of passers-by on the issues of the day.

During both the campaign to stop Brexit (2016-19) and the renewed campaign to reverse it (2020-22), I supplemented these street activities by posting messages on my local community-based email exchange.

I live in a rural area of Devon, where the exchange, which has just over 190 members, fulfils a valuable social role, serving as a means of sharing information on locally relevant matters. Although our district overall voted to Remain, rural pockets such as ours seem to contain a relatively high proportion of Leave voters. They are mostly elderly and wealthy, including a significant minority from the armed forces. Groups disadvantaged by Brexit, such as farmers, health professionals and hospitality workers, are also well represented. In theory at least, posting on our rural exchange thus provided a good opportunity to reach beyond the bubble.

In late 2016 I began circulating messages with the aim of starting a debate on the issues raised by Brexit and persuading those who favoured it to change their minds and join the fight to stop it. I started with a general Call to Action, then covered a range of topics including the 2016 referendum and why its result should be ignored, Mr Farage’s threat to “pick up a rifle” (and why this was worrying), lies and myths about the EU, case histories of Brexit victims, complacency as an enabler of fascism, the EU as a peace project, and so on. In a post headed “Fight or flight?” I outlined the difficult choices facing me and my wife as Europeans.

Since 2020 my messages have focused on the impact of Brexit, covering topics such as the harassment of EU citizens at our frontiers, the sewage scandal, difficulties in the farming and fisheries sectors, and the underreported effects of Brexit on small-scale exporters.

Issues versus insults

Posts on national political issues were a novelty and I met immediately with strong rejection on the grounds that this wasn’t the intended purpose of the exchange. One woman, Mrs Doyley, said the exchange should “steer clear of topics like politics, religion and anything deemed unsuitable for discussion at dinner parties”.  

The moderator repeatedly intervened in my defence, arguing that Brexit represented such a radical change for our country that it was not unreasonable to discuss it, provided the tone of the debate was kept polite. He pointed out that anyone can press the delete button if a post does not interest them. Largely due to the moderator’s principled leadership, the airing of political issues on the exchange has gradually become more accepted, with others starting to post on topics such as biodiversity loss and climate change, especially when these have local implications. Recent posts have covered sewage spills and wild camping on Dartmoor.

My posts on Brexit, however, proved controversial at the best of times and, at the worst, led to my vilification at the hands of critics. Both in my Call to Action and in subsequent messages I expressed alarm at the prospects raised by leaving the EU – voicing the concerns so often dismissed as “Project Fear” during the 2016 referendum campaign and subsequently proved entirely justified. I noted, for example, that “we will all be the poorer, with those already struggling faring the worst” – exactly what is happening now. Several Leavers, flushed with their unexpected success in the referendum, responded to these early posts in jocular tone, crowing insensitively about the prospect of “leaving the old EU”. Two people wrote poems ridiculing me and my worries, one of them labelling my posts “quite deranged” and telling me that the fight against Brexit was only “in my head”. Katey Littlebird told me grumpily to “shut up” (though she did say “please”), while Derek June instructed me to “stop whingeing”. Throughout, I was dismissed as a ‘Remoaner’ and no one ever stopped to ask me what impact Brexit had actually had on me and my family.

One man – we’ll call him Billy-goat Gruff, or Gruff for short – physically threatened me, with this message:

“Warning to Simon Chater…. Stop your campaign [on our email exchange] about Brexit, or it gets personal… I will make it my own mission to bring down upon you a nice bunch of militant leavers.”

To the credit of the moderator and one or two others, this was deemed “out of line” and Gruff was expelled from the group.

Forces’ personnel often conformed to stereotype by speaking unanimously and supporting government lines, saying we should all stick together and calling me disloyal or treacherous. Derek June, for example, said we should be team players and “get behind the decision of the captain” (by which he meant Mrs May). He added that if Brexit did fail it would be the fault of Remainers, a classic “enemy within” argument. Jeremy Sprinter, an army captain, said that I and my wife (who is German) should take a one-way boat trip from Plymouth if we didn’t like what the government was doing: “The ferries leave every day, I’m told.” Always one of my sharpest critics, Captain Sprinter eventually lost it with me completely, writing that it was time “Simon Chater stopped his slanderous comments on the British government.” He accused me of “incessant rants” and said he was “sick of hearing [my] nonsense.”

There’s no denying that these attacks hurt me. I became afraid to post – and on a number of occasions refrained from doing so altogether, while on others I pulled my punches, looking for words that I hoped would be less likely to inflame opinion. As time went on I adopted a strategy of advance and withdrawal: posting boldly, braving the flak; then, when the going got too hot, retreating, first to complete silence and then to less controversial messages. Posts that merely publicized events (such as a London march or a regional rally) proved less controversial than those in which I challenged lies and myths. Sometimes I found I could mix in a small dose of outrage with these less controversial posts and get away with it. I would then get bolder, until the next venomous outburst again reduced me to silence. I likened my behaviour to one of those impossible-to-eradicate stolon-propagated weeds – subject to repeated cutting or doses of herbicide, but always making a comeback, stubbornly recolonizing old areas and even penetrating new ones. Whenever I “grew” too vigorously, I would be spotted and “dealt with” by one of the community’s self-appointed vigilantes. I became proud of my nuisance value, boasting that I “bear the scars as a badge of honour”.

This was bluff, however.  Inside I suffered from anxiety and self-doubt, started to question my own emotional health and resilience, and was even inclined to blame myself for the attacks on me. I began to understand the toll social media can take on vulnerable people exposed to abuse over long periods.

On one occasion I erupted in fury at an infringement against the rights of EU citizens living here, sending round a message that began “The stench from this foul government is now overpowering”. The issue in question was proposed legislation to allow the Home Office to withhold information held in its files on EU citizens contesting its decisions regarding their right to remain. Coming in the wake of the Windrush scandal, this was deeply worrying. One Leaver responded by objecting to my post on the grounds that the issue wasn’t local, to which I answered: “It’s about as local as you can get. It concerns your neighbours”. Others, including Captain Sprinter, reacted with outrage and urged that I should be banned from the exchange. I was reproached by the moderator and asked to curb my language, so I apologized and tried to set out the issue in less confrontational terms. I qualified my apology by saying that it was difficult to stay calm when our human rights were being threatened. Only one person, a Remainer, responded sympathetically, quoting Martin Niemöller and saying she understood why my German wife might feel threatened. From the rest, a deafening silence. It seems there will, indeed, be “no one left…”.

Arguments made by Leavers haven’t aged well, and some of their comments raise a rueful chuckle when I read them now. Here are three examples:

• At the height of the chaos under Mrs May, in March 2018, our resident naval man, let’s call him Commander Wiley, reassured us that “progress was being made” and that “great times and celebrations” lay ahead!

What actually lay ahead was the collapse of the May government, the scandals and corruption of the Johnson regime, the economic crisis under Mrs Truss, and the strikes and shortages that plague us now under the intransigent Mr Sunak. And for celebration? Well, we had Unboxed (aka the Festival of Brexit), alleged to have vastly underperformed at high cost to the taxpayer.

• In April 2018 Captain Sprinter expressed his belief in global Britain and said that he thought Commonwealth countries in particular would be willing to agree favourable trade deals with us.

Today’s reality? A deal with Australia that is, by the government’s own admission, bad for Britain; a deal with New Zealand that left their negotiating team amazed at what we had given away; and a deal with Japan that, although it promised gains, has so far led to a decline in exports.

• In March 2018, I commented on allegations that Russian money had helped to secure the 2016 Leave vote. The reaction from one man – we’ll call him Joe Steward – was incredulity: he advised me to join the flat-earth society and told me that “the men in white coats” were coming to take me away!

In light of what we now know of Mr Putin’s intentions, there is no longer any reason to doubt that Russian interference in the 2016 referendum was attempted, even if the case remains unproven. The government’s own report, the so-called Russia report published in 2020, cited evidence of interference in the Scottish referendum campaign of 2012 and said that interference generally was “the new normal”.

Many responses by Leavers reflected the baleful influence of the right-wing media, which has peddled lies and myths about the EU for over 40 years. Joe Steward called the EU “a bloated, self-serving club” and accused me of wearing rose-tinted specs. Tabitha Beecham said it was “corrupt, not fit for purpose” and “completely undemocratic”. I did my best to combat these views, pointing out, for example, that the size of the EU Commission is actually smaller than an average UK city council and that members of the European Parliament are democratically elected, unlike those of our own second chamber. But the deep-rootedness of anti-EU attitudes after so many decades of negative stereotyping made it difficult to dislodge them.

On one occasion I accused Leavers of “lazy thinking” and of imbibing “stale platitudes drip-fed into the national consciousness by the far-right press”, a comment that prompted Leave supporters to ask the moderator to stop me from making such posts. Sarah Amplejoy (more on her later) told me I was disrespectful of others’ views. In response I said that I respect the views of others when these are rational and based on facts and evidence, but that I could not and would not “pull my punches in calling out lies, fallacies and fantasies”.

There were interludes of rational debate on the issues. When the bully boys held fire, people emerged from cover and began to enjoy the freedom to express themselves. On one occasion I wrote appreciatively of “the outstanding contributions on this string” and thanked all who had contributed “with such honesty and wisdom”. One contribution came from a teacher, who told us about the perspective of students in his class. He had, he said, “been stunned by their level of interest and passion”. After the 2016 referendum result, students were “visibly shaken, some in tears”, and fearful for their future job opportunities. He ended by saying that Leavers owed the young “an explanation and reassurances”. As far as I know, none on our exchange took up this challenge.

A few enlightened souls – liberal-minded if not actually Liberals – consistently supported my efforts to raise awareness and hold an informed debate. They often leaped to my defence when I was attacked and tried to focus attention, as I did, on the issues rather than the personalities. One woman wrote to me privately to say how dismayed she was at others’ responses. “To be told to ‘shut up’ and to ‘stop whingeing’ when you and [your wife] are in such a difficult position seems at best to be inconsiderate and unkind.” But we were regularly outgunned by the bullies of the Leave faction, who made frequent personal attacks on me, urged our moderator to ban me from making political posts, and threatened to leave the exchange themselves if I persisted. Not one of these bullies expressed the slightest sympathy for our plight, invariably dismissing me as a “Remoaner”.  

It may be that a silent majority on our exchange applauded my efforts to inform and persuade. Those commenting on my posts are estimated as around only 10-15% of members. On the one occasion when I appealed for support, I was pleasantly surprised when a number of new people spoke up. One woman wrote: “I really appreciate all the care you bring and discussion you are opening… Please carry on!” But the most frequent and vociferous contributors were antagonistic Leavers, who stifled debate by creating a nasty atmosphere.

Two close neighbours who had voted Leave remained steadfast in their allegiance despite my efforts to persuade them to change their minds. These were people with whom we thought we were on good terms, who had been guests round our table, whom we had helped in small ways. For one of these I bought a subscription to the New European, in an attempt to expose her to European ideas and achievements. To the other I lent a copy of In Limbo, a book of testimony from EU citizens, in the hope of giving her a taste of what people like my German wife were going through. I had many conversations with both of them and sent them many explanatory messages, pointing out facts and evidence. All of this was to no avail. In the end, relations with both households soured permanently and we stopped talking. Their utter indifference to our feelings and fate was deeply hurtful. It is also frightening, because it speaks to the death of empathy in our society.

There was also the curious case of Mrs Amplejoy, an NHS consultant who had voted Remain but repeatedly sided with my attackers. She twice wrote publicly to me to request me to be “respectful of others’ views” in my posts.  Yet when others made poisonous remarks about me, she did not reproach them. She stayed conspicuously silent when I was threatened with violence by Billy-goat Gruff. On one occasion she attacked me by trying to muddy the distinction between personal remarks and discussion of the issues. This was shortly after Joe Steward had left the exchange (voluntarily) after his “men in white coats” remark to me. I wrote a short post publicising a forthcoming march in London, with an invitation to join DfE to “STOP the madness that is Brexit!” Mrs Amplejoy wrote publicly to say that this was “the same insult as Joe’s, just wrapped in a different paper.” At this point another member of the exchange intervened to say that there was a big difference between describing a person as mad and describing a situation or event as mad.

Good campaigners target policies not people. This is a principle I did my best to follow, but it does raise real difficulties. Brexit is almost alone among controversial policy issues in that there is no rational case for it whatsoever. There are no upsides! It is therefore almost impossible to campaign against it without, ultimately, dismissing it for what it is – a madcap idea dreamed up by fantasists and fraudsters, a dangerous flirtation with fascism, a plot to enrich the few at the expense of the many. But these sorts of remarks are deemed insulting by Leavers. Bless their thin little skins!

Race hovered uneasily in the wings of our debate, never coming on stage to show its face plainly. One woman said she thought that “immigration [had] played a big part” in the 2016 referendum result. A neighbour accused me of calling her a racist when I had done no such thing – a case of “protesting too much” perhaps? Mrs Amplejoy told me that, if I lived in an urban area where people could not access housing and other services because of immigrants, I would think differently to the way I did. This was applauded by Commander Wiley, who thanked her for her “sensible comments”. What she didn’t say was that, rather than fanning the flames of resentment into hatred, as was done in 2016 to secure the Leave vote, it would have been better to fund public services properly, so that needs were met regardless of race. Immigration often serves as a proxy for race in anti-EU arguments and was undoubtedly the underlying reason for the Leave vote. Racism in England is typically covert rather than explicit, making it difficult to combat.

Leavers (and some Remainers, notably Mrs Amplejoy) displayed a shocking indifference to events marking our country’s drift towards fascism. Three examples:

• When Mr Farage threatened to “pick up a rifle” if there was any backsliding on Brexit, I circulated the video that showed him saying this. Plenty of Remainers responded supportively, but these voices were outweighed by others that were sharply critical: Mrs Amplejoy said she was tired “of being told what to think and how to vote”, Derek June also said I was “tiresome”, while Mrs Sprinter – who had now joined battle alongside her husband – accused me of “borderline paranoia”.

In reply I summed up as follows: “I find it strange, and worrying, how many of you on this exchange think we should all refrain from comment when a major political figure in our national life threatens, in public, to form a 1930s style people’s militia in order to get his way…. If we do not speak out on something like this, then when do we speak out?”

• Similarly, I circulated comments on Mr Farage and his Brexit Party MEPs turning their backs when the Ode to Joy was played in the European Parliament, just as the Nazis did in the Reichstag in 1926 Germany. I described this as “a deliberate, defiant proclamation of full-on fascism”. As an antidote, I accompanied this message with the words of Caroline Voaden, one of the South West’s new Lib Dem MEPs, who took her seat on the same day as Mr Farage’s antics: “We need to be here, in Europe, being part of this incredible, ambitious project.” I said that I was proud of Caroline and her colleagues, “who are the standard bearers for what our country used to be respected for – moderation, decency, reason, engagement with our friends and neighbours.”

There was not a single response from Leavers to this message. However, Mrs Amplejoy put in a jibe to the extent that “moderation, decency, reason, engagement with our friends and neighbours… should all start at home”, doubtless a reference to malicious gossip about me in the community. Once again, personal spite trumped serious discussion of the issues.

• When Mr Johnson attempted to prorogue Parliament to prevent discussion of Brexit, spontaneous protests took place all over the country. I notified our group of two events organized by DfE, one that evening in Totnes and one in Exeter a few days later. As far as I’m aware, no one from our community came to either event.

These cases are a measure of just how far the Overton Window – the range of policies deemed acceptable to the mainstream — has shifted to the right in rural England. In Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright coins the expression “moral numbness” to describe the condition of society that enables fascism. My experiences suggest that, after 75 years of peace, our people are deeply asleep, ripe for a fascist takeover. If the coup happens (as it so nearly did in the USA), will anyone in our community even notice?

News of job losses met with similar apathy. Thinking that a specific local example would be more eloquent than statistics, I circulated a case that DfE volunteers had come across on a street stall in Newton Abbot – a man who, along with 10 colleagues, had lost his job marketing heating equipment manufactured by a Danish company. This was dismissed as “Rubbish” by our local publican, Keith Possey, who threatened to change his vote from Remain to Leave if I persisted in these postings. The frivolity of this response took my breath away. That a man’s vote could turn on personal antipathy demonstrated such utter failure to grasp the depth of the crisis facing our country.

“Never wrestle with a chimney sweep”, said Tony Benn’s father to his son. Over a period of seven years Leavers responded to my posts with insults, mockery and threats. In replying I did my best to stick to the issues and refrain from personal invective. I think I did pretty well in this, though I’m only human and doubtless lapsed from time to time. Mrs Amplejoy certainly thought so and pounced triumphantly on me whenever she thought she had caught me out. Accusing your opponent of the faults and foul play you’re guilty of yourself is a classic ploy from the fascist playbook. It was certainly used against me on our exchange.

Time and again I was reminded of a saying attributed (wrongly, it seems) to George Orwell: “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

Choosing blindness

Matters came to a head in late November 2022, when I sent round an account of a Democracymeter event in Tavistock. The account, headed “The public mood in Tavistock”, read as posted on Facebook a day earlier, but with an added sentence to explain the role of Brexit. Here it is, slightly abridged:

Dear all 

Tavistock looked at its best yesterday morning, its streets and buildings washed clean by overnight rain and gleaming under late November sun. Appearances are deceptive, though: a local told me the town was in decline, with shops closing and people increasingly resorting to food banks. In this it surely mirrors the fate of once prosperous towns up and down our country. Despite the masking effects of COVID and Ukraine, Brexit is the main culprit.

Our Democracymeter attracted lots of interest. People queued to have their turn and plenty of lively conversations took place. Most of the people I spoke with applauded our activity. The few Leavers I met sang the same tired old songs: “We put all that money in and got nothing out”, said one embittered elderly lady. I cited the Eden Project as an example of how start-up money from the EU pays huge dividends, but she was so consumed by her own resentment that nothing I said could make its mark. Full of scorn for the striking nurses, she reminded me of the envious, in Dante’s Purgatory, whose eyes are sewn shut as a punishment for their refusal, while in this life, to perceive and embrace the common good. The few remaining hard-core Leavers stand out in stark relief now, their unrealism so blatant that it would be funny if it were not so tragic – for themselves as well as for their country. This one’s acidity left me with a pain in the gut and I had to reach out to a fellow Remainer for a comforting hug. 

Focused on a broader set of issues than the Brexitometer, the Democracymeter is definitely the right tool for this stage in our campaign. We ended up with a fine picture of public distress, ready for sending to Tavistock’s … MP Geoffrey Cox.

To my astonishment, this report generated a storm of protest from Leavers and, inevitably, a rebuke from Mrs Amplejoy.

Leading the charge was former marine Pete Slumper, who wrote: “Can we leave the political rhetoric and elderly lady shaming off [the exchange] please?!” Next over the parapet was Commander Wiley, who said the exchange was being used by “a remoaner clique peddling quite extreme and biased points” and threatened to leave it. He did not call me out by name but said, ominously, “We know who you are!” and added “Ah, the arrogance of remoaners”. Then Mrs Amplejoy weighed in with yet another request that I should stop using the exchange to “criticize the characters and intelligence of those who hold different political views.” In a private message to the moderator (copied to me) she said that I “always post [my] views on Brexit in… a rude and offensive way” (italics mine) and urged him to take down such posts. She also said that I regularly describe people who don’t share my views as “stupid, uneducated or blinkered” – words that appeared neither in my Tavistock report nor in any of my previous reports on encounters with Leavers.

One of the challenges I faced in campaigning on our exchange was the difficulty of spotting in advance the triggers that would set Leavers off. A number of previous posts, including one on DfE’s Democracymeter exercise in Totnes, had passed off without comment. Naively, I assumed that, with the worsening news about the impact of Brexit, Leavers’ views would have moderated, perhaps changed altogether. Evidently I could not have been more wrong!

I was surprised, again perhaps naively, to find myself the target of abuse rather than the woman I had described. Accusations that I had shamed her were false, as she was neither named nor even pictured in my report. But such is the tribal nature of our politics now that Leavers in our community leaped to her defence rather than sympathizing with me, even though I was the one who came off worst in our encounter. I remember that talking to this woman was like embracing an iceberg – I could not touch her with any of the human warmth and kindness I wanted to offer her, but encountered only the glacial chill that encased her. It bodes ill for our country that her resentments and hatreds were considered beyond reproach while my attempts to reach her were reviled.

When I asked myself what it was about this piece that upset Leavers so badly, I concluded that it was the metaphor of blindness. This hit a raw nerve. There is, surely, a kind of wilful blindness in those who cling to the Leave cause regardless of the rising tide of evidence that Brexit is inflicting immense damage on our country and its people. Rather than face up to this, hard-core Leavers are in denial. They avert their gaze, bury their heads in the sand – in short, they choose blindness! And when you disturb them in their evasion of reality, they feel cornered and lash out.

Threats to leave the exchange epitomize this choice of blindness – an irony that seems lost on Leavers. Ignoring the alternative solution of simply pressing the delete button, these threats are more than just evasive: they are also a selfish attempt to suppress debate, to bully Re-joiners into silence.

One of my few allies on the exchange reproached Commander Wiley for burying his head in the sand, objected to the “dismissive label of ‘remoaner’” and asked him “what the next scapegoat will be for the delay in Brexit benefits materializing – unicorn flu perhaps?” Bless her, she had done what I had failed to do: inject a bit of humour into the debate.

In the thick of this storm, another ally posted a petition urging people to fight the Retained EU Law bill (£) – a government proposal to scrap over 4000 remaining EU laws that protect our health, environments, food safety and workplace benefits. As the insults flew, his posting, on this serious attack on our rights, was completely ignored. It was at this point that I realized that any attempt to hold a rational debate on the exchange was doomed. I decided to end my campaign.

Social cohesion versus freedom of speech

My campaigning created tension between social cohesion and freedom of speech.

In our small community, people have dealt with the Leave-Remain divide by sweeping the controversy under the carpet. It’s a very English way of doing things – and it has its virtues, enabling normal social life and transactions to continue regardless of political differences. British tolerance is much invoked to explain this, and we are rightly proud of it. Mrs Doyley’s opinion that dinner party rules should apply on our exchange had propriety in mind: for the sake of good manners and to avoid embarrassment, just don’t mention the war!

If Brexit were merely a matter of opinion I might have gone along with this philosophy and decided to gag myself. Instead, I continued to speak out, feeling that somebody had to. My rationale for this was that, far from being a subject on which different opinions are equally valid, Brexit is a matter of right and wrong.

If this wasn’t clear in 2016, it surely ought to be clear by now. For we are living now with Project Reality not Project Fear. And that reality is grim indeed: a hit to GDP of 4 per cent, a surge in food bills of £6bn a year, a shortfall in tax revenues of £40bn – enough to avoid most of the recent round of tax rises and still offer the nurses a pay-rise. The multi-faceted crisis overtaking our country is a clear sign that Brexit is a wrong turning. We must continue to refute the lies that led us there, until Leavers’ eyes are opened.

The first of this year’s Reith Lectures, on President Roosevelt’s four freedoms,  was given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who identified “social censure” as today’s biggest threat to freedom of speech. By social censure Adichie meant vicious retaliation, not from government but from other citizens. The virtual vigilantes who wield this weapon aim to create a climate of fear that not only silences those who have already spoken out but also deters others from speaking. In such a climate, ignorance festers – postponing the moment when lies are recognized and reality reasserts itself as the basis for decision making.

Adichie called on all of us to have the moral courage to widen the boundaries of what can be said. We must, she said, learn to live with discomfort. Amen to that.

Failure and its consequences

My local campaign against Brexit failed. Not a single Leave voter approached me to say they had had a change of heart and would vote Re-join in a future referendum. It may be that a few were convinced but decided to keep quiet about it, but I have no way of knowing whether that is true or not.

Tentatively, I conclude that rural areas are “behind the curve” when it comes to the change in public opinion on Brexit. A recent poll put those in favour of re-joining as now topping 65% – a supermajority! But you would not know that round here.

Re-joiner strategists talk about “hard-core Leavers” and “soft” Leavers, the latter being the group that are amenable to a change of heart. Perhaps it is the case that my rural community contains mainly hard-core Leavers. Certainly, I was struck, throughout my campaign, by their utter imperviousness to facts and evidence; by their failure to recognize the harm and suffering their vote had caused, especially to the life chances of young people; by their arrogant dismissal of rational argument and their embrace of negative stereotypes; by their lack of empathy and engagement with the rest of us, even when we live in the same neighbourhood and were on good terms before the civil war started.

Future campaigns to convince such Leavers will face an uphill struggle. Reaching beyond the bubble may prove harder than we think. Being right isn’t enough.

The adverse reaction to my campaign had profound effects on our social lives and our standing in the community. I gave up community activities, including my chairmanship of a popular village institution. My wife and I stopped going out to local events – and especially to our local pub, where apparently I was known as “Mr Brexit”. I felt like an outcast, a scapegoat, especially when people whom I thought of as friends blamed me for the ill feelings expressed towards me. “It serves you right”, said Rupert Jekyll, a ‘friend’ who commented angrily on the reaction to my Tavistock piece. Clearly, victim blaming isn’t restricted to apologists for rape and racism; your friends can do it too! The indifference of our neighbours was particularly troubling, leading us to stop investing in our home and to put it on the market instead. We leave here in mid-February and look forward to making a new start in a different and, we hope, more progressive local community. I’ve also applied for Portugal’s golden visa, enabling me to leave the country completely if I have to.

Finally, a question: is there anything I could have said or done differently? Would a less confrontational approach have worked better? How do you handle dialogue with those who prefer lies to truth?


I would like to thank the exchange’s moderator, who showed courage in consistently defending the principle of freedom of speech and my right to use the exchange to discuss Brexit. This despite frequently coming under pressure to take down my posts and shut down debate. 

I would also like to thank the few Remainers/Re-joiners who contributed to the debate, sometimes cheekily. You know who you are.