The Tribes of Brexit

This is the first of a short series of articles, by EM Oxford Region member John Walker, that looks at the different groups of people behind Brexit.

Part of the difficulties found in countering the pro-Brexit narrative has come from the diverse nature of the various groups and individuals involved. Arguments used in countering one group were often dismissed as not acknowledging the positions of other groups.

Photo by cottonbro on

To respond to these diverse groups, we should try to understand them as anthropologists would. This is an attempt at understanding the various tribes. Only when we gain a better understanding of these tribes that came together into the Brexit coalition can we deal with their arguments individually, and deploy a divide and conquer strategy that will be needed to repair the damage of Brexit.

Part 1. The “I hate the Germans” tribe

The chant “Two world wars and one world cup” was always ahistorical. But it was never meant to deliver truth, or the reality of wars between coalition groupings. Where now some still see a Germany versus England, mutual interest in the form of axis and allied alliances came before geographical nation-states.

Age plays a part in defining ones views on this. Young, and this could mean people born after 1970, generally hold little animosity to the Germans. Likewise, the few who are left who were old enough to be aware of events and reactions during the Second World War, and who today remember and understand the horrors of war,  are generally more supportive of the benefits of European integration represented by the EU. But there is a cohort in between, for whom the threat is remembered, but the peaceful solution to this threat by pan-European cooperation is insufficient.

Such people are disproportionately represented within the ranks of the Conservative Party membership (paid-up party faithful, as opposed, perhaps, to voters or MPs), and give a very reactionary animus to their angst. This may be amplified by their newspapers of choice, that feed this angst and in turn their bluster informs editorial direction. This is a positive feedback loop, entirely negative in its effect.

While Conservative Party members may be representative of this tribe, the tribe is politically agnostic. It includes many Labour voters, as the swelling ranks of UKIP a decade ago attested. Indeed, the rise of UKIP was a poorly understood phenomenon, making fools of all the professional political class. How did it go so wrong?

Perhaps we need a better understanding of how sections of the population react to condescension by the perceived elites. People need empathy with their torment of wrongs, not berating for being wrong.

It should also be stated that, although we are taking Germans as an example, the French and others may be equally vilified.

While this tribe is largely a tribe of the general public, it is also represented in parliament. It is present in both Conservative and Labour rank and file, but they were never taken seriously or if they reached a cabinet or shadow cabinet position, never allowed to express full-throated leave opinions until more recently.

Prominent Brexiter Sir Bill Cash, for example, is in the never-taken-seriously category. He has been explicit in ascribing his anti-European stance to his belief in Germany’s domination of the EU and his hatred of Germany to the death of his father in a tank battle in WW2. Many might forgive his personal animosity to the Germans – it is much harder to forgive the forcing of his personal feelings onto determining the future of this country. How far should one be allowed take umbrage?

The list of long-term anti-European MPs may not be long, but it is characterised by a certain doggedness, or even bloody-mindedness. On the right are Bernard Jenkin, David Davis and others. On the left are (were) Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn and, purportedly, Jeremy Corbyn. How such unnatural allies could come together in a tribe of Euroscepticism would be as much a mystery to themselves as it will be to the rest of us.

In Part 2, John will be looking at certainly the smallest, and possibly the most dangerous tribe, that of the “bruised pride” Chancellors.

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