‘Brexit: What the Nation Really Thinks’ had all the civility the 2016 referendum campaign lacked
But Channel 4's self-conscious telly ‘event’ felt overly scripted
According to the super-poll organised by Channel 4’s Brexit: What the Nation Really Thinks, we would now vote to remain in the EU by a margin of 54 per cent to 46 per cent, against the 52 per cent to 48 per cent Leave won by in June 2016.
Why? Because it looks like leaving would do more economic damage than previously thought. The revenge of Project Fear, you might say.
However the idea that great swathes of us have been thinking and thinking and changing our minds is plain wrong. The majority of the apparent shift in the Leave/Remain vote is down to higher “turnout” – people who abstained in the past, now saying they would vote, by a relatively large margin, to Remain – mostly younger voters, and enough to tip the balance.
However, more ominously for Remainers, this was only a poll – there was no requirement to traipse out on a cold rainy night to the polling station or register or apply for a postal vote. Only some 48 per cent of the younger voters say they would actually “definitely” vote in a fresh “Final Say” referendum – the same as in 2016.
In truth the presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy could have rattled all the graphics about the polling in about three minutes flat during a standard Channel 4 news bulletin. That wouldn’t do for what the producers hoped would pass as one of those grand TV “events” that happen from time to time.
So the results were strung out, as if watching a real election night results show, complete with ticker-tape of stats running along the foot of the screen. A selected studio audience stood around (literally) to be approached by Guru-Murthy to give regional accented human voice to the findings. It was almost scripted, and thus not as spontaneous as, say, an edition of Question Time. Kept in their place were some slightly B-list politicians.
The star of the show was Nigel Farage, more antihero than hero these days, but still undeniably possessing the chutzpah that got him where his today and the country going heaven knows where tomorrow. He provoked the loudest noise from the audience when he declared, ironically enough, that he was “the only Leaver in the room” – the shouts, ironically, emanating from the sizeable community of Leavers around the live studio audience. You may remember he tried the same line on David Dimbleby and the BBC during the referendum in 2016, and got short shrift.
Oddly the show was blessed by having some second XI politicians around. There was no grandstanding Boris Johnson or angry Jeremy Corbyn to dominate the room. David Gauke is the quiet voice of Cabinet reason, and Barry Gardiner is a soft-spoken peddlar of Corbynism. Caroline Lucas, of the People’s Vote movement, fresh back from her 700,000-person march, was her usual violently moderate self.
They all refused to talk over each other, interrupt, indulge in “whataboutery” or claim “fake news”. No-one got insulted. Perhaps they were overawed by the magisterial presence of Professor Sir John Curtice, a man who holds Britain’s dwindling stocks of public integrity in his expressive hands. There was an even-handed expert called Nina Schick doing her shtick. She was said to be an adviser on Brexit to EU governments. No-one attacked her. Nigel mentioned “betrayal” once, but there was no stuff about enemies of the people or racists. Remarkable.
The Leave and Remain voters spoke about customs unions, trade deals and freedom of movement of labour as easily as they might chat about last night’s football or Bake Off. It was as if post-referendum Britain, immersed in non-stop discussion, had taken on some of the learning and courteous veneer normally only experienced in the senior common rooms of our ancient universities.
Goodness, Sunderland has almost gone Remain, as has Wales. The whole of England, including the rest of the North East, the South West and much of the South has also switched sides. When the map showed the change from 2016 by local authority area, you could see the tide of Farageism ebbing. You wonder how things might have been had this air of sweet reason and politesse reigned in 2016, when an MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by someone shouting “Britain First”.
At 20,000 it was a huge poll, and only Nigel Farage tried to mock it. He laughed rather theatrically at the idea that the British people have become better disposed to immigration, or the ability to “live and work in other countries” as it was favourably put in the polling question, since the 2016 referendum.
Still, even at 54 per cent for Remain and 46 per cent for Leave, it was hardly overwhelming. As Barry Gardiner said, the UK is still a very divided country indeed.
Caroline Lucas said that we were about to commit he “greatest act of intergenerational betrayal” in history, to loud applause. It is true too, that age divides us. According to the Survation polling, the typical Leave voter is a retired man over the age of 75 living in the East of England (a hold area still for Leave). The archetypal Remainer, by contrast, is a young black woman, especially a student, living in London.
All agreed the country would have to come together; no-one knew how. “Trust the People”, Winston Churchill once said, though nowadays the British people seem unsure of trusting each other.
Brexit: What the Nation Really Thinks was followed immediately after by Old People’s Home for Four-Year-Olds, an imaginative social experiment in which the very young try to understand people seemingly so different that they may as well come from another country, or planet. I’ll leave it there.