One of the starkest aspects of how divided our society is currently, is in the way language can differ so greatly even on matters where people are in agreement.
I follow many active Remain supporters on various social media platforms, most of whom are people I greatly respect, despite disagreeing on whether we should leave the EU. Every week I see dozens of tweets and posts expressing concern about the situation of EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit. I struggle to think of even a single occasion when a Remain supporter has expressed concern for UK citizens in the equivalent position in the EU. Discounting formal organisational statements, almost any statement on social media that refers to protecting the rights of both UK and EU citizens will come from a Leave supporter.
I don’t think this is a disagreement on position. I’m confident that almost all those who share such tweets would, if asked, immediately say that of course UK citizens in the EU should also have the right to stay and work there – just as I, and 90% of Leave supporters I know, believe that all EU citizens who came to the UK prior to Brexit should have their rights here unchanged. I don’t even think there’s a difference in priority: again, if pushed, I think most Remain supporters would say that both are equally important, and might also be happy to acknowledge that, right now, there might be reason to be concerned that whilst the UK has made a unilateral guarantee of rights in the event of no deal, the EU has made no such pledge. But nevertheless, they only talk about one side.
I could speculate on why this is, and offer up theories such as that perhaps to Remain supporters locality is more important than sovereignty, but I’m not going to do that – because I don’t believe most Remain supporters are making a conscious decision not to talk about the need to protect the rights of UK citizens in the EU. I think it’s a subconscious manifestation of how polarised are our two tribes. Unfortunately, this division in language only serves to feed further polarisation: as a Leave supporter, seeing the apparent concern for one side serves to feed the narratives that Remain supporters don’t care about Britain, want to punish British people or don’t care about citizenship. This is only reinforced by the way in which a much smaller proportion of Remain supporters refer derogatively to UK citizens overseas in bigoted, stereotyped terms (as, indeed, they do about Leave voters). It is difficult to shake off the impressions these give, even where I know that if we got round a table, we’d agree that the rights of both sets of people should be respected.
We’re not going to solve the divisions in language overnight, much less the more fundamental divisions. And I recognise that Leave voters, including myself, will sometimes – often inadvertently – do similar things which highlight divisions, though I have tried to avoid doing so in this post. But, on this specific issue, if you’re a Remain supporter who regularly tweets/posts a lot the rights if EU citizens, please consider also speaking up for the rights of UK citizens in the EU, even if it’s just to say once, clearly, what I’m saying now: that I believe that, whether or not there is a deal, that all EU and UK citizens currently living in each others’ countries should have their current rights protected after Brexit.