I am that rare breed within the teaching profession – a Leave voter. I must confess to feeling a mixture of shock and excitement when I woke up to the news on Friday morning. The fact that ordinary people could be so disruptive, could exert their will against the establishment, could shake up politics at such a fundamental level, was exhilarating. After years of being on the losing side of every political issue I care about, I finally found myself believing again that people can change things. That democracy works.
However, as my day progressed my sense of positivity was shattered as I encountered the widespread despair at the outcome. In an article I had read in the TES a couple of days earlier, called ‘Brexit will make the job of teaching more difficult’, John Dunford argued: “The Leave campaign has given permission for intolerance and racism in society. This makes school`s role in promoting respect and mutual understanding that much harder.”
'Narcissistic, ignorant, selfish and racist'
Yet, at the event I was attending on Friday, an education conference attended by many hundreds of teachers, the intolerance and anger I encountered was directed at people who voted Leave. Depressed Remainers openly talked of how ashamed they were of the British public, and raged against Cameron for placing such a fundamental decision in the hands of an ill-informed and gullible people.
A teacher in the first debate I attended described the voters of Sunderland as “pond life” and proceeded to label working-class people in the north of England as “thick”. Many speakers at the event regularly departed from the topic at hand to publicly ridicule Leave voters as, among other things, “narcissistic, ignorant, selfish and racist”.
What is striking was that so many people within education now feel they can speak with such open contempt and disdain about Leave voters without fear of being challenged. Why is it now acceptable to talk about sections of the British public in such terms? The disconnect between the people and the political class is well-documented, but I fear we are witnessing a similar disconnect between teachers and many of the working-class communities we are supposed to serve. In my view, that is something that should worry us.
As someone who teaches politics, I am all for gloves off and robust political debate. However, we need distinguish between political argument and insults.
Meeting intolerance with more intolerance
I understand that many Remain supporters – including many of own teacher friends – are devastated about the referendum result for all the right reasons. Because they fear the vote will usher in a less tolerant, more isolationist society.
But surely teachers can do better than meeting intolerance with more intolerance? And showing such disdain for democracy is hardly sending a great message to our students. For years we have been urging pupils to take citizenship classes, to value democracy and to use their vote in elections. Yet the reaction of many teachers to this expression of democracy is to rage against the result and suggest that such fundamental questions should not be ceded to the great unwashed.
Some of the people I like and respect the most voted Remain in this election. I am sorry for their pain. But now I want us to move on, to remember all the values we share and to start fighting for them. I am for more, not less immigration. When we were part of the EU, my arguments were never heard. Now I will have to go out and have those pro-immigration arguments with the people of Sunderland and Boston and with my local MP.
Far from despairing, Remain voters should take heart from this vote. They should take some time to be angry and upset but then emerge to recognise that this vote shows that politics does count, that our voice does matter, whoever we are, that people can give the establishment a bloody nose. If teachers are for more immigration, more internationalism and more tolerance, then let's go out there and make the case for that.
Kevin Rooney is the head of social science at Queens’ School, Bushey
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