Something struck me as odd about the crowds in London's Trafalgar Square protesting in the midsummer drizzle against the result of last week's (23 June 2016) EU referendum. And it wasn't just that so many young people seemed so fired up about an issue that many of them couldn't be bothered to vote on a week earlier. What struck me was the love.
Hearts everywhere. Painted on umbrellas, crayoned on cheeks, daubed on cardboard – damp banners bursting with love for the EU. The crowds chanted "EU, we love you" and waved flags with the stars of the EU rearranged into spangled heart shapes. One girl held a placard saying 'Hug a European' and did good business. Another had 'I ♥ EU' lipsticked on to her bosom.
It wasn't your everyday show of political support – it was an outpouring of emotion that left politics playing a distant second fiddle. In the dense, adolescent mathematics of 'ME 4 EU 4 EVER', which one young fellow's banner declared, there's no room for reasoning.
We were witnessing the gushy triumph of eros over logos – summed up perfectly in the words of another young man's placard: 'I WANNA BE INSIDE EU'.
And it wasn't a one-off. Thousands more protesters, many of them students and young people, are set to gather in Trafalgar Square on Saturday (2 July 2016) to proclaim their love for the EU and hug each other.
It might seem incongruous: a warm and fuzzy love-in for a supranational institution that employs 55,000 civil servants and has an annual budget of €145bn (£121.7bn, $161.6bn). But for many young people, this referendum wasn't about the political reality of the EU – it was simply about what they felt.
Listen to the words of Matt Healy, lead singer of The 1975, spoken on stage at Glastonbury a few days earlier: "What do I know? I don't fucking know anything. I'm a popstar in a suit, but what I feel, and I know what a lot of people my age feel, is that there's this sentiment of anti-compassion that's spread across an older generation and voted in a future that we don't fucking want." The revellers cheered, then went away and formed themselves into a giant heart shape in the mud.
It's interesting to hear Healy describe the Leave campaign as "anti-compassion". A lot of effort on the part of Remain went into reinforcing this kind of emotional opposition: the referendum was spun as "leave" versus "love". You could either #VoteLeave or #VoteLove, and – in the wake of the harrowing murder of the MP Jo Cox – the country was told to #LoveLikeJo.
And of course, the logic of this dichtomy dictates that if Remain is "love" then Leave must be "hate". For many, the referendum stopped being anything at all about systems of government or accountability or democracy – the question became simply: Do you hate or love? As Matt Healy put it, a vote for Remain was a vote for "compassion, social responsibility, unity, community, everything like that. Fucking loving people."
I find it slightly chilling that the "one world" of all-embracing love fits so perfectly with the "one world" of transnational banks and global corporations
Never mind the fact that the Remain campaign was part-funded by Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. Or that the CEOs of Shell, Airbus, BP and Rolls Royce lobbied hard against Brexit. Love doesn't worry about details like that. Love is interested in the big picture. 'ONE COUNTRY, ONE EUROPE, ONE WORLD', as one of the Trafalgar Square placards proclaimed.
I confess, I find it slightly chilling that the 'one world' of all-embracing love fits so perfectly with the 'one world' of transnational banks and global corporations. There was a time, not so long ago, when students would march in the street against globalisation. Now they draw hearts on their faces to defend it. They take a stand against 'anti-compassion', but completely ignore the way the EU, led by Germany's Panzer banks, mercilessly crushed Greece. Try telling the people of Athens that the EU is about 'love'. They'd laugh in your face.
The protesters seem untroubled by the critical difference between 'loving people' (which is obviously a nice thing to want to do) and loving the EU as a macroeconomic entity. Many of them seem similarly gripped by an inability to distinguish between the EU and the geographical region and peoples of 'Europe'. One befuddled chap on Tumblr said "I really want to visit Italy. I'd kindly ask you to not fuck up my chances of going... vote Remain".
This upswell of oddly intolerant anti-intellectualism, tied to the ideal of a European superstate ('I ♥ EU') is the perfect breeding ground for fascism
I've spoken mainly of love, but of all the emotions muddying these young minds, the most pernicious isn't love – it's something that underpins and feeds the passion – it's fear. The apocalyptic rhetoric of Project Fear was central to the Remain campaign, and so terrified were many young Brits by the cacophony of dire warnings that they woke up on 24 June literally weeping at the horror. One of my own Facebook acquaintances wrote: "I'm absolutely petrified after the result. Filled with dread."
And it's fear which encircles the love, which polices the boundaries of all these pro-EU passions. Because deeper than any other emotion, more powerful by far than love and compassion, stronger even than the fear of not being able to visit Italy is the fear of being labelled racist.
Leavers are haters, xenophobes and racists, virtually by definition. Remaining is about 'loving people' – leaving is about hating them. 'Leave/love' translates happily into 'racist/not-racist'. And God forbid you step outside the party line – you're one of them, are you? What are you, a racist? This is politics reduced to playground bullying.
This brings me to the more sinister side of all these fuzzy feelings. This upswell of oddly intolerant anti-intellectualism, tied to the ideal of a European superstate ('I ♥ EU') is the perfect breeding ground for fascism.
"Feelings propel fascism more than thought does", wrote Professor Robert Paxton in his 1998 The Five Stages of Fascism. And among the "mobilising passions" of fascism he lists "the belief that one's group is a victim" (they stole our future!) and "the primacy of the group". A passionate sense of togetherness with a victim mentality is a pretty fair description of the anti-Brexit movement. But even more worrying is Paxton's point that fascism is borne of 'disillusion' with democracy. Its success depends, above all, on "the weakness of the liberal state, whose inadequacies seem to condemn the nation to disorder, decline, or humiliation".
On the morning after the vote, Caroline Lucas talked of "our broken democracy". On stage at Glastonbury, Damon Albarn repeated the phrase "democracy has failed us". On social media, there was a post-Brexit outpouring of anti-democratic disgust: "screw democracy when stupid racists are deciding my future" was how one individual on Twitter put it. "Old people shouldn't be allowed to vote" was an all-too-common refrain.
Add to this proto-fascist swirl the strict policing, especially on social media, of the party line, and you've got a 'love' for the EU that isn't all that far removed from the love expressed by Adolf Hitler when he talked of "the law of love of the Fatherland". And this is a love I think we could all do without.
Charlie Skelton is a writer and journalist and tweets as @deyook