So Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement has been passed, and the UK will leave the European Union at the end of January. Those of us who opposed Brexit need to accept this fact and recognise that the fight has moved on. We lost, and we need to get over it – but that doesn’t mean giving up.
I have little doubt that, had there been a second referendum against a specific form of Brexit, Remain would have won – but probably not by a conclusive margin. In order to properly put the issue to bed and overturn the original referendum, Remain would have had to achieve in the region of 60% of the vote, and although polls have seen a general shift to a Remain majority, never to more than about 55%.
In truth, the country has had a number of electoral events in which to demonstrate that it rejected the verdict of June 23rd, 2016, and it has signally failed to do so at each turn. Theresa May won the 2017 election with an increased vote share despite losing her majority; the only overtly pro-Remain party, the Lib Dems, losing seats. Then in the European elections of 2019, the Brexit party had the biggest share of votes. We can point to total votes cast for anti-Brexit parties, but it all looks like so much hair-splitting – the fact is that the Remain movement never managed to break down the pro-Brexit feeling engendered by the referendum.
Observing the Brexit process has felt like watching a boulder roll slowly down a hill: we might have slowed it down here or put an obstacle in its way there, but it still just kept rolling on (one hesitates to mention a cliff-edge). Even when there seemed to be no obvious benefits left, simply leaving the EU became an object in itself, and hang the consequences – the mentality of ‘Get Brexit Done’. What fuelled this steady descent? Brexit seems to connect to something deep within the national psyche, or at least a section of it. On his first visit here, my daughter’s German boyfriend expressed amazement that she would cross the road when a ‘red man’ signal was showing, and something struck me – we don’t like following rules in this country. It’s a common thread running through our culture, from Shakespeare to Jane Austen through to the Beatles, punk, Britpop and rave – rules are there to be prodded and bent, authority to be cocked a snook at. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the things I most like about this country. Add to this a historic suspicion of Europe – they’re not like us, they’ve got funny ways – as well as a traditional vision of ourselves as an independent, buccaneering nation and it’s a potent brew: rules being imposed on us, from people who we don’t trust, keeping us from our destiny in a stranglehold of ‘ever deeper union’.
We can counter – and we did, oh how we did – that the rules imposed by the EU had little impact on our day-to-day lives, unless you got particularly exercised by the wiring on your kettle or the proportion of sugar in your jam. We could ask Brexiters for specific rules that they objected to (oh yes, that was a good one), lecture them on the realities of international trade – but the truth is this was never a project of facts and figures, but of identity and culture. The nationalist genie was out of the bottle and it was going to take a lot more than mealy-mouthed explanations of the benefits of pooling sovereignty to put it back again.
We never really got it from the off: it’s hard to remember now, but in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, there was a general sense of shock not just among the losers but also the winners, with regular vox pops of Leave voters saying they weren’t sure what they’d voted for and hadn’t expected to win – there may have been a chance to connect with a significant proportion of them and persuade them that Brexit wasn’t going to benefit them. Instead, Remainer social media jumped to the conclusion that 52% of the country were idiots and/or racists, and online petitions demanding independence for London/Cambridge/Bristol etc went viral. For Leave Britain, here was the confirmation that not only had they won, they’d beaten the people who’d been winning for the past 30 years: the liberals, the snowflakes, the do-gooders, the PC brigade. Positions were quickly entrenched and have barely shifted in the 3 1/2 years since.
If it sounds like I’m trying to come to terms with it, then you’re right, I am. I regret Brexit enormously. It was irresponsible of David Cameron to conflate multiple issues as diverse as international trade, geopolitics and cultural identity into a single Yes/No question with no safeguards, and unforgivable to then run such a lacklustre campaign so easily turned over by Johnson and Cummings’ brash sloganeering, but that’s where we are – we tried to undo it and failed. Too much of the People’s Vote campaigning seemed to want to erase the first referendum from history – it was advisory, Leave misspent funds – rather than acknowledge the spirit for change that had been let out of the box. Remain movements transforming to Rejoin have learned nothing from their mistakes: if Remain looked like sour grapes, Rejoin is pure Sarson’s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ‘getting behind it’: I see no more benefits to Brexit now than I did on the morning of June 23rd, 2016. I have no doubt that Brexit will be economically bad to some extent, an extent likely to be much clearer by this time next year when we have a better sense of how far the UK intends to diverge from the rules of Single Market (early announcements are that there will be no alignment, which will mean about the hardest economic hit possible – that cliff-edge could yet be coming into view). Inevitably, those hit hardest will be the least well-off, as they always are. But in some ways, the anti-Brexit fight wasn’t just about whether the UK remained a member of the EU or not: for many of those offering it, Brexit was a trojan horse for a more illiberal, small-state, low-regulation country, hostile both to outsiders and to its poorest and most vulnerable. I don’t believe this is what the majority of Leave voters ever wanted, it certainly isn’t what Remain voters want, and it needs be resisted forcefully.
So the battle for EU membership has been lost, but the fight goes on – just consider it fragmented into a number of smaller, but no less important, skirmishes: for the benefits of immigration and anti-hate crimes, for workers’ rights, for animal welfare standards; resisting the attacks on the institutions underpinning our democracy that Johnson and Cummings look set to pursue; and looming over all of these, the true battle of the age, for the climate. Moreover, as the effects of leaving the EU start to be felt, those who promised us the sunlit uplands need to be held to account for their lies and false promises, not allowed to deflect blame onto others.
The Remain movement mobilised one of the biggest armies of activists this country has ever seen, and it would be a tragedy if they spent their energies wishing reality to be otherwise or just going into a sulk. So if you’ve been moved to march, leaflet, sign online petitions or stand on street corners, now is not the time to give up: join or donate to an organisation championing one of the above – organisations like The 3 million, Hope Not Hate, The Good Law Project, Best For Britain, and of course Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion. Offer to volunteer if you have time, keep sharing and posting on social media. We may have to accept Brexit, but that doesn’t mean losing the battle for the UK.