As the polls closed in Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union, UKIP leader Nigel Farage conceded the race with the words: “It looks like Remain will edge it.”
Two hours later, when the results from the north east began to come in, it was clear he had underestimated the size of the rout. Remain won 55 per cent of the vote, more than any poll had suggested, and prime minister David Cameron soon released a statement congratulating himself for having settled an issue that had dogged his party for a generation.
He was speaking too soon, of course. Within days, rumours of a plot by disgruntled Eurosceptics, keen to oust the self-appointed “saviour of Europe”, were rife. With a majority of the Conservative voters having voted leave, Cameron’s position, paradoxically, looked weaker than ever.
And, as the summer wore on, the mood began to change. In late July, a poll showed that, were the referendum to be held again, Leave would win by as great a margin as it had lost only weeks before. On 19 July, in the acceptance speech which followed his re-election as UKIP leader, Nigel Farage began calling for a second referendum…
None of that actually happened of course (though I very much enjoyed the brief reverie I’ve just been in pretending it had; read it again, if you find it comforting).
But little of it is, I think, implausible. The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence was also defeated by a 10 point margin – yet its disappointed supporters soon solidified into a movement that’s already remade Scottish politics, and even before Brexit, a second referendum was potentially on the cards.
Does anyone really think that a 10 point victory for the status quo would have seen the Leavers accept their defeat and toddle off into the sunset? Did anyone not read Farage’s premature concession as a signal that the battle was lost but the war would continue?
Given all of that, I have to ask – why is everyone expecting the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain to just lay down and die?
It’s increasingly clear that many of Remain’s more terrifying predictions of what Brexit would bring are already coming true. Sterling has collapsed: that won’t just make holidays more expensive, but also imports, so prices may spike at home, too. Some multinational companies are talking of pausing investment, or even moving jobs to the continent. Half a dozen property funds have been frozen, because the world and its wife are scrambling to pull its money out of the UK.
And yet, as Sajid Javid said the week after the referendum: “We are all Brexiters now.” He meant the Tory party, one assumes, but there aren’t too many cries of resistance coming from Labour either. Jeremy Corbyn was one of the tiny number of politicians demanding the government invoke Article 50 the day after the referendum. The right of the party is little better, and Yvette Cooper was demanding we abandon freedom of movement, even before the Leave victory. Britain is as divided as I can ever remember it being, but you wouldn’t know it from the attitudes of our leaders.
A few politicians are still pushing back against this narrative. Hornsey MP Catherine West has said she’ll vote against leaving, because it’s what her constituents would want. Her neighbour David Lammy went further, calling for the whole thing to be scrapped. Tim Farron, bless him, said his party’s policy would be to stay in, and for the first time in six years I found myself tempted to vote Lib Dem.
But these are the exceptions: most politicians, at least publically, claim that they are ready to go. Since Chris Hanretty at UEA has estimated that as many of 421 of the 574 English and Welsh constituencies voted Leave, who can blame them?
And so, because of one quite narrow vote, Brexit is on. Never mind the economy, never mind Britain’s place in the world, never mind what it’s doing to our political culture. The people have spoken, their word must be final. We are all Brexiteers now.
Well – to coin a phrase – fuck that. I thought Brexit was a stupid idea on 23 June. I feel the same now, only I have rather more evidence to back me up. The vote was close. The results may well be a disaster. The idea we should give in and accept this as the world burns around us seems a bloody silly one to me.
The forces of Eurosceptic reaction, let’s not forget, whined about Brussels for 41 years. Why the hell should those of us who placed some value in a European passport abandon the fight, just because we are very slightly in the minority? The SNP never did.
We have not left the EU yet, and it doesn’t look likely we’ll be doing so for quite some time. Before that, anything could happen. Public opinion can change, and if Brexit is even a fraction as bad as some of the scarier predictions suggest, it very well might. There is nothing democratic about telling people they aren’t allowed to change their mind.
I can, if I squint, understand why so few politicians want to look like they’re ignoring the will of a majority, however slim. But we are not all Brexiters now.
And however electorally inconvenient it may be, it would be nice if our leaders acknowledged that once in a while.