Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Brexiteers have fared as badly as their opponents warned. Rather than delivering the seamless withdrawal from the European Union that they promised, they have collided with reality.
Even when the United Kingdom leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, it will be forced to obey all European laws for at least two years during an inevitable transition period. Any new trade agreement that the UK reaches will sacrifice either political sovereignty – with Britain becoming a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker – or economic prosperity, through withdrawal from the single market and the customs union.
Those leading the People’s Vote campaign express outrage at this and much else: the Brexiteers treated a narrow 52-48 Leave vote as a landslide victory for “the people”; the Leave campaign falsely claimed that “Turkey is joining the EU”; Vote Leave broke electoral law through overspending; the Brexit vote has already squeezed living standards – through higher inflation – and reduced GDP growth by an estimated 2 per cent. All of this is true, but some ardent Remainers go further: they dismiss the referendum result as “advisory”; they deride Leave voters as ignorant and racist; they denounce the BBC as the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”; they romanticise the opaque and troubled EU; and they assume that Remain would win a second referendum.
One of the reasons that the pro-EU campaign lost in 2016 was its excessive confidence and arrogance. Having imposed reckless austerity on Britain and long denounced Brussels as a bureaucratic ogre, David Cameron assumed that he could nevertheless alarm voters into backing Remain. He could not and was forced to resign, his reputation destroyed.
For many of those who backed Brexit, including a significant number of Labour voters, the referendum was a chance to reject both a discredited British political establishment, a failing economic model and a profoundly flawed EU. The conduct of the most ardent Remainers since the Leave vote shows that too few have learned from this experience. Brexit was not the result of a population “brainwashed” by propaganda but a reflection of profound economic and social discontent: the largest public spending cuts in postwar history, the longest fall in living standards since the Napoleonic Wars, the erosion of social cohesion, the loss of social trust and – we should not delude ourselves – anxiety about the uncontrolled free movement of people.
Rather than simply dismissing the vote for Brexit, Remainers must grapple with its causes. A second referendum would not be inherently undemocratic. As David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, stated in 2012: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” But before the country voted again, we would all need more seriously to reflect on the result of the first vote, its antecedents and effects.
The minority of Remain voters who were truly devastated rather than merely disappointed by the result cannot simply point to the flaws in the conduct of the 2016 referendum. They must be better prepared to make their own arguments. That the Leave side misled voters and broke electoral law, and that the media struggled to articulate what was at stake, does not negate the sincere opposition of many to our EU membership.
Opinion polls show, at best, a marginal shift in voting intention since 2016. Having lost one referendum that they expected to win, it would be truly reckless for pro-EU elites to lose a second. Yet more than this, rather than mimicking the worst excesses of their opponents, they must demonstrate that they understand the forces driving this age of upheaval.
Lost in the Wild Wood
Its nostalgic vision of an English rural idyll has, along with its comic anti-hero, Toad, made The Wind in the Willows a children’s classic. But, as Lyndall Gordon writes in this week’s New Statesman, it was the product of a damaged and divided man. Brought up in a loveless house after the death of his mother, Kenneth Grahame became an escapist who could not relate to his wife or save his son, who killed himself aged 20.
Our favourite children’s authors, it seems, often trail tragedy in their wake. JM Barrie cast a shadow over the lives (and deaths) of the “lost boys” that he adopted. Lewis Carroll made his “child-friends” pose nude for photographs. Edward Lear’s upbringing was scarred by epilepsy and abandonment.
Currents of strange melancholy and confused desire run through the sweetness and lightness of these children’s stories. Et in Arcadia ego.
This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state