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9 January 2019

Why, like Jeremy Corbyn, the idea of a second referendum torments me

I voted Remain, and would again. Dozens of people I know, respect and love support a second vote, and yet I just can’t make the leap.

By Helen Lewis

I have a couple of things in common with Jeremy Corbyn. We’re both strongly pro-jam; him making it, me eating it. The year 1983 was a big one for both of us: I was born, he was first elected as an MP, ready to dethrone all those “career politicians” a mere three decades later. Admittedly, I’m one down on the marriage front, but give it time (only joking, Mr Lewis #2). But we do share one fear: expressing a definitive opinion on a second EU referendum.

For Corbyn, the agonies come from the clash of the political and the personal. He is a longstanding Eurosceptic, and has promised to deliver Brexit if elected. But he’s leading a party where 72 per cent of members want another vote (and 88 per cent would vote Remain in it). Worse, he took control of Labour by promising a grass-roots revolution. “With this huge membership, that has to be reflected much more in decision-making in the party,” he announced in 2016. So, Corbyn is not against a second referendum. He’s just not for one, either.

My agonies are different. I voted Remain, and would again. Dozens of people I know, respect and love support a second referendum, and are pouring their hearts into the cause. They see it as the only alternative to a policy that will leave Britain poorer, less influential and less open to the world. These people are my “tribe”. I agree with them about the consequences of Brexit. And yet I just can’t make the leap.

The first reason is pure emotion. After watching Brexit: The Uncivil War, written by this week’s diarist James Graham, I was left with one overriding thought: I can’t go through that again. The film is funny, and clever, and a hundred times more generous than many of its protagonists deserve.

But it reminded me of the man jailed for offering £5,000 to anyone who would kill Gina Miller, the lawyer who brought a legal challenge over Article 50. (He wasn’t “left behind”. He was a viscount.) It reminded me of Daniel Hannan MEP thinking that being able to recite the St Crispin’s Day speech somehow made him a visionary leader of men. It reminded me of how the “respectable” Vote Leave campaign feigned horror at Nigel Farage and Arron Banks talking about immigration in lurid terms, while they quietly distributed leaflets and Facebook adverts implying the whole of Turkey would move here, and maybe Iraq and Syria too. It reminded me of Penny Mordaunt flat-out lying on the Andrew Marr programme that Britain didn’t have a veto on Turkish accession, and the BBC using the headline “Penny Mordaunt: ‘The UK can’t veto Turkey joining EU’ ” to report her comments, without mentioning that it can. It reminded me of the Polish centre in London defaced the day after the vote, and how Jo Cox was stabbed by a man who gave his name in court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

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The referendum showed an ugly side to a country I thought was better than that. It dented my belief in politics as a force for good, and my trust in journalism as a check on outright lies, fraud and manipulation. It also upset me to see what some Leavers were prepared to do (and ignore) to win.

That decision has had profound consequences. Just this week, a group of activists swaddled in the flag of St George heckled Tory Remainer Anna Soubry outside parliament, calling her a “Nazi” live on TV. They also targeted the Guardian’s Owen Jones – calling him a “prick” and “traitor” – and the anti-Brexit campaigner Femi Oluwole.

This intimidating language, and these specific allusions, did not come to the protesters in a dream, nor did the sense that they can threaten their opponents with impunity. The murder of Jo Cox apparently did not register with Nigel Farage – a man on hair-trigger alert for the smallest possibility of Islamic terrorism – as his victory speech claimed the referendum was won “without a single bullet being fired”. Tory rebels were “mutineers”, named and shamed on one front page; judges were “enemies of the people” on another. On 11 July last year, the Telegraph’s Christopher Howse even asked: “Is Theresa May guilty of treason? Plenty of readers think so.” (Her crime? Proposing an insufficiently “hard” Brexit.)

Then there are the Nazi comparisons. Oddly, whenever Vote Leave’s frontmen needed a colourful historical analogy, they didn’t reach for the War of the Spanish Succession. In May 2016, Boris Johnson compared the EU to Nazi attempts to create a superstate, saying: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.” (Chris Grayling – still in the cabinet – backed him up, calling it “a piece of historical analysis”.) Four days before the vote, Michael Gove compared anti-Brexit economists to German scientists paid to denounce Einstein’s theories, because he was Jewish. “We have to be careful about historical comparisons,” he added.

I bet that played well on Facebook. But at what cost? And who would bet that another referendum would be cleaner, less divisive – or more decisive? No. I believe in representative democracy. I believe in experts. I believe in politicians who should be bold, be knowledgeable and, crucially, be better informed than me. And I believe in a system where the proposers of a policy take responsibility for carrying it out. I can’t support a rerun of 2016, even if I thought (I don’t) that my side was certain to win.

Yes, I still think Brexit will be either a fiery No Deal disaster or a low-key drain on our country’s life force. Yes, I think Leave voters made a mistake, but then so did I.

I should have been less diffident, less complacent, and I should have pointed out how Corbyn’s reticence was holding back the Remain campaign, despite the backlash it would have brought. (He doesn’t even figure as a character in The Uncivil War.) I regret all that. But democracy, if it means anything, is about accepting that you lost.

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This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown