Maroon passport brooches and EU flags: how Remainers are getting radicalised

This is now a country where “Remainer” and “European” have become political identities held by a small but energised minority.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It’s a necklace that tells a story. In June last year, the cult jewellery company Tatty Devine released a slogan necklace. In bright blue plastic, with a yellow star attached, it read simply: “European”. Since then, it has been a bestseller, worn by the Lib Dem deputy leader, Jo Swinson, on the People’s Vote march and by the Labour MP Meg Hillier in the Commons chamber. A new brooch – a burgundy passport with the words “European at heart” – sold 100 pieces last week. Other Tatty Devine necklaces expressing frustration with Brexit have turned up in parliament: Labour’s Stella Creasy has one that reads “Aaargh”. The SNP’s Alison Thewliss has “Good grief”. 

“We designed the collection last year and planned to launch late March as a love letter to Europe but ended up launching early as a rallying cry to Revoke Article 50,” Tatty Devine co-founder Rosie Wolfenden tells me. She is “very concerned about the detrimental effect Brexit would have on our workforce, our families and our business”.

Political jewellery has a long history: the Suffragettes gave out medals to hunger strikers – silver discs on coloured ribbons in their colours of purple, white and green.  The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright had so much of the stuff that the Smithsonian museum mounted an exhibition, including the snake brooch she wore after the Iraqi media called her an “unparalleled serpent”. She was, she reasoned, the only woman at security council meetings, so why not embrace her difference?

There is, however, a point to the blue necklaces and passport brooches. They reflect a Britain where “Remainer” and “European” have become political identities held by a small but energised minority. 

The New European, set up to counter the pro-Brexit gravity of the newspapers, made it to 100 issues in June 2018 and claims a circulation of 20,000. EU flags – once a rarity in British public life – now pop up regularly on demonstrations. “Sales were non-existent during the referendum but as soon as the UK voted to leave the EU we sold straight out and could not get them in fast enough,” says Brian Speed of theflagshop.co.uk. “Sales have been busy for the EU flags since the referendum.”

Just as Scottish politics has polarised around independence and unionism, transcending the traditional left/right economic divides, so Europhilia has created a new political axis, uniting left-wing students and well-heeled middle-aged Tories.

The resulting realignment threatens to split the Conservative Party, but it also presents an electoral challenge to Labour. Voters in seats it gained in 2017, such as Canterbury and Kensington, want something different from the party to those in English marginals such as Ashfield (a narrow hold) and Mansfield (an unexpected loss).

The emergence of “Remain” as an identity has been fast. I remember going on Woman’s Hour on 28 June 2016 with Sarah Wollaston, the GP-turned-politician who was then a Conservative MP. She had converted to Remain before the referendum. We were asked: do you accept the result? We agreed that yes, democracy means that the losers have to concede. Two and a half years later, Wollaston feels so strongly about stopping Brexit that she has left her party. In a similar way, Labour peer Andrew Adonis has moved from mild-mannered train and academy enthusiast to full-bore anti-Brexit crusader and purveyor of lurid conspiracy theories about the BBC’s coverage of the subject.

There are several reasons for the radicalisation of Remainers. The first is hope. Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 election, the demands of the DUP and the fissure down the Tory party have so far prevented the emergence of a form of Brexit that can command a majority in parliament. The language of a “People’s Vote” has put a populist gloss on the idea of abandoning Brexit altogether. All that means Labour and independent MPs, who might have accepted a soft Brexit a year ago, have voted down those options to keep the possibility of another referendum alive. “I will not be voting for either the Customs Union or Common Market 2.0 as neither delivers a PV nor a permanent open border in NI & both are worse deals than Remain,” tweeted the former leadership contender Owen Smith ahead of the indicative votes on 1 April. Others did the same: neither a customs union nor Common Market 2.0 gained a majority.

Smith’s tweet also gestures to the second reason for the outbreak of radical Remainers: exasperation. Summarise this tendency as: the European Research Group are maniacs, so why not us? In the Cameron era, the median Tory MP was irritated by the monomaniacal persistence of Brexiteers such as Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone, who slept in the Commons corridor to ensure they were at the front of the queue for putting down private members’ bills. But you know what? They got their way.

Finally, identities become more important to us when they are threatened. Attacks from the outside bond a group together. Since 1996, the British Social Attitudes survey has asked its 3,000 respondents to choose from a list of national identities: the proportion who now say they are “European” – 18 per cent – is the highest it has been for 20 years. A new question introduced four years ago, which asked people to rate themselves between 1 (“not at all European”) and 7 (“strongly European”) found that the size of the group picking 5, 6 or 7 had jumped six points, to 31 per cent, since 2015. Feeling European is still a minority position, but it is a strongly held one.

In the past two and a half years, Remainers have been attacked as smug, croissant-wielding elitists, “enemies of the people” and “citizens of nowhere”. It’s great news for political jewellery shops and EU flag-makers, but its effect on our politics is less certain.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers