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The curse of Remainers

Those who are pro-Europe and anti-Corbyn now feel politically homeless. So how should they start to regain the argument?

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Two things were conclusively beaten on election night: Remain and Corbynism. There’s a queasy feeling in many hearts at present because somehow, in the wake of an overwhelming defeat, the two appear to have been equated and made to seem similarly foolish. The idea of being a Remainer and a committed Corbynsceptic – an eminently plausible combination – has been marginalised, smashed aside by the Boris Johnson juggernaut. One is left wondering if, perhaps, one hasn’t been utterly deluded all along to be wedded to a pro-Europe position.

It’s worth stepping back and reminding ourselves how we got here. Over a 200-year period, being right wing meant you cared about the rich, and being left wing meant you cared about the poor. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher completely upended this in ways we’re still digesting. From a nominally right-wing base, she launched a way of governing focused on the idea of efficiency. A more efficient government was her goal; the tool was lighter regulation of capitalism. This appealed right across class lines and made her formidable. Thatcher had two other assets: charisma, and being openly patriotic. A triad of equalities emerged for successful government: efficiency, charisma and patriotism.

Thatcher’s real successor was Tony Blair. His philosophy was a bit different – less inclined to trust markets, more concerned with targets and (towards the end) technology, but the pitch and glamour of Blair were closely bound up with a comparably energising ideal of efficiency. It was vital that he also displayed charisma and patriotism.

The period after Blair left office in 2007 up to 2019 was murkier. No leader emerged with real charisma: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May were all lacking. Their patriotism (the weakest of the three qualities for all of them) didn’t stick. Most importantly, they had no interesting or robust new ideas for efficiency (the best the decade could give us was David Cameron’s adviser Steve Hilton, a parodic forbear of Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings).

But now something major has happened: we have a new plausible idea of efficiency (Cummingsology), a new charismatic leader, and lots of patriotism. The combination seems unbeatable. And yet there’s one factor that refuses to go away. Brexit is – from almost any angle – a major act of inefficiency. That’s why every self-described “efficient” person (nearly every scientist, astronaut, entrepreneur, inventor and Mars explorer one can identify) hates it: it feels reactionary, a nostalgic throwback, like donning a top hat in a Houston control room (retrograde sartorial choices are why Jacob Rees-Mogg is such a symptomatic hate figure to Remainers, who dress for the job, not the ball).

And yet oddly, Brexit has been driven through by a person, in Cummings, who is passionate about exactly what Remainers are passionate about: efficiency. Cummings’s blog (one of the most fascinating documents of our time) is full of praise for things that Remainers too, tend to love: tech, space exploration, the future, the bashing of idiotic, cosseted bureaucrats. How then can Cummings possibly want Brexit? His famous blog entry on Whitehall’s inefficiencies – a brilliant exposition that would have been read with approval by everyone from Tony Blair to Leo Tolstoy, Henri de Saint-Simon to Jeff Bezos – gives no indication that the author might be a Brexiteer. It’s like discovering that the tech entrepreneur Larry Page secretly belongs to a historical re-enactment society.

This forces us to enter a debate – one that will dominate the coming years – about the EU’s efficiency credentials. There’s no doubt there are plenty of things about “Europe” that make efficiency-concerned Remainers very queasy: French politics, French finances, France in general, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary… On a bad day, this hardly seems the launch pad for the efficient nation most Remainers dream of.

However, on examination, the problems of Europe are perhaps really problems of inefficiently run individual economies, not of the EU itself. The EU, as a body that primarily governs trade, foreign policy, justice, border control and scientific and cultural collaboration is, from some angles, a brilliant Napoleonic-Cartesian creation. It feels (on a good day) progressive, rational, systematic, ordered and brightly lit.

But the Cummings-Johnson line has long been that the EU is some kind of antediluvian inefficient monster. To which Remainers argue soberly: you are the antediluvian monster for thinking it so. Both sides love the same thing, efficiency. They’re just arguing about where it’s located.

The challenge for Cummings and Johnson is to show that exiting the EU plausibly contributes to the project of efficiency, that getting out is worth the titanic effort and all the enemies that will be created: all those entrepreneurial and scientific types who should have been Cummings’s natural allies and now want to ruin everything he does, and whose distaste for his project will be renewed with special vigour once Corbyn has cleared the stage.

They will have to make the case that somehow the pain of the years ahead will allow the UK to eventually emerge on its own as one of the most efficient nations on Earth, not in spite but because of leaving the EU. And they will have to prove that the challenges of leaving will, instead of overwhelming government for a generation, contribute to the goal of a more productive country – and do so on a timescale of a few years, not decades (no efficient person has decades). The battlefield will be chaotic and covered in smoke (as we keep being told, Cummings loves revolution not evolution), but the gamble is whether there really is some victory to be found on this hill.

Because there are no examples of large successful nations standing outside of big trading blocs (and even fewer examples of large economies being fine-tuned to run as well as an Apple-acquired start-up), one develops a certain vertigo: what could the UK be? A brilliant one-off example to the whole planet? A 51st US state? Dubai run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Ancient Athens with 7G connectivity? None of it seems quite true to geography, history or gravity.

The lunacy that Remainers are haunted by is that it was merely an overhyped patriotism (or some cynical Etonian power play) that got us into the idea of leaving the EU in the first place – and that doing so utterly negates the ideals of an efficient state. Remainers are appalled by Whitehall inertia. Some may have a soft spot for Cummings and his AI fantasies; but they continue to disbelieve that the epochal, national-soul-destroying move of trying to quit the EU in any way contributes to improvement – and suspect it may in fact do irreparable damage.

Another issue is what an opposition to the Cummings-Johnson project might now look like. We already know the ingredients it needs. It will have to make a claim to be even more efficient and technocratic than Cummings; it will need even more charisma than Johnson; and it will need to match their patriotism (one can see why Labour was so inadequate here). It looks challenging, but there would be so many ways of poking holes in the ideas of the incumbents: by pointing out that Cummings is a hubristic, second-rate Steve Jobs fanboy, by appealing with renewed energy to the glamorous idea of Europe (the Europe of the Galileo satellite and the Airbus A350-1000), by drawing attention to Johnson’s sherry and beef steak persona.

We’ve reached a stage where all administrations will compete with one another on efficiency. Rather like modern car or mobile phone companies, there will be increasing convergence and consensus on what works: the days of outliers such as Citroën or Blackberry will be over.

Many Remainers feel misrepresented. Despite hating inflexible, inefficient Corbyn, they are being tarred by association. And it is being imputed that their Galileo-satellite Europe is somehow as inefficient as John McDonnell’s economics were. What’s more, they see that Johnson and Cummings have draped themselves in the colours of efficiency – colours that these Remainers have in fact loved all along. The challenge for Remainers will be to regain the argument and show that leaving the EU has precious little to contribute to the tantalising project of delivering a more efficient nation.

Alain de Botton’s most recent book is “The School of Life: An Emotional Education”

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning