Brexit: Remainers should beat a tactical retreat and allow UK to leave
Remain side should then shift to making the radical, positive case for rejoining
A Remain demonstrator during a rally by the People’s Vote organisation in London in October. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty
Some of the UK’s Remainers are convinced they could be on the cusp of an unexpected breakthrough. In their eyes, Boris Johnson’s failure to push his withdrawal deal through Westminster before the general election has opened up new routes to either of their preferred destinations: a second referendum or the closing of the article 50 exit door. Either of these things could happen, the thinking goes, were Labour to lead the next government. But they could also materialise under a Conservative-led minority government, if the Tories found themselves dependent on support from a smaller party such as the Liberal Democrats or, just about conceivably, a scarred DUP, which may by then have concluded that the UK remaining in the EU is a lesser evil than a border in the Irish Sea.
Given the glimmer of hope that an unpredictable election has produced for Remainers, it might seem counterintuitive to choose this moment to wave the white flag. But there are good arguments for the UK’s Europhiles to opt for a tactical retreat.
Those who voted Leave were sold a vision – a fraudulent, mean-spirited and bogus one, perhaps, but a vision nonetheless
Victory now would come at a huge cost. Opinion polls suggest a majority of voters would choose Remain in a second referendum, but the best the pro-Europeans could hope for would be a narrow victory. A reversal of the 2016 result by, say, 52 to 48 per cent, would not resolve “the Europe question”. It would have the opposite effect, making the political climate more toxic and poisonous than it already is. The Faragiste right, having been becalmed by Johnson’s annexation of its terrain, would be revivified.
There is a strong, persuasive case to be made for a second referendum, given that the first one was marred by systematic disinformation and that Brexit at the time was no more than an abstraction. The electorate is indeed different today; the first vote took place so long ago that some college graduates today were too young to vote in 2016. But this is not how many voters would see it. To them, a second referendum would vindicate every suspicion they held towards an elite they were convinced was intent all along on subverting their will. Brexit would not be settled – it would once again become the chief animating principle of the British right, and a third referendum would soon become inevitable.
That scenario might be a risk worth running if Remainers were satisfied they had won the argument and could win it again. But Remainers have plainly not been winning the argument on EU membership these past three years. They have barely been making the argument at all. How often do you hear a prominent Remainer MP argue for the EU in and of itself – the social advances it instigated, the world of opportunity it opened for young people, the megaphone it gave a declining post-colonial power, or the revolutionary solidarity it engendered on a continent riven by conflict? Instead you have heard variations on two arguments: Brexit will be costly, and it will be disruptive.
That’s to misunderstand what drove those who voted Leave. They were sold a vision – a fraudulent, mean-spirited and bogus one, perhaps, but a vision nonetheless. Empirical research since the 2016 vote all points to Leave voters having prioritised values over economics. They were not deaf to warnings about Brexit’s financial cost; it was just that they placed greater importance on limiting immigration, “taking back control” and the other, more nebulous promises from the Leave campaign. Brexit’s disruptive effects were not a turn-off; they were an attraction.
Remain voters were receptive to a values argument as well – we know that the second strongest predictor of the Remain vote was positive feelings about the EU – but the Remain campaign, believing voters’ risk-aversion would suffice to defeat the referendum, failed to tap into that pro-EU sentiment. Perhaps it would have come across as insincere, given that the British political establishment had for decades treated the EU with such scorn or, at best, indifference. The result was that Remainers, advocates of one of the most radical ideas in postwar global politics, contrived to make the Brexiteers sound like the visionaries. Remain. Even the name evokes inertia.
Need to regroup
Politicians speak of parties benefiting from a spell in opposition. Remainers need to become the opposition. Long after Brexit has happened, Remain will be a powerful badge of political identity for a whole generation of British people, and that generation’s sense of betrayal will shape the country’s politics for a long time. But right now, they need to regroup.
Remain needs to reclaim its radicalism. Its goal should not be a return to the status quo ante, with London as an ambivalent semi-detached member clinging to its rebates and its opt-outs and its dreams of empire. Its goal should be to reframe the debate on the UK’s place in Europe and ultimately to have it take its place at the heart of the project. There is plenty to build on: hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of London this month waving blue-and-yellow flags – the biggest public demonstration of support for the EU anywhere in decades.
Fight in this election campaign for the UK to stay in the single market and the customs union, so that it can rejoin more easily later on. But then let it leave, let the dust settle and resume the fight from the outside, as an insurgent, ground-up political force capable of making a full-throated case for EU membership.