Rather like being pregnant or dead, you are either in or not in the European Union. We now know this because, at the end of two years’ negotiating, Theresa May has come back with a bodged Brexit deal that is unacceptable to both the Vote Leave and the Vote Remain camps. With Parliament likely to vote down the deal, but unable to agree an alternative, it is now very likely that the British people will be invited to participate in a second EU referendum which is being mendaciously labelled a “people’s vote” (opponents would argue it is an elitist attempt to overturn an earlier people’s vote).
The received wisdom within the Westminster bubble is that a second referendum will result in a reversal of the 2016 referendum result. There are, however, two erroneous lines of argument behind this proposition. The first is that the Brexit fault line within the British electorate was between young and old voters. Since many older voters will have died and been replaced by younger voters over the last two years, the result of a new referendum will favour Remain. Second, and more worrying, is the belief that the motives of 2016 Leave voters were superficial. The referendum, we are told, was won by duplicity: an ill-educated and narrow-minded voter block was tricked into voting against their best interests through a combination of fear mongering about immigration, unrealistic promises on the side of buses, and a series of unregulated political advertisements posted by Russian trolls on social media. Now that these voters have had the chance to see how bad Brexit is in real life, they are simply bound to vote to Remain in the EU if offered a second chance.
While this line of reasoning is taken seriously by Westminster bubble journalists and a growing army of academics that has eschewed the importance of evidence, it is a dangerous fantasy that may be about to plunge the UK into an even deeper crisis than the one its leaders have already blundered their way into. In October, Robert Shrimsley, deputy editor of the Financial Times called out the delusion:
“Readers may remember the now diminished internet phenomenon of Second Life, a virtual world in which people could live the lives they did not currently have… In the increasingly unreal sphere of British politics we have Second Referendum: a virtual world in which voters get to act out the lives they do not have. In Second Referendum a grateful nation is given the chance to rethink its first vote on leaving the EU and overturns its mistake by an exciting and unrealistic margin. The pound rises, investment floods in, Emmanuel Macron pats the UK on the back for having the good sense to see things his way. National unity is restored, once angry Brexit backers return to their lives grateful to hand decisions back to the political professionals and thankful to be spared the consequences of their foolishness.”
As Shrimsley points out, there were far deeper and longer standing factors behind the vote in favour of leaving the European Union than most pro-Remain campaigners are prepared to acknowledge. Indeed, the failure of the Remain camp from day one has been the refusal to countenance the possibility that – as with peoples across the developed world – the UK population might be fractured along a plethora of fault lines that no longer lend themselves to the decades-old duopoly of neoliberal right versus neoliberal left. University of Kent politics professor and author Matthew Goodwin sets out some of the longstanding trends that underlay the Brexit vote in June 2016 in an article for Quillette:
“Contrary to rumour, Brexit was supported by a broad and fairly diverse coalition of voters; large numbers of affluent conservatives; one in three of Britain’s black and ethnic minority voters; almost half of 25-49 year-olds; one in two women; one in four graduates; and 40 percent of voters in the Greater London area. Brexit appealed to white pensioners in England’s declining seaside towns but it also won majority support in highly ethnically diverse areas like Birmingham, Luton, and Slough…
“Nor did these voters suddenly convert to Brexit during the campaign, which is another common misconception. One point that is routinely ignored is that British support for radically reforming or exiting the EU was widespread long before the referendum even began. Britain’s National Centre for Social Research recently pointed out that levels of British support for leaving the EU or radically reducing the EU’s power ‘have been consistently above 50 percent for a little over 20 years.’ This is what the ‘short-termists’ cannot explain. If Brexit was an aberration, a by-product of wrongdoing, then why were so many people unhappy with this relationship long before the Great Recession, or the arrival of Twitter or Facebook? The currents that led to this seismic moment were decades in the making.”
Following the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and the wave of right (and to a much lesser degree, left) wing populism across Europe, it ought to be clear that Brexit was not a freak anomaly, but part of a seismic shift in the politics of the developed economies. As Goodwin argues:
“The referendum marked the first occasion in Britain’s history when the culturally liberal middle-class, which orbits London and the university towns, had lost. Until this point, the advocates of double liberalism—a globalized economy accompanied by a highly liberal immigration policy—had gotten all they had wanted. Business got a continuing influx of mass cheap labour that fed a consumption-driven growth model that not only removed incentives for investing in training but exacerbated divides between the high and low-skilled. The liberal middle-class got economic benefits alongside Polish cleaners and membership of the dominant value set but became increasingly detached from the ‘left behind.’
The smoldering resentment of this disenfranchised minority propelled it into an unlikely alliance with political groups that it would ordinarily be in opposition to – conservative pensioners, rural landowners and wealthy private business owners. Precisely the type of coalition that turned out to vote for Donald Trump, and which has allowed the right-wing Northern League and the left-leaning Five Star Movement to form an unlikely coalition in Italy.
The Remainers’ dismissal of the mass of ordinary people behind these movements as “racists” and “morons” belies any claim to be either socially or economically liberal. Their opposition is to populism in general rather than the right-wing nature of the groups currently in the ascendancy. As Goodwin notes:
“Many [Remainers] found further solace in a revival of elite theory, joining a long tradition of voicing suspicion of, if not open hostility toward, the mass public that can be traced back to Ancient Greece. The EU is simply too complex for ordinary people to understand. Elites know better. Apathy might be a good thing after all. But it has now gotten to the point where some jump on anything that goes wrong in Britain as a vindication of their anti-Brexit stance. A bank relocates workers to Frankfurt? Good! Economic growth down? Told you so! Food is a bit more expensive? Tough luck! I’ve grown tired of watching my fellow citizens cheer anything that looks even vaguely like national decline.”
There is hubris in this. Perhaps the biggest failure of the Remain campaign two and a half years ago was its condescending, elitist tone. A parade of establishment luminaries – failed politicians, economists, central bankers, celebrities and sports personalities – were wheeled out to explain to the inferior unwashed masses that untold horrors (David Cameron foolishly claimed world war three, plagues and cancer) would result if Britain voted to leave the EU. The danger today is that a new Remain campaign will repeat this error in a second referendum, simply because too many assume that they have already won. Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian cautions against this complacency:
“There has been no unambiguous, tectonic shift in public opinion since June 2016. On the contrary, many of the grievances that fuelled the leave vote remain in place; the cry for help was ignored. The latest Deltapoll survey shows no deal beating remain by 52% to 48%. Think of it: even after all the warnings of grounded planes, lorry queues and medicine shortages, no deal – not just leave – winning by four points.”
Polling has shown only a narrow gap between Leave and Remain voters in most polls. And while Remain currently enjoys a slight lead over Leave, it is less than the margin by which Remain was leading in the polls immediately prior to losing the 2016 vote. And while many pundits claimed shock at that result, it was hardly an unpredictable outcome. As Andy Shaw wrote in the days before the referendum:
“The commentators and what now passes for ‘left wing’ activists have no relationship with the working class. They are shocked that the EU Referendum has ignited interest, discussion and passion. Their detachment from ordinary people means that they misunderstand their motivation. They genuinely fear the people because, up until now, they have been able to ignore them. If you live in a reified world where the only views you hear are within an echo chamber of reinforcing group-think, it is a shock to realise that most people do not think the way you do.”
Insofar as there is “regret” among the Leave voters of 2016, it is regret that they trusted the Tory Party to deliver Brexit. That is, they understand that this “Tory Brexit” is a dogs’ dinner, but there is little evidence to suggest that they have changed their minds about leaving the EU. And even if Remain managed to reverse the 2016 result, it would be a pyrrhic victory. As Shrimsley points out:
“If Remain were to nick it back, where do the former 52 per cent turn next? The phenomenon of populism cannot be wished away and one of its causes was the sense of a political class that does not listen. It is a lesson EU leaders are still failing to learn. Leavers will view a second referendum as a plot by the political class to frustrate their decision. They will not be wrong.
“If the previous campaign was ugly and divisive, imagine the next: a full assault on every institution of political stability with added venom for foreigners. From there a descent into pure populism is a small step and the next group of leaders will be less loveable than Nigel Farage.”
Shrimsley hedged his bets, making the case for some kind of compromise Brexit rather than a re-run of the vote. Had the Tories embarked on this course two years ago instead of triggering Article 50 without understanding it, and then holding and losing an unnecessary general election, a better deal might have been achieved. That ship, however, has disappeared over the far horizon. Instead we most probably face either a second referendum or a general election followed by a second referendum… one which Remain might still lose.
The key question, therefore, is how to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016? A good starting point would be for Remain campaigners to split into pairs and scream the words “racist” and “moron” at each other and see whether this makes them more or less amenable to discussing policy. Then, once they’ve understood – as Hillary Clinton also found out to her cost – that calling people a “basket of deplorables” tends not to secure their support; they can begin the long hard door-to-door slog of a grassroots campaign to persuade people that their needs are better met within the European Union than outside…
And don’t take the end result for granted. If you think Britain is facing a crisis today, just stop for a moment and think what it will be like if Vote Leave were to win the second “People’s Vote.”
As you made it to the end…
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