Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Why remainers shouldn't 'get behind Brexit'

As the chaos, damage and costs of Brexit mount, Brexiters are predictably, and seemingly ever more furiously, demanding that remainers should ‘get behind Brexit’ and ‘stop talking the country down’. This is inane at every conceivable level: absurd as a concept, unjustifiable in principle, unrealistic in practice.

It is most obviously inane because it doesn’t mean anything. What would ‘getting behind Brexit’ consist of? Holding Michael Gove-themed street parties? Writing to the CEOs of ‘German car companies’ to tell them that ‘they need us more than we need them’? Presumably the implication is that if only we were all to talk pollyannaishly about the joys of Brexit it could in some way be made successful. But the damage which is being caused – and will increasingly be caused – by Brexit exists quite independently of what anyone, whether remainer or leaver, says about it.

Take the most obvious adverse consequence of Brexit, the collapse of sterling. This was not caused by remainers’ negativity, it was caused directly by the vote to leave the EU and then exacerbated by the government’s decision to interpret that vote to mean leaving the single market. In economics, and social science generally, establishing causal relations can be very difficult, but in this case it is quite straightforward. Brexit caused the pound to collapse (and investment to stall, etc).

But perhaps it is not the economic consequences Brexiters are thinking about. Perhaps what they mean is that we all somehow have a patriotic duty to talk up Brexit in order to show a united face to the rest of the world? If so, that too is inane. The outside world is almost entirely agreed that Brexit is a stupid, inexplicable and wholly damaging course of action for Britain. All that could be achieved by remainers uniting behind Brexit would be to make Britain look even more ridiculous. At least, so long as remainers keep being vocal, those overseas can see that not all British people have taken leave of their senses. It is the Brexiters who have made Britain an international laughing stock.

Then, of course, there is the stock inanity of Brexiters, familiar since the vote, that we must respect ‘the will of the people’. That is a wholly hypocritical argument which has been widely, and rightly, trashed. Eurosceptics never accepted the 1975 Referendum result – even though it was much more decisive than the 2016 vote – and agitated successfully to overturn it. As regards the 2016 referendum, Nigel Farage, no less, said before the result that if it were 52-48 to remain “this would be unfinished business by a long way” and other leading Brexiters said similar things. Well the result was 52-48, but to leave. So by the same token it is ‘unfinished business’ for remain. Democracy did not start and finish on 23 June 2016, it is an ongoing process in which it is perfectly democratically legitimate for remainers to use all legal and democratic means to seek a different policy.

Similarly, the Referendum result was not a single event. It was the beginning of a process which will last for years and entail multiple decisions which will shape UK politics and economics for decades. Not least because the Leave campaign failed – in fact, refused – to specify what voting leave meant there can be no acceptance of the result because the meaning of the result is disputable. Hence the still ongoing debate about soft versus hard Brexit, red lines, transition periods and so on. There can be no ‘getting behind’ the result by remainers when even the leavers don’t agree what it means.

Perhaps the most important reason why it is inane to expect remainers to ‘get behind’ Brexit is the way that the government has quite deliberately chosen a path which treats remainers with contempt. One might have thought that the leaderly thing to do after so divisive a period would have been to seek to bring the two sides together, and to reach out to the losing remain side - a group which includes most business leaders, professionals and what might diffusely be called the intelligentsia and which numbers almost half of those who voted in the referendum.

In practical terms this would have meant acknowledging the closeness of the vote and pursuing soft Brexit as a solution which would not be perfect for the hardcore on either side, but which called for compromise from each whilst being acceptable to the softcore on each side. For myself, although I would certainly have been unhappy about it, I could have ‘got behind’ such a compromise. Instead, everything has been pitched at placating the hardcore leavers. If the government does not wish to bring remainers in to some kind of national consensus then why on earth should they do so on their own account?

The reason why remainers are being called upon to support Brexit is at heart a simple one but it is laced with complexities and ironies. The simple part is that it derives from the pathological refusal of Brexiters to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And the clearer it becomes just how disastrous those consequences are, the more vociferously they demand that remainers take ownership of Brexit. After all, if everything had been going swimmingly we can be sure that Brexiters would be taking ownership of that for themselves alone.

The more complex and ironic issues derive from the way that, on the one hand, those who have to deal with the practicalities of Brexit are the very people who by and large think it is a crazy idea. But on the other hand Brexiters actually need remainers to continue to oppose Brexit so that they can blame them – rather than Brexit itself – for the damage they have caused. So Brexiters need remainers both to get on board, but also to stay unreconciled.

As for remainers, the reason why they will not get behind Brexit is precisely because they see how damaging it is for the country. There is absolutely no patriotism in pretending otherwise. On the contrary, to engage in such a pretence would be unpatriotic. And, as I already said, to do so would make precisely zero difference anyway. The idea that remainers are going to pat Brexiters on the head and reassure them that they haven’t, after all, done an incredibly stupid thing is preposterous. So too is the idea that we should all – 1940 style – rally round a nation in crisis. For whilst this is indeed rapidly becoming a national crisis, it is one caused not by an external threat but one foisted on us, in the face of every warning given to them, by Brexiters. They, and they alone, are responsible. And they find it unbearable.

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