This might seem surprising in view of the mounting evidence of economic damage and the evident lack of progress in the exit negotiations, and whilst it is quite possible that opinions will change as that evidence continues to grow I suspect that they are unlikely do so to any great extent. That matters, because only sustained and significant polling evidence that a significant majority of people now want to remain will change the political dynamic of Brexit, and if that is going to have any effect there is not much time left for it to happen.
One reason explaining the lack of Bregret goes back to the Referendum itself, which showed that the political saw ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is not a reliable guide and, hence, the almost entirely transactional case for EU membership put by the Remain campaign failed to win enough support. Hence David Davis’ comment to German business leaders on Friday that it is a mistake to put politics ahead of prosperity was so widely mocked, since that is precisely what Brexit does.
However, that does not mean accepting what is now often said, that the vote to leave was about cultural identity rather than economics. For one thing, the NHS £350M claim, which certainly had some effect on the result, was, for all its well-documented flaws, an economic argument. More generally, apart from the fact motivations to vote leave were variegated (as were those of remain voters) and all single factor explanations are facile, culture and economics are not separate realms but interact in all sorts of ways. For example, during the campaign I heard some leave voters talk about issues of deindustrialisation and its malign effects on community. Their mistake, in my view, was to believe that EU membership was the cause of this and that leaving the EU would redress it – but my point here is rather that these voters made an explicit link between economics and culture.
So instead of thinking about the vote – and any propensity now for Bregret – in terms of economics versus culture I think it is better to think in terms of the gap between Brexit as a symbolic act and Brexit as a series of concrete legal, economic and political arrangements. In a post last May, I wrote about how there is the strange sense from those who argue most vociferously for Brexit that, somehow, Brexit won’t change anything. For example, I’ve seen Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to the EU or that it could mean restrictions on air travel within the EU. Or that security cooperation with EU countries would be diminished. Or that European fruit and vegetables might be less easily sourced. Or that British people would face restrictions on retiring in EU countries. Or, possibly the most ubiquitous (and for those on the receiving end, most hurtful and infuriating) since the referendum, leave voters saying to their friends and neighbours from EU countries: ‘oh, but we didn’t mean you when we said there were too many immigrants’.
I don’t think that these things are necessarily to do with the idea that Britain can ‘cherrypick’ some parts of the EU that they like. Rather, what underlies such sentiments is two related things. One is a taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. So of course ‘nowadays’ planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of complex agreements such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), and of course we can travel visa-free in Europe, as if that were not the outcome of freedom of movement rights. In some ways, Brexiters, who despise technocrats and bureaucrats and rail against extra-national decision making, also treat it as an act of nature that there are Europe-wide regulatory systems. But they are not an act of nature – they are concrete legal arrangements from which, on Brexit, British citizens can be excluded. There is no ‘of course’ about it.
The related underlying issue is that for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’, with all its emotional resonance, was not thought about in concrete legal or institutional terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act. That, indeed, is the implication of the Brexit White Paper which affirms (para 2.1) that sovereignty was never lost by EU membership but that “it has not always felt like that”.
What this now means is well-illustrated by the Channel 4 News report this week about how Grimsby, where some 70% voted to leave, is now seeking special exemption from any new tariffs or barriers for its principal fish-based industries. There have been similar calls from leave voting areas like Cornwall and Wales for special protection from the loss of EU grants and subsidies. The Grimsby report was widely mocked by remainers for indicating stupidity or hypocrisy, but I think it is better understood as an expression of this disconnect between Brexit as a symbolic act and as something that entails non-symbolic consequences.
The same kind of disconnect can be seen across many aspects of the ongoing Brexit developments. In my previous post I mentioned the example of those Brexiters who are blaming the EU for suggesting that hard Brexit means a hard border in Ireland, rather than being an inevitable consequence of Britain’s choice to leave the single market and customs union. That argument is being heard more and more widely as the border issue rises in public consciousness – for example, it was made very vociferously by the Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley on the BBC’s Dateline London show today.
The underlying thought process seems to be – these are not the consequences that we wanted from the Brexit vote and ‘therefore’ they are either nothing to do with that vote (denial) or are being unnecessarily forced on us by the EU and/or obstructive remainers (blame). It is true that there are some pro-Brexit people who do neither of these things and who not only accept that Brexit brings certain adverse consequences but, even, think that this can be seen as positive in terms of restoring national resilience. I have heard some leave voters say something like this, and it seems to be the view of, for example, pro-Brexit blogger Pete North and, in a different way, one of the Leave campaign’s biggest donors, Peter Hargreaves, the latter arguing that the insecurity caused by Brexit will be fantastic.
This, explicitly in the case of Hargreaves, is the kind of ‘Dunkirk’ vision of Brexit but – whatever else one could say about it – it is not the platform that the Leave campaign fought on, and it certainly does not seem to be how most leave voters see things. The Grimsby voters, for example, appear not to be embracing their new-found insecurity but are seeking an exemption from it, just as those making the Janet Daley argument want there to be no border controls once we have taken back control of our borders. But nor is there any evidence that they regret voting to leave the EU. Writ large, this is significant for those expecting widespread Bregret to put a last minute halt to Brexit. If the consequences of Brexit are either denied or blamed upon the EU, and not attributed to or accepted as resulting from the vote to leave, then no such Bregret can be expected.
If all this is right, then there are only two ways that Bregret could occur. One would be for the narrative to change and for leave voters to link the consequences with their vote. But this is extremely unlikely for basic, psychological reasons - there is a technical term for this which I can’t recall, but it is essentially because people don’t find it easy to admit that they have made a mistake. And that’s likely to be especially so if this is pointed out to them by precisely the disdainful ‘elitists’ and ‘experts’ who proved so ineffective during the campaign.
The second possibility is far more conceivable. It is to redirect the narrative of blame on to the leading figures in the Leave campaign. On to all of those who repeatedly and in various ways claimed that leaving would be easy, and would lead to sunny uplands where cake would be both had and eaten. And on to all those who failed to mention, or denied, the consequences on things as diverse as nuclear medicine and the Irish border. In short, it is far more likely that leave voters will accept the proposition that they were fooled by politicians – as indeed they were – than that they fooled themselves. It is also likely to have far more traction than, for example, repeatedly insisting that the referendum was only advisory, or that only 37% of the electorate voted to leave. The idea that politicians lie is not, after all, an especially outlandish one nor is it an especially complex one. If leave voters – not all of them, but just, say, 20% of them – come to believe that they were lied to about Brexit then Bregret becomes a possibility.