Saturday 8 October 2016

Why remainers shouldn't move on

Anyone who participates in discussions about Brexit, especially online, will be familiar with the recurrent accusation that remainers (aka ‘remoaners’ or ‘remainiacs’ or, more crudely, ‘butthurt losers’) should ‘just move on’ and accept that they have lost.

There are several obvious reasons why that should not and will not happen. The first and perhaps least important is that it is a hypocritical argument. 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”. Well the result was 52-48, but to leave. So by the same token it is ‘unfinished business’ for remain. And then there was that petition to the government to hold another Referendum if the vote on either side were less than 60% on a 75% turnout. After the referendum it was signed by millions of remainers – but it had been started by a leaver in anticipation that leave would lose.

The second issue is that the Referendum result was not a moment or event from which anyone can ‘move on’. It was the beginning of a process which will last for decades, and 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 current debate about soft versus hard Brexit. There can be no ‘getting behind’ the result by remainers when even the leavers don’t agree what it means. Although even if they could agree there is no real reason for remainers to get behind the result. This is a national crisis, but unlike, say, 1939 – to pick a date that will resonate with leavers – it is not caused by an external threat but has been created internally.

Thirdly, and increasingly obviously, Theresa May is intent on exacerbating the divisions between leavers and remainers. One might have thought that the leaderly thing to do after so divisive a period would be to seek to bring the two sides together, and to reach out to the losing remain side. 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.

May’s persona as a pragmatist during the truncated Tory leadership context might have led one to expect this. Instead, she appears to see her task not as reaching out to the vanquished remainers but to the victorious leavers. Although she spoke at her party conference of “a country that works for everyone” she had nothing (except implicit insults) to say to those who voted to remain in the EU. 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. So if May 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?

Britain is now a country more bitterly divided than I can ever recall. When I meet people now there is a kind of verbal dance in which we try to work out what side we are on before we talk freely. It’s far worse than the 1980s when the Miners’ strike polarised opinion, I think because there is much more of a sense of this being about a long-term split. Munich and Suez were also huge polarisers, but didn’t endure in the way that this will. It may seem slightly overblown, but the closest parallel I can think of is the Reformation and its aftermath.

For myself – and I think this is true for many people I talk to – there can be no ‘moving on’ from this. Britain has embarked on a culturally, economically, politically and strategically disastrous course of action. It could just about be rescued, even now, by competent political leadership but there is no sign of that. Equally, it could be rescued if there were an opposition party that spoke for remainers, but Corbyn’s Labour are utterly useless in this respect. So for the foreseeable future the UK will remain a bitterly divided country and as Brexit becomes a reality those divisions will become ever more bitter.

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