Five years have now passed since the Referendum, so for once I’m not going to provide the usual analysis of the week’s developments (perhaps the most important being that it looks as if the EU will agree to extend the grace period for chilled meats going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland). Nor am I going to give a summary what has happened during those years. There have been plenty of those already, including my own in Prospect magazine. Anyway, to do it properly would take at least a book - and for those who are interested I have written just such a book. It is called Brexit Unfolded: How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) and was published by Biteback this week.
Instead, I’m going to focus on an important but remarkably little discussed aspect of the impact Brexit has had since 2016, and one which in the long-run I think may be amongst the most significant. As a point of departure, consider these lines in a speech that David Frost gave last Friday to the Konigswinter conference. There was much in the speech which was deeply questionable, or worse, but the particular lines are these:
“…there is no longer any serious debate on the subject [of Brexit] in Britain. No major political party advocates EU membership, and, while a proportion of the public may still regret Brexit, there is no energy behind a rejoin movement. Overwhelmingly we are now looking forward.”
Of course these are just the passing words of one (unelected) politician. But they come from the man who negotiated both the eventual Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and who is now in charge of the entirety of the UK’s post-Brexit policy. And I imagine that he expresses something that many pro-Brexit politicians (for Frost is, although wasn’t always, that) believe, or would like to believe. Yet what he said is manifestly untrue, and reveals a quite extraordinary complacency about what Brexit has done to this country.
Frost is right that there is no vibrant movement for the UK to rejoin the EU, though he ignores the way that Brexit has put new energy into the campaign for Scottish independence, with Scotland re-joining the EU a key part of that. He may also be right to imply that even those most opposed to Brexit have recognized the undeniable fact that Britain has left the EU. In that sense, the Brexiters have won. But what has winning entailed?
A nation divided – by design
Brexiters often present leaving the EU as a ‘national liberation’, and some even, quite insanely, compare it to independence from colonialism (insane not least because Britain freely joined and, as Brexit showed, was free to leave). But that has always had two obvious problems. One is that about half the country at the time of the vote, and more for the most of the period since, did not want it and were forced into it. So what sort of ‘liberation’ is that?
The other problem is that, quite as much as the EU, the target of the Brexiters’ ire always was, and still is, those of their compatriots they consider to be ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’ or ‘the establishment’ (categories made so elastic as to be meaningless), in contrast to the “ordinary, decent people” who voted to leave. Even in celebrating the fifth anniversary of “Independence Day”, Nigel Farage framed it in terms of ‘the people rejecting the establishment’, whilst Andrew Bridgen, one of the ERG ‘Spartans’, wrote of defending “the people’s Brexit against establishment sabotage”. Thus ‘owning the libs’ has been as much of a motivation as ‘liberation’ from the EU. The consequence is that it’s not just that the nation is divided over Brexit, but that Brexit, as a project, is deliberately divisive of the nation in treating only its supporters as the ‘people’.
A nation divided – in half
But what does it do to a country when roughly half of its population is turned upon in this way? And what might the particular implications be of doing so when that half is, in general terms, the more educated (57% of graduates voted remain, rising to 64% of those with a higher degree), more youthful (73% of 18-24s voted remain) and more economically-active (52% of those in work voted remain) part of the population? [Source of all figures: Lord Ashcroft Polls, 24 June 2016.]
From the very start, these people’s concerns were ignored or dismissed. They were told to ‘suck it up’, insulted as cry-babies, stereotyped as only interested in their Tuscan holiday homes and cheap Bulgarian nannies, demonised as ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘saboteurs’, and traduced as traitors. Yet, also from the start, there was a huge irony. Precisely because of the educational and social demographic of the vote (e.g. 57% of social classes AB voted remain), it was statistically likely that those who actually had to take responsibility for enacting Brexit were in many cases part of this demonised group. In any case, few Brexiters actually had the technical knowledge to do it: in general, people who understood what Brexit actually involved didn’t support it.
So although some Brexiters like to think of themselves as having initiated a revolution, it was an unusual one in requiring those who did not want it to do the hard work of enacting it. Some amongst the civil service no doubt accepted that as part of their professional duty – whilst all the time being belaboured for supposedly not doing so – or even actively embraced it despite their previous views, as seems to have happened with Frost himself. Others, including those in business and civil society organizations, have had no choice but to make what adjustments were necessary to deal with it.
With, no doubt, some exceptions, none of this amounts to acceptance that Brexit is a good idea, and why should it? Would Brexiters, had they lost the vote, have accepted that EU membership was a good idea? Certainly not, and, because remaining in the EU wouldn’t have needed any ‘enactment’, they would not have been called upon to do anything to make it happen. What would almost certainly have been the case, and we can be sure of this because it was what was happening before, is that no UK government would have pushed for more extensive integration with the EU, for example by joining the Euro or Schengen. Instead, and even more had there been a close vote to remain, it would have been recognized that this would be to disrespect and ignore the strong vein of anti-EU sentiment within the population. (This, by the way, is the reason why I think that, in such scenario, the UK would still have exercised its right to have an independent vaccine policy.)
Brexiters’ lack of magnanimity
The Brexiters in victory showed no such magnanimity. Instead, they pushed for the hardest of Brexits, not just making no concession to remainers but making no attempt to persuade, reassure, or even involve them. On the contrary, they sought to install Brexiters into key positions and hounded those they suspected of being remainers out of office. This is the real ‘cancel culture’ of recent years. They bemoaned the lack of buy-in, but made no attempt to secure it. Had they done so, we would very likely now see much less division, and perhaps a greater degree of support for Brexit. Instead, ‘the 17.4 million’ was used as a battering ram in order to treat 16.2 million like dirt. And now that Brexit has happened, the same treatment is still being meted out through the endless culture war against those stigmatised as ‘woke’ and unpatriotic in what Maheen Behrana aptly calls “the weaponisation of the metropolitan bogeyman”.
Of course, some of this is not new. For as long as I can remember there has been a noisy strand in politics and journalism lambasting ‘political correctness’, the ‘human rights brigade’ and the ‘bleeding heart liberals’. What changed with Brexit, though, was to enfold into one despised category the large and broad constituency of remainers. It is not even true that a distinction was drawn between remain voters who ‘accepted’ the result and ‘remoaners’ who didn’t. For as Theresa May, to take the most high-profile example, found, even embracing hard Brexit did not stop her being tagged ‘Theresa the remainer’.
The degradation of everyday life
What also changed with Brexit was not just to insult ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’ with words but with a policy which completely transformed almost every aspect of national economic and geo-political strategy. That is not just an abstraction. Although somewhat masked by, and partly intertwined with, the effects of the pandemic, we increasingly see our everyday lives degraded and made more miserable and restricted by Brexit. Purchases from EU companies delayed, suspended or surcharged. Shortages of staff in so many areas of the economy as lockdown restrictions lift. Shortages of fresh produce in shops. The massive collapse of food and drink exports to the EU. The minor hassle of making customs declarations on packages posted to the EU, and what will be the extra hassles of holidaying there. The non-trivial loss of the Erasmus scheme for the young, the reduction of work opportunities and of easy continental retirement for older people. The shaming treatment, and often the loss, of our EU friends, colleagues and neighbours. The debilitating blight on families created by, and with plans predicated upon, free movement rights.
To complain of such things itself invites the jeering ridicule of some Brexiters. For so widely have they drawn the definition of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ that they treat things which in a relatively wealthy country are fairly routine expectations for a great many people as being marks of hugely entitled privilege. Thus they talk as if no ‘ordinary, decent’ person studies, works, holidays or retires abroad, or even orders goods from overseas. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, given the fact that most politicians of most political persuasions recognize the individual and national benefits of education, is the way the Brexiters sneer at education, and especially university education, as if it were something shameful.
All this is the more ludicrous since leading Brexiters from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Julia Hartley-Brewer are hardly short of money, lacking in privilege or, indeed, lacking university education or likely to deny it to their children. Nor, for that matter, is it true that leave voters in general were the under-privileged left behind – as the UK in a Changing Europe’s research shows, many were ‘comfortable leavers’.
Humiliating remainers has consequences
My point here is not so much to rehearse these now-familiar issues as to say that it is inevitable that they have had, and will continue to have, profound consequences. Both history and personal experience tell us that if you humiliate people then you will reap a harvest of resentment, anger and many other complex and destructive emotions. The fact that these, certainly for now, do not coalesce into a political movement to re-join the EU is irrelevant. Most erstwhile remainers recognize that this isn’t in prospect for the time being.
The important question is how this will now play out. The answer is bound to be complex, if only precisely because such a large and heterogenous group of people as remainers have been subsumed within the general categories of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ and the ‘enemies of the people’. It also bears saying that plenty of people who voted remain, like plenty who voted leave, didn’t and don’t feel very strongly about Brexit either way. But there are plenty who do.
It’s possible that last week’s Chesham and Amersham by-election result is an indication of the consequences, as Guardian journalist John Harris suggests. Remainers may have been a minority of Tory voters, but they were a very large minority: of those who voted Tory in the 2015 election, 42% voted remain in 2016. As political data analyst Christabel Cooper argues that whereas there has been much discussion of ‘Labour leavers’ these ‘Tory remainers’ have been rather ignored.
And it is not just that many Tory voters were remainers, it is that many of them do not approve of or subscribe to Johnson’s crude cultural attacks or his generally dishonest politics. Politicians like Dominic Grieve are (or were) representatives of a kind of Tory voter that still exists, and is most certainly conservative, but they, too, have been cancelled by Brexit. For that matter, it very likely that this group includes some Tory voters who supported Brexit.
It’s obviously foolish to draw many conclusions from a single by-election, and it’s worth recalling that many people, including me, thought that the LibDem victory in the December 2016 Richmond by-election might be a sign of things to come, which it wasn’t. That was partly because, as Cooper remarks, in the subsequent general elections Tory remainers’ hostility to Jeremy Corbyn was greater than their commitment to remain. That factor has now disappeared. Moreover, now, it is not just the Chesham and Amersham result but those of the recent local and Mayoral elections which arguably point to underlying shifts in voting patterns as a fall out from Brexit.
It’s not just about voting
In any case, there is more at stake here than how people vote. I’m not aware of any systematic research on this but my own experience and intuition suggest that there are other ways in which the demonization of remainers is playing out. One is the withdrawal of some from political engagement and comment, resigned to having lost the biggest battle of their generation. Instead, local and personal activities are prioritised.
Another, related, response is a rather bitter rejection of what, at least for progressives, used to be the social contract. Thus when some now hear of job losses in leave-voting areas the reaction is not one of solidarity with those affected. Instead, it is that they got what they voted for and will have to take the consequences. That may be rather graceless, and it ignores the fact that many in such areas, and many of those adversely affected, voted remain: Brexit is not a laser-guided missile the effects of which only target its supporters. But, like it or not, it is one consequence of all the jibes at remainers to ‘suck it up’.
Additionally, not least because many remainers are educated and have marketable skills, some of them are more actively opting-out of Brexit by emigrating. Again I’m only going by my own limited experience, although there is some evidence of an emerging ‘brain drain’, but I hear of more and more people who have, or are considering, leaving. Many are EU citizens, but many are British people who have skills which are in demand abroad, whether in EU countries or elsewhere. This is both a response to Brexit but also, of course, one of the costs of Brexit, adding to the problems of labour and skill shortages caused partly by the end of freedom of movement of people.
Clearly some Brexiters would respond ‘good riddance’, just as they defiantly speak of boycotting companies which re-locate, boycotting Spain, boycotting German goods, and, generally, boycotting ‘European muck’. That is all of a piece with the more general narrowing of Britain, and the meanness of its political discourse. But, be that is it may, leave voters as much as anyone else need goods and services and, especially given Britain’s ageing demographics, the coming years look likely to see real skill shortages, including in health and social care for the elderly. Any emigration of disaffected remainers is going to make that worse.
To reiterate, that disaffection is not simply sour grapes for having lost the 2016 vote, it is because of the way they have been treated since and the morphing of Brexit into a wider ‘Brexitification’ of politics that daily insults and belittles them, sometimes threatens them with violence, including threats which reference the murder of Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist, and advocates their trial for treason.
Anger, not acceptance
I am sure that what I have said here does not exhaust the ways that remainers are responding to what has been done to them. It may also be that, in time, a vibrant rejoin movement emerges. But my point is that its absence is not, as Frost seems to think, a sign that Brexit has been accepted. An opinion poll this week shows that precisely 0% of remain voters think Brexit is going ‘very well’, and just 8% that it is going ‘fairly well’ (interestingly a mere 10% even of leave voters think it is going ‘very well’, although a more substantial 35% think it is going ‘fairly well’ – still, hardly a great endorsement).
Meanwhile, another poll shows very little shift in the numbers who would still vote remain (or for that matter leave) if these were still options, an important caveat being that this is a poll of those who voted in 2016 (polling of those who did not vote or were too young to vote then shows a clear preference for remain, whilst of course those who have since died cannot by definition be surveyed).
So this is not ‘acceptance’ in any sense other than the truism that people know that, as a matter of fact, Brexit has happened. And, beneath the surface, there is far more going on than, as Frost has it, some “regret” about Brexit. Indeed, although I appreciate that Twitter is not representative and can be an echo chamber, the numerous responses to my tweet about Frost’s comment suggest that there is very considerable anger. At the very least, the polling evidence shows that the country remains as divided as ever.
An unprovoked attack on half the country
And how could there not be anger and division? Not just because of Brexit but all that the Brexiters have done since. That wasn’t automatically entailed by Brexit. It wasn’t necessary in order to honour the 2016 vote. It was a choice, motivated by the hatred of some and the opportunism of others.
Remainers did very little to provoke it. Yes, some insulted leave voters (just as some leave voters insulted them), although so far as I know they did not issue any death threats against pro-Brexit MPs. Yes, many expressed their outrage and opposition to Brexit (just as Brexiters did to EU membership). And, yes, many campaigned for another referendum to be held once the withdrawal terms were known (but, had it happened, nothing would have stopped people again voting to leave if they wanted).
None of that remotely justifies how they were treated after 2016, still less since Britain left the EU. It is not that they were bad losers, but that Brexiters were bad winners. It is what they have done with their victory, whilst always wallowing in a sense of their self-righteous victimhood, which has so divided and scarred the country. In effect, they have sought to cancel the half of the country that doesn’t agree with them. It would be very foolish indeed to imagine that this is not having consequences – profound and far-reaching, albeit unpredictable – on politics and society which will continue for years.
David Frost said something else this week. When asked what a successful Brexit would look like in ten years’ time he replied “I would say it’s a situation where nobody is seriously questioning Brexit - where it was self-evidently the right thing to do and the country feels comfortable with it”. Given the last five years, it‘s highly unlikely that this test will be met in the next ten, if indeed the country survives that long. Partly because of the flawed nature of Brexit, but no less because Brexiters have done all they can to ensure no such comfort is possible.
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