It may seem obvious to say that what the Referendum result meant for leavers was completely different to what it meant for remainers. Clearly, for the first it meant victory and delight whilst for the second it meant defeat and disaster.
Of course, I’m talking about those who had – or after the vote found that they had - strong feelings and commitments on either side; we shouldn’t forget that for many voters on both sides it didn’t mean much at all. However, beyond these obvious truths lie some other, more complex, issues which are shaping, and will probably continue to shape, British political life for years to come.
The veteran Brexiter John Redwood tweeted on Monday that “the issue of Brexit was settled almost two years ago by the people and their vote”. That, or a cruder version of it, has been the refrain of Brexiters ever since the Referendum: we won, get over it, it’s the will of the people. They seem genuinely surprised that the backlash from remainers has been so strong and enduring. If so, that is naïve.
The issue of Brexit was settled almost two years ago by the people & their vote. This was reinforced by the 82% vote in the last election for the two main parties who both promised to see Brexit through & by the strong vote of Parliament to send the Article 50 letter.— John Redwood (@johnredwood) April 30, 2018
Most obviously, it’s naïve because, as Nigel Farage, no less, said before the result, if it were 52-48 to remain “this would be unfinished business by a long way”, and other leading Brexiters (including Redwood) said similar things. Well the result was 52-48, but to leave. So by the same token it is ‘unfinished business’ for remain.
It’s not just, or even mainly, that, though. Had leavers lost they would have been stuck with the status quo. They wouldn’t have liked it, of course, but nothing would have changed and nothing would (from their point of view) have got worse. No one’s life would have been disrupted. Whereas for remainers, losing meant that everything changed, and changed for the worse; and many lives were (and are being) disrupted, and more. A remain victory would have barely changed Britain; the leave victory has fundamentally transformed it. So of course the reaction is going to be different.
That has become all the more true since Brexit got interpreted to mean a non-consensual hard Brexit. A more consensual interpretation (i.e. soft Brexit) would undoubtedly have defused a lot of remainer opposition. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the way that the vote to leave has been interpreted to mean leaving the single market, any customs union and any body that has an ECJ role is as if a remain vote had been interpreted to mean joining the Euro and Schengen.
Thus the political and emotional charge of losing was, for remainers, incomparably greater than it would have been for leavers. Indeed, in a certain sense, losing would have kept leavers in their comfort zone of victimhood: ‘of course we have been done down by the global, liberal metropolitan elite’. Meanwhile, winning for remainers would have been no more than a passing pleasure, quickly forgotten as other issues took centre stage, whereas the leave victory ensured Brexit would be centre stage for years.
Beneath that lies a deeper issue. Leave was in essence a campaign movement; more specifically, a protest campaign. Thus for them winning the Referendum was an end point, as the Redwood quote above implies. Job done. What seems to have completely disconcerted them is that, in fact, it marked not the end but the beginning. The beginning of having to take responsibility for what they had won, the beginning of having to define what they had won, and the beginning of having to deliver on what they had won not just immediately but for years to come. All of that has proved impossible for them – as might be expected of a protest campaign, especially one that had not expected to win.
This has had extraordinary consequences. Most obviously, the total lack of any kind of idea about how to deliver Brexit in the sense of practical policies. Most ironically, the total dependence on people, especially in the Civil Service and business, who by and large think Brexit crazy, to find a way of doing so. But since what they want – especially in its hard form – is impossible to deliver without catastrophic damage they are able to stay in protest campaign mode, denouncing ‘the establishment’ for sabotaging Brexit, as if they were not, now, in charge.
It is this which accounts for the way that leavers, despite having won, still devote so much energy to attacking remainers. Screaming at your opponents to ‘suck it up’ is easy; engaging with, say, Cumulative Rules of Origin not so much. But it also accounts for something which is having a far more damaging effect on Britain and, could leavers but see it, Brexit itself. For it explains the at best sour and at worst aggressive way in which what is now a Brexit government has approached the EU negotiations On the face of it, you’d expect that approach to have been characterised by magnanimity and even joy: we’re leaving for a much better future! In those circumstances things like the ‘divorce bill’ would have been brushed aside: what are a few billion pounds, when so bright a future awaits us?
But of course nothing like that has happened. From the start, the approach of Brexiters both within and outside of government has been confrontational, defensive and angry, often, as I have written before, acting as if Britain were being expelled from the EU rather than choosing to leave. Whenever any consequence of leaving emerges – the possibility of a charge for visas being a recent trivial example; the need for a border in Ireland being an ongoing important one – they cry punishment. Even, as with Gibraltar, they talk of war. None of that would make sense if Brexiters were confident, happy winners of a great prize; all of it makes sense if they are a protest movement, in love with a sense of put-upon victimhood, fearful of – to coin a phrase – taking back control.
In the light of all this, the meaning of the Referendum result looks rather different. Certainly it was a disaster for remainers. But, actually, it was also a disaster for leavers. Which would be a pleasing irony and a cute debating point but for one thing. In less than a year, Britain will (almost certainly) be a third country to the EU. That will have huge consequences – economic, cultural, geo-political, strategic – affecting everything from mobile roaming charges to national security. Every single one of those consequences will be negative for almost every person in Britain.
It is small comfort that Brexiters will suffer the additional consequence of having to take responsibility for that; none at all, in fact, since they will certainly not do so, but will try to blame everyone but themselves for what they have inflicted on us. Few will feel sympathy for the fact that they would have been far happier had they lost.🔷
(This piece was originally published on The Brexit Blog.)