This piece was written by Hugh Norris, from the South West of England, who inspired #RemainerNow to start their campaign to share stories of Leave voters who have now reconsidered Brexit.
First published in July 2018.
I voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and have since changed my mind. Here I set out why I voted leave in the first place and why, knowing so much more than I did in 2016, I’m a Remainer now and wish to remain a full member of the EU.
I do this in the knowledge that there are many in a similar position and with the objective to encourage them to speak up and to add their voice for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, with the option to remain as full members of the EU.
Before the Referendum
Prior to 2016 I had never really thought much about the EU. Indeed, the only time I was vaguely aware of it was when, on the rare occasion it did make the news, it was generally in either a negative (‘red tape central bureaucracy holding back business’) or comical (‘bendy bananas’) context – 1 or 2 rare minutes of a news bulletin was about the maximum coverage it received.
Never prior to 2016 (that I am aware of) did the British public have any objective and informed insight into what the EU is, how it came to be, what is represents, how it works, how we play our part in it and what benefits membership brings to our daily lives and that of business. In the months leading up to the referendum I therefore sought to better understand the EU as best I could.
A decision on whether to remain or leave the EU was not something I had ever considered, requested, wanted or needed. I also didn’t appreciate being asked to answer such an important question for which I was not qualified or had the tools/information to answer, but it was something I took seriously.
The Role of the Media
Many who voted to leave are accused of not doing their homework, but I know this is not the case. There were of course good journalists and journalism out there during this period, but in general the mainstream media’s coverage of the Referendum debate was often reduced to ‘infotainment’ rather than insightful and informed factual analysis.
I was not a Twitter user at that time, so the BBC was my main source of information. It pains me to say that I feel it let the public down significantly in their coverage; something Nick Cohen encapsulated so well in his excellent article.
I listened intently to both campaigns, followed the debates, documentaries and commentaries, but the media’s constant emphasis on balance between claim and counter-claim, regardless of the facts or how one claim/fact had more impact than another, led me to believe there really was nothing between the campaigns and by the end of the campaigning I was unsure who or what to believe.
Quality of the Campaigns
After the debates were over I was faced with making my decision. I felt the Remain campaign did nothing to sell any positive representation of the EU and benefits of membership. It was a very negative campaign, only emphasising the down-sides of leaving (dismissed by the Leave campaign as ‘Project Fear’), but none of the benefits of staying.
The Leave campaign on the other hand were selling a positive message of ‘no down-sides, only up-sides’, the ‘exact same benefits’ as now, additional global trade (which we were told was not possible as EU members), more money for our public services (the NHS in particular) and the fact that this would be a quick and easy deal in both the UK’s and EU’s interests.
Just as importantly there was no talk of using people as bargaining chips or reducing people’s rights, which I would never have thought possible for consideration of any UK Government.
I also believe that the fact we were told by the Chancellor at the time that there would be an ‘emergency budget’ the day after the referendum if Leave won, lost the Remain campaign credibility and added to the negative perception of it.
As Femi Oluwole (Our Future Our Choice) put it so well, the general emphasis of the Remain campaign was ‘vote for us or the zombies will come out’. Hardly an inspiring vision to be asked to rally behind.
On the morning of the vote I was faced between a decision of ‘better the devil you know’ from the Remain campaign or giving the Leave campaign a chance to deliver what they were claiming.
It was a very difficult decision, but I eventually opted for Leave to see if they could realise their claims. Given the fact that we were presented with a binary decision, this was the only way of finding out if their vision was possible. Naïve this may have been, but I made the decision based on the information in front of me at the time.
Of course, in hindsight I realise what a mistake this was. It is now clear the Leave claims were based on lies and misinformation which are undeliverable and have crumbled in the face of reality..
I, like many regretful Leave voters, feel misled, misinformed and ‘played’ by the Leave campaign in order to obtain our vote.
Interpretation of Vote
As I saw the interpretation of the Leave win morph into one which stated the people had voted to leave the single market and customs union, the ‘back-pedalling’ over the promises of more money for our public services, using people as bargaining chips and reducing their rights and the fuelling of xenophobic behaviour, I was horrified.
I would never have believed any UK Government would interpret the vote in this way when it would so obviously damage the country, polarise public opinion, put people’s lives and jobs at risk and make so many feel unwelcome in a country that has thrived from their contributions.
While for some immigration was a factor in their decision, this was not the case for me or many other leave voters, who have always seen immigration as a positive for the country, and which makes it the best it can be. I still believe the vast majority of the UK public are open and welcoming.
Our media’s narrative and that of many politicians of ‘Freedom of Movement’ still seems focused only on workers entering the UK and not the many UK workers in mainland Europe. They seem intent on portraying migration in a negative light rather than highlighting the necessity of it and the benefits it brings to any country.
After the vote I saw David Cameron resign, most of the Leave campaigners too and then a leadership contest which led to an interpretation of the vote into something I would never have voted for. It was at this point I realised I needed to speak up and that I could not be alone in my resistance to how my vote was being interpreted.
Now Better Informed
Since reducing my reliance on mainstream media news and making connections with knowledgeable sources and institutions through social media, I have since learned so much more about the EU with information I did not have available to me at the time of the Referendum.
I used to think the Referendum decision was simply about economics and believed that economics always finds a way, as this was generally the thread of most debates.
However, I’ve since learned how the EU came to be and its many benefits, from helping to sustain peace in Europe, protecting the environment, offering the freedom to travel, work and live in 27 other countries.
Regarding immigration, I learnt how the UK always had full control of its borders and how other EU countries implement border policies which are available to us, despite the myth perpetuated during the referendum.
Other benefits too such as no mobile roaming fees, protection of worker’s rights, membership of Euratom, Space and Satellite programmes, the European Medicines Agency which helps research into new drugs and Open Skies which has led to cheaper air fares; to name but a few.
Indeed, the more I learned about the EU, its benefits, our contribution to its policies and our freedoms within it, the more I realise that, despite the fact it is not perfect and constantly needs reform (like any organisation), the phrase ‘Take Back Control’ was no more than an effective marketing slogan.
As full EU members, it’s us working with our European partners who are setting the rulebook and it’s clearer than ever that we never lost control, so there was never anything to take back.
The benefits of our EU membership, which the UK contributed so much to shaping, are so numerous, I fail to understand now how any Government could have felt a referendum on it was ever needed and I truly believe that this was an internal debate within the Conservative party which spiralled out of control.
In addition, how it could have been reduced to a binary question outsourced to the unqualified public is, in beyond comprehension.
If only we had all the correct information in 2016, if we understood the benefits, if the Remain campaign was more positive, if the media fully informed the public and exposed misinformation about the EU during the referendum. But alas, we are where we are.
The Will of the People?
The general interpretation in Westminster and among many political journalists is “The People Have Voted”, it is the “Will of the People” and democracy demands that we must implement it, regardless of the damage it will do (and has already done even though we have not left yet) to the country and to UK/EU citizens.
As someone who voted Leave I say this is not the case.
This Government has debated for 2 years about what Brexit is, means and looks like and they still cannot agree between themselves. It is therefore not feasible for any Government to claim they know what people voted for in 2016. I know that their interpretation of my vote is incorrect, as we were sold nothing but upsides, not the shambles we are currently faced with.
We voted on a false prospectus which cannot be delivered and cannot be sustained. Added to this, we were told this referendum was advisory and how many people therefore took the opportunity to send a message of defiance to the sitting Government; a message to tell them they feel forgotten, regardless of the question in front of them?
With the information we had available at the time, it is simply not accurate or feasible to say the public made an informed decision based on the facts. As has been said; it was a binary vote on a rainbow of issues.
In addition, every piece of Government analysis since the vote has shown that there are only ‘least worst’ options, rather than the positive vision we were sold in 2016. The electoral commission has since confirmed that Vote Leave did indeed break electoral law and business is increasingly speaking up about the impending damage that Brexit will cause. Far from achieving ‘Global Britain’ (as if we were not global already), our standing in the world is diminishing.
This can no longer be dismissed as ‘Project Fear’, but is now ‘Project Fact’. How can any sitting Government actively pursue a policy which, despite what we were told in 2016, has been proven to damage the country?
So What Now?
So where do we go from here? My personal preference is for Westminster to show leadership and put the country’s interest first. To explain to the public that they have tried to come up with a good deal but that, based on the evidence now available, it is not possible without causing significant damage to the country and to people’s lives. To therefore to stop Brexit and remain and reform within the EU.
However, I appreciate this would cause much upset to those who still want to leave the EU regardless of its ramifications. Similarly, a ‘Norway’ style deal or full ‘Hard Brexit’ WTO/No Deal would cause similar upset to those with opposing views.
It’s over 2 years since the referendum and the debates, arguments and interpretations of what the vote meant still go on. In the meantime, Brexit continues to absorb the Government’s focus, preventing progress on many of the issues which contributed to the Leave vote in the first place.
An Informed Choice with a Clear Mandate
At the heart of democracy is trust in those who Govern, but trust must be earned. I and many others trusted those politicians who claimed leaving the EU would be beneficial to the country without any negative impact to either its UK or EU citizens. The evidence now available, including from the Government itself, proves that this trust has been breached.
All of the above leads me to believe the only way to resolve this situation is for the Government to conclude its negotiations and then offer a choice back to the people between the deal it strikes and remaining as full EU members.
This would once and for all put the facts in front of the people – an informed decision giving an informed mandate, whatever the result. No more ‘claim and counter claim’ or reliance on interpretations and no more arguments about it being “the best of 3” if the result is different – just the real facts allowing for a fully informed decision and mandate.
This is the only way, in my view, to truly know what the will of the people is and why I and so many others who voted Leave in 2016 now support a ‘People’s Vote’ on the final deal, with the option to remain as full EU members.
After all, what could be more democratic than offering the people a vote on the facts, on the truth? The future of the country and its future generations is at stake. It’s time to end the divisions once and for all and restore trust in our democratic system with a People’s Vote.🔷
By Hugh Norris.
Twitter / Hugh Norris
I voted leave in 2016 thinking we’d have the same benefits as now, more money for public services & additional global trade— Hugh Norris #FBPE #PeoplesVote (@HughNorris7) April 15, 2018
I’ve since changed my mind & am a #RemainerNow. Here’s a short video explaining why
I demand a #PeoplesVote on the final Brexit deal
cc @peoplesvote_uk pic.twitter.com/1jvlBmpkw5
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