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MATT KELLY: Remain must become something much bigger

Protestors during a march for Britain to Remain in the EU. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

This battle may be lost, but MATT KELLY says harnessing the Remain movement’s positive energy could transform our country.

As tricky questions go, it’s up there with what’s the sound of one hand clapping and have you stopped beating your wife: Now that it’s actually happening, do you want Brexit to be a success or not?

On one hand, a disastrous Brexit proves us Remainers right. On the other, a disastrous Brexit will be, well, disastrous. Which hand are you hoping will clap?

I’ve chewed this question over with many Remainer friends and colleagues and, typically, the answer seems to be more or less split equally three ways.

Take One: We lost, now we’ve just got to make the best of a bad situation for the sake of the country.

Take Two: I hope it blows up in their faces. It’s their Brexit. They can own the mess.

Take Three: I hope it’s not as bad as I fear it will be, but if it is I’ll be quietly satisfied that we were right all along.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, and soon enough we’ll find out, there are three little words none of us, we Remainers, must ever say out loud to a Leaver, though we will almost certainly have cause to think them.

These are they: Told you so.

It’ll be tough to resist if bad news follows Brexit. If jobs are lost, the economy slumps, unpalatable trade compromises struck. But resist we must.

Anticipating bad news looks like petulance and only affirms the whining Remoaner stereotype. Celebrating bad news, as any told you sos will inevitably be considered, looks like treachery.

Nobody can be left uncertain of the strength of the Remain movement’s steadfast opposition to Brexit. But the desire for our nation to be prosperous, secure and relevant on the global stage must trump everything. Isn’t that why we all fought so hard for Remain in the first place?

The idea that this is Boris Johnson’s Brexit and he must own it is certainly appealing. Sadly, it ignores the reality that as of 11pm January 31, 2020, it’s all our Brexit, like it or not.

There’s another pressing question. What are Remainers, now Remain is dead? Well the cause may be lost but the energy, passion and conviction surely survives.

Without even trying, Remain became the biggest political movement in Britain. The hundreds of thousands who bussed it down to London to march to Westminster were not apparitions, but today the banners they marched under are redundant. What new banner do we rally to today?

Perhaps an easier path to answering that difficult question is to ask, not what are we now, but what was it that united us all on that morning of the great galvanisation, June 24, 2016.

What created Remain that day? And what of that day remains?

We came from across all spectrums; political, demographic, geographic. All backgrounds and all ages. It seems to me, two emotions united us all that morning. Resentment at the prospect of us closing ourselves off from our nearest neighbours and fear of what people like Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg, with all their antediluvian nastiness, would do to a tolerant, progressive Britain.

Those emotions energised the greatest series of mass protests our country has ever seen. For more than three-and-a-half years, we fought with a commitment to national openness and an unwavering stance in the battle for what passes as decency in our country. Today that energy needs to be applied beyond the single issue of Brexit.

Yes. As painful and raw as we all feel this week, we do need to move on unless we want to appear like those Japanese soldiers hiding in the bush, holding out for a war that ended years ago.

This is a concession to reality, but it is not a capitulation. Far from it. Remain now has to become something bigger.

Instead, a movement of people interested in new ideas, in challenging received wisdoms, in an expansive and ambitious desire to remodel Britain and make it once more a land of superlatives. What John F. Kennedy called idealism without illusions.

Being idealistic in seeking achievable new answers to old problems: Reimagining the NHS to make it once again the best healthcare system in the world (it’s currently 18th on the World Health Organisation rankings). Create an environment where entrepreneurship flourishes in all parts of the country. Rethinking from scratch how we educate our kids, how we keep ourselves safe from crime and terrorism, how we build infrastructure for the future, how we equip our military, how we equip our nursing homes.

Examine all major government policy announcements in any of these areas over the past decade and you’ll find nothing more than short-term tactical responses to a crisis. Not a coherent, over-arching strategy in sight.

The fiasco of Corbynism means Boris Johnson most likely has a decade ahead of him in Downing Street. As long as Blair. Perhaps as long as Thatcher.

Until our broken electoral system accepts proportional representation, the prospect of any new political party displacing the Tory and Labour occupation of Westminster seems unlikely. So millions are today left feeling politically homeless, the vast majority of them Remainers.

It’s in our hands. The extraordinary power of the Remain movement never trickled down from Westminster, but rather bubbled up from pockets of grassroot resistance in every town, village and city across the country.

Let’s now remodel it as a movement of the radical centre. Not the Wolfie Smith pretend-radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn. Not the free-for-all, sink-or-swim opportunism of Farage and Rees-Mogg. Nor a wishy-washy bit-of-this, bit-of-that movement as I’m afraid the Lib Dems were perceived at the election.

Membership of the EU will always remain a goal, somewhere out there in the offing. But we will only win that argument by demonstrating how the principles of openness, decency and ambition – so central to our argument to stay in the EU – are also central to the successful, progressive reimagining of Britain.

Precisely how our movement evolves in the coming months, I don’t know. But I am certain it will. Simple physics would have it so. The law of the conservation of energy states that energy cannot be destroyed; it can only transform or transfer from one form to another.

How the enormous positive energy of our Remain movement now goes on to transform our country may just turn
out to be of greater consequence to all of our futures than the battle we’ve just lost.

– Incidentally, in case you were wondering about what happens to The New European in this post-Brexit world, I’m happy to say we’re not going anywhere. In fact, we have exciting plans to get bigger, better and broader.

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