It could be too late to stop Brexit, but it’s not too late to build a better world. JAMES BALL says there’s plenty for Remain to get started on.
Welcome to a new decade, one in which the UK will cease to be a member of the European Union before we end its first month.
It’s over. Remain has lost, FBPE has lost, People’s Vote has lost, and the political parties which sought to prevent Brexit have lost, decisively, at the ballot box.
Boris Johnson will take the UK out of the EU in just a few weeks time, and will have all the advantages to negotiate its long-term future relationship on his own terms.
Acceptance is a key phase to recovery, and a first step towards acceptance for those of us who wished to prevent Brexit is reading the above and realising it’s true.
The next step follows logically from the first, but is in some ways an even more bitter pill to swallow: part of why Brexit is happening this month is because the campaigns to stop it at every stage failed.
This isn’t said to be cruel, or to cast blame, but rather to work out what happens next, and how not to lose so thoroughly again next time.
If we are to ask what’s next for the movement that came together around the cause of Remain, we should first allow for a period of honest reflection – not the fake version conducted by the Labour Party before it descends into what’s shaping up to be a bitter leadership contest, but an actual assessment of why the Brexiteers have, for now, ended up so comprehensively in the ascendancy.
An honest period of reflection should not be a comfortable way to spend time, and it should start with questions rather than answers. These should come from all sorts of sources – including from outside the Remain cause – but here are some to get us started:
If the case for remaining in the EU was so much better than the one for leaving it – as every piece of evidence shows it was – why did the 2016 Remain campaign feel so out of touch?
Why did Leave have so much success mobilising people who usually don’t vote, when almost no political campaign manages this feat?
Did the focus of many within the Remain movement in suggesting Brexit was won by spending tricks, Cambridge Analytica, or by conning Leave voters, ultimately help or harm the cause of changing people’s minds and reversing Brexit?
Was the best-case achievable outcome actually a ‘soft’ Brexit, and could we have acted differently to secure that – or did Theresa May’s approach mean that was never going to get off the ground?
Were the apparent victories of People’s Vote and other Remain campaigns real or procedural? Did they actually further the cause or entrench both sides? Did they blind us to the reality that neither parliamentary nor public opinion ever actually shifted all that substantially?
Some of those questions will likely infuriate many readers, or even provoke hurt, but they aren’t asked for those reasons – they’re asked because we will need to campaign more effectively, on a number of fronts, if we want to salvage the situation we find ourselves in.
There’s no answer suggested to any of the questions here, either – for several of them I have no answer. They’re intended to provoke some debate (even within ourselves) and some reflections on what we think we got right, and what we got wrong.
That will be essential, because while Boris Johnson has a commanding majority of 80 and four-and-a-half years until he needs to hold another election, that doesn’t mean we have to hand him everything he wants entirely.
Once we’ve reflected – a genuinely essential step – given ourselves time to recover and recuperate, and got ourselves off the mat, we need to get ready and decide what we do next.
To that end, I would suggest the best thing the Remain movement can do is… fragment. The bid to stop Brexit has been a sprint towards a singular goal, usually only weeks or months away at any given time. We have been campaigning as if it’s a general election almost continuously for three-a-half years, always at the edge of catastrophe, until this time it finally happened for real.
That level of intensity is not sustainable, nor is it healthy – and it’s frankly a miracle it held together for so long.
Some of us at least will now have to get onto a marathon pace, and all of us will have to acknowledge that our focus is no longer singular.
We have a lot of allied causes that we can and should pursue, and we should each pick the ones that suit us and accept if others have different priorities. If we can pull this off, we can start sowing the seeds over the next years and decades to shape the best version of the future that we can.
Most of us didn’t want to stay in the EU for its own sake. Instead, it was a proxy for not doing economic damage to our country, not putting people out of work, not making the country inhospitable to people who’d moved their lives here, not turning our backs to the world.
We are, to an extent, losing that one cause to combine those ends – that means spreading our efforts. Pushing one cause won’t work any more. We’ll need teams on lots of things. Here are a few of them:
Trade talks: Boris Johnson has such a majority that parliament’s ability to scrutinise his plans for the future relationship with the EU will be limited. The same is true for US and other deals. The public and press’s ability remains unhindered, though – and trade talks have brought huge protests to the streets, and governments take notice if traditionally friendly media turns on them, even with a huge majority (think the fuel protests of 2001). For those who want to continue mobilising and campaigning at a sprint, this is the cause for you.
Rebuilding the parties: Labour lost nearly one in four of its seats at the last election, as well as 2.6 million voters, and has 163 MPs fewer than the Conservatives. Holding Johnson in check requires saving Labour, which means getting a leader who can get the party polling at levels which worry the Conservatives.
But the other parties of Remain needs rebuilding too: the Liberal Democrats had 21 MPs when the last parliament was dissolved. They now have 11, and their leader lost her seat. The Greens upped their vote share but didn’t win a single extra seat. Of the Remain parties, only the SNP is in rude health. For many in the Remain movement, keeping their chosen party intact, and helping it shape its future, will be a vital next step.
Rejoin the EU: It is a dramatically different proposition to rejoin the EU than it is to prevent leaving it. The process of joining the EU as a new state – which the UK would have to go through – requires a long and bureaucratic series of steps, and would almost certainly mean the UK paying higher contributions, joining Schengen, and accepting joining the EU. For now, it will likely be an impossibly tough sell and rapidly poll quite badly as many even on the Remain side look to put Brexit and endless EU arguments behind them.
But this was true of the endlessly vocal Eurosceptic movement through the early 1990s – and while it might have been the work of decades, we saw how their persistence worked out. The rejoin movement will be the longest of marathons, but the first step has to come somewhere.
Electoral reform: It’s not clear whether this is any easier a cause than re-joining the EU, given the UK’s longstanding intractability when it comes to even House of Lords reform, which leaves the country a supposedly advanced democracy with an upper house entirely appointed by its elite. But here, if the groundwork is laid and manifestos are opened to the question of at least some electoral reform, a hung parliament – surely Labour’s best-case scenario at the next election – could open an opportunity.
Climate change: If any cause could capture the internationalist, protesting, take-no-prisoners attitude of the grassroots anti-Brexit movement, surely it should be climate change – a cause the couldn’t be more serious, action to build a better world, something requiring us to look beyond our borders, and something requiring far more than politics-as-usual.
If a large chunk of the best energies of the Remain movement – its activists more than its leaders – can channel their efforts towards this cause, they might do even more good for their children and for future generations than ever could have been achieved through preventing Brexit.
It’s too late to stop Brexit. It’s not too late to build a better world – and it’s still not too late to stop climate change. Yet. There’s plenty for us all to do. It’s time to get started.