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What more could Remainers have done?

Pro-European campaigners at a rally - Credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

We lost… but we can’t just get over it. First we need to understand why we couldn’t stop Brexit. ALASTAIR CAMPBELL kicks off a crucial debate.

On New Year’s Eve, I took a pill at 9pm, so as to be sure of being fast asleep two hours later, when the actual moment of departure from the EU came.

It was not merely the impossibility of feeling happy about the New Year, as the act of national self-harm finally became the very real law of the land, unlikely to be reversed in my lifetime. It was also, that I had a horrible feeling Boris Johnson would spaff some of the public money not going on questionable Covid contracts by bringing forward the New Year fireworks by an hour, to light up the sky with a trolling celebration of our departure from one of the most successful political, economic, cultural and security projects of modern history. Actually, delete ‘modern history,’ insert ‘of all time’.

As it turned out, it was London mayor Sadiq Khan who had a creative fireworks idea and when I heard about it, I wished I had been awake… Europe, the NHS, Black Lives Matter, Captain Tom… what was not to like, especially when the Daily Mail and the Express led the kneejerk “fury over …” (alleged) backlash? But it was a strong pill, and I was out for the count, sleeping through until the alarm woke me in time to head for my 7a.m 4*C swim at Parliament Hill Lido, one of the things helping to keep me broadly sane while our politics goes through its long, drawn-out nervous breakdown.

Knocking yourself out to miss the arrival of the New Year might seem extreme, but I hate losing, and 11pm on December 31 was the ultimate moment of defeat, and the ultimate moment of victory for the liars and charlatans who fronted the Brexit campaign and the money- and power-grubbers of the radical right who most believe in it as a vehicle for their low-tax, low-regulation, anti-welfare offshore ‘vision’ of the disaster capitalist world. They can spare me the claim that it was a victory for the people over the establishment. They are the establishment, who successfully persuaded enough decent working and middle class people that they had a shared aim, and that their lives and livelihoods would be improved by Brexit. Just one Big Lie among many.

One of the first pieces I wrote for The New European, many moons ago, shortly after the paper was founded in the wake of the 2016 referendum, was headlined: “Believe me, Brexit can be stopped.” I really believed that, and thought the argument could be won that a referendum on the actual terms of departure, as opposed to the false promises of the most fraudulent campaign in UK electoral history, was both democratic and right.

That it felt at times like we got close, as millions marched, and the parliamentary support for a final deal referendum grew, is neither here nor there. We lost. When the history books are written, Brexit happened, Boris Johnson won the referendum, won the Tory leadership, won an election, secured an enormous parliamentary majority for the trade deal on which we are leaving, and the People’s Vote campaign will be a mere footnote in that story. Brutal, but true.

When I wrote a book about winning a few years ago, Winners and How They Succeed, talking to winners in sport, business and politics, there were certain questions I asked of everyone, and one was: “What motivates you more, hatred of defeat, or love of winning?” The majority were in the former camp. So am I. Hence the sleeping pill.

But perhaps my favourite quotes in the whole book came from two sporting greats few in the UK will have heard of. This from Australian rugby league coach Craig Bellamy: “As a rule I believe you learn more from a loss than a win, and the same applies to periods of adversity.” Even better, this, from a man named Colm O’Connell. He was an Irish missionary who went to Kenya, and eventually became an athletics coach, and coached some of the greatest long-distance runners of all time. “The winner,” he said, “is the loser who evaluates defeat properly.”

To those, like me, who believe the country has made a catastrophic error, and that Johnson’s promises that we will “prosper mightily” are no more believable than his never-endingly retimed promises to see off the virus – first it would not harm us thanks to British exceptionalism, then it was 12 weeks, defeated by the summer, then normal by the autumn, then Christmas, now going the full Vivaldi to Easter – I suggest we bear that quote in mind. We lost – to a lying, untrustworthy, incompetent narcissist who four years ago did not even believe in the cause on which he has defeated us. That is not good, on so many levels.

It is all too easy to tell ourselves, Corbyn-like, that we “won the argument”, that support for Britain being in the EU is at a record high, that they won by foul means, and that it is all now bound to go wrong. But we also need to try to understand why then, all that being said, we lost.

So, I will keep calling out Johnson and Co for the Brexit lies, the Covid incompetence and the mind-bending ministerial uselessness that makes me think Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson would have to be even ruder to Carrie Symonds than Dominic Cummings was before getting the boot; and I will keep trying to persuade the Labour Party that vacating the field is not the way to fight, let alone win, a battle when the biggest force in the room is a gigantic elephant. But away from the rage and the tweets and the therapeutic venting on my Instagram Lives, which judging by the reaction seem to make a few like-minded people feel a bit better, we are at some point going to have to settle down, take Colm O’Connell’s wisdom, and develop that thinking into a plan.

Right now, with our politics as it is, and Labour having fallen in behind the ‘time to move on’ line which suits the Tories so well, it is hard to see what it is. But once the pain of defeat, and the effect of the tranquilisers, have worn off, we have to have one.

‘We,’ of course, is complicated, and I am aware that not everyone reading this will be in all the same ‘we’ camps as I am. From my perspective, there is ‘we’ as in Labour, and that in itself is complicated given I am not, because of my protest vote in the last European elections, a member. But I still feel emotionally that I am part of ‘we’ Labour, and the party would do well to reflect that the last 11 election results read as follows: Lost, lost, lost, lost, Blair, Blair, Blair, lost, lost, lost, lost. But ‘we’ the Blairites need also to accept that though we won those three elections, we have lost a lot of battles since, internal and external, so ‘we’ need to undergo a bit of the O’Connell medicine too.

Then there is ‘we’ the pro-Europeans, ‘we’ the People’s Vote campaign, ‘we’ the progressive social democrats who believe in things like overseas aid and development, ‘we’ who believe in a free and vibrant press, and a strong and vibrant broadcast sector led by the BBC, but have been hopeless at combating the pro-Brexit press, and the populist politicians who have enjoyed its backing, mimicked and even exaggerated its ways to help them achieve their goals.

So soul-searching time, I guess. What more could we have done? What more should we have done? Why, given all we did, did we fail? Most importantly, how do those various forms of ‘we’ above get back to winning ways, and so reverse the damage being done by the most venal, corrupt and right-wing government we – that is we as in the UK – have ever had.

Answers please, in a letter to The New European. The more honest and undefensive and ambitious, the better. If we are going to stay close to the new Europe, and one day perhaps even be fully part of it again, then The New European is as good a place as any to get the debate going.

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