We can’t stop Brexit, so let’s focus our energy on fighting populism
PUBLISHED: 10:29 09 January 2020 | UPDATED: 11:32 10 January 2020
The proroguing of parliament was the moment the Remain movement became something even bigger, says Mia Jankowicz. It shows exactly where our energy must go now.
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By the end of this month there will be no Remain cause to fight for. What there will still be, however, are an awful lot of us Remainers. So what will become of them?
With an unstoppable EU exit only weeks away it stands to reason that those who have fought to prevent it might simply wither away. But that's not to say they will.
Our cause is lost, but it is not delegitimised, and the first thing I want to tell fellow Remain supporters is to refuse to disappear.
For the past three-and-half years, one of the most frustrating experiences for those of us on this side of the argument has been the frequent feeling of being treated as if we didn't exist.
Even as Remainers made their voice heard in some of the biggest protests this country has ever seen, and poll after poll reflected a new pro-EU majority, our prime ministers and others spoke of the 'will of the people' without embarrassment or qualification. It was more profoundly disturbing than being described as "saboteurs" by the Daily Mail - it was a wholesale denial of our actual existence.
That gaslighting is about to happen again, but this time with all the weight of genuine triumph behind it. But this may not be the moment to fight it, or march against it, or wave EU flags about, or enter into yet another exhausting argument. This may instead be the moment to keep your head down and let the winners crow.
What this does not mean, however, is that Remainers should abandon their fundamental beliefs. Certain truths remain, regardless of whether they were rejected electorally or not. Concerns about the damage that Brexit will unleash are still well-founded. Fears that the country is in thrall to a small cabal of dangerous populists remain valid. Dismay about how shoddily, how cynically the political class has undertaken its duties over the last three years of Brexit wrangling, is still legitimate.
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So my message to Remainers is to feel free to generously reflect on what motivated the Leave cause; feel free to accept, enjoy, and give credit to whatever good it may bring; be ready to learn from occasions when you were wrong - and there will be surprises.
But it is vitally important to remember that 'you lost, get over it' is no more an argument than it was in 2016. It is not incumbent on us to accept the good of Brexit until Brexit actually turns out to be a good thing.
Brexiteers have what they want: it is now incumbent on them - not us - to prove that their great endeavour is all that they have said it will be. But while Remainers should cling to their beliefs and their arguments, what - without the focus of attempting to remain in the EU - will sustain them as a movement? There are many pressing causes that have become allied with the belief that the EU is, on balance, a beneficial bloc to be part of.
Environmentalism and electoral reform are likely to become worthy obsessions for many who have devoted themselves to halting Brexit. But I think the underlying battle now is to be a resistance to the populism that is at the root of the entire Brexit project, and that is flexing its might worldwide. Underlying the fight to remain in the EU was a series of principles and ideals - ones that, in 2016, had barely been spotted as being under threat, let alone articulated.
Those were a respect for strong civic institutions, cultural, political and media plurality, the genuine ability to hold power to account, respect for due process, adherence to workers' rights and empowered regulation, and an ever-generous, ever-malleable sense of who and what can be part of our community.
Sometimes those values aren't particularly well-performed by the EU itself - just better than the alternatives. So in the latter months of the Remain campaign the picture shifted. As a result of the fights we went through to have our say, debates about the EU itself fell to the background and what came to the fore was an appreciation and a defence of the institutions and norms that were coming under assault.
The most obvious example was the prorogation of parliament. Resistance against this was central to ensuring the most reckless form of Brexit was halted. But the energy against it was no longer simply about enthusiasm for the EU. It was about the energy of defending a principle, a reaction against the brutal breaking of constitutional norms which - as the law ultimately proved - offended the concept of democracy and how it works. The fight became less an attachment to the EU and - ironically - more a desire to preserve our sovereign institutions.
Astonishing attacks on the free press, on the civil service, on the judiciary and on regulatory bodies were being threatened even before the election. Such talk will continue and intensify - and now with the full might of overwhelming legislative power behind it.
These institutions will be smeared as bloated, unaccountable, malign or inefficient - just as the EU once was. And just as with the EU, we will recognise the grains of truth in each of those criticisms. But these attacks must be resisted, because this fresh onslaught threatens the voice and the power of the public. Protecting these things is where Remainer energy must go now.
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