9 February 2018

Remainers are fighting a losing – and misguided – battle


If we put to one side the unseemly manner in which pro-Brexit newspapers have uncritically regurgitated Kremlin talking-points when it comes to the matter of George Soros spending some of his money on the doomed Remain cause, we may still recognise that Mr Soros is, on this occasion, backing a losing horse. 

My suspicion is that, for all the sound and fury on social media, voters don’t care very much about Brexit. They may be aware it is crippling their government and they may hold firm views on whether or not Brexit is desirable but, more than anything else, I fancy they wish it would just go away. 

Voters, by and large, only recall two arguments made by the Leave campaign. They remember that quitting the EU would allow the UK to increase controls on immigration and, at the same time, provide more money for the NHS. These are both popular positions and for as long as the government makes moves in either of these directions, it is not obvious Brexit is going to occasion much in the way of genuine “buyers’ remorse”. 

Indeed, recent polling suggests as much. According to a YouGov survey conducted earlier this month, even hindsight is incapable of making voters change their minds. Eight-five per cent of Leave voters still think Britain made the “right” choice in 2016, a level of certainty matched only by the 87 per cent of Remain voters who think the decision “wrong”. If nothing else, this is a fine demonstration of the power of conviction and humans’ concomitant inability to reappraise past choices, regardless of the evidence presented to them. 

Perhaps this should not be a surprise. There is, after all, precedent for it. Polling from Scotland suggests an equally small number of people have changed their minds on the question of Scottish independence since the referendum in 2014. There has, as with Brexit, been some “churn” but not enough to meaningfully tilt preferences from one result to its opposite. 

Even more than ordinary elections, referendums require one to choose one team over another. Not all votes are made with equal conviction, but all count for the same. And once made, it is only natural to look for evidence that reinforces our original decision. Confirmation bias is strong and you are just as susceptible to it as your ignorant neighbours who voted the wrong way. All too often, this is how it goes: I am a rational individual; it is possible you are merely misguided; he is an idiot. 

But the glee with which many Remainers greet gloomy forecasts of post-Brexit Britain’s economic fortunes does little to persuade Leavers they made the wrong choice. Indeed, it more likely reinforces their own convictions and prejudices. Telling half the country “We told you so” may be emotionally satisfying but it’s not something that is likely to produce any tangible policy dividend. 

Besides, the Remain cause runs into one all-important and unavoidable fact: there was a vote. It was not rigged. The people were not conned or gulled or coerced into voting Leave any more than they are hoodwinked at any general election. They made their choice and there is something unseemly about demanding them are given the chance to make it again before a significant period of time has elapsed.

That demand, however honestly made, strikes many people — including a hefty chunk of Remainers — as a kind of cheating. It offends a basic sense of fair play. Again, the lack of enthusiasm evident for a second Scottish independence referendum offers a guide to the likely dynamics of a push for a second Brexit referendum. There are no mulligans or do-overs in this game and you have, instead, to play the ball as it lies. 

That means, from the perspective of Remain anyway, improving or mitigating Brexit, not trying to abandon it. Admittedly, it is difficult to see how this can be done in the absence of either a clear government strategy for Brexit or any plausible alternative offered by the opposition. Nevertheless, if it is to be done it is best if it is done quietly and with the minimum of fuss. It is a reverse Lampedusa moment: if things are to change, some of them must remain the same. 

Hazarding what the people meant when they ordered Brexit is not, admittedly, easy. Remainers have been appalled by the manner in which hardcore Leavers have ramped up their demands since 2016. For them, the harder and “cleaner” the break the better. But many, perhaps most, voters are neither hardcore Leavers nor ardent Remainers. 

They were not making long-range economic forecasts when they chose In or Out, nor were they obsessing over the details of customs arrangements or the precise jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Brexit was many things but one of them was a register of complaint. It seems worth remembering, once again, that many of the places furthest, in a figurative sense, from Westminster were also the places most likely to embrace Brexit. Here too, there were parallels with Scotland’s vote in 2014. Then, prosperous Edinburgh and Aberdeen voted No while less-favoured Glasgow and Dundee voted Yes. When you think you’re already down, what do you have to lose? 

Plenty, you might say and perhaps you’d be right. But that is not how people think. Long-range economic forecasts of lower than would otherwise be expected economic growth butter few parsnips in areas of the country that have not – or do not feel they have – benefitted from past economic growth. 

If we allow this, we may be reminded that Brexit was less a demand for a range of clearly-defined policy outcomes than a cry to do things — just about any-bloody-thing — differently. If that puts the government into a box, then so be it.

And if Brexit was also, at least in part, a condemnation of a perceived “elite” that was out of touch with the common man, it is not likely to be corrected by an elite movement predicated on the argument that the people’s opinion, once sought and delivered, can be over-turned as though it were of little account. That would, indeed, seem likely to repeat some of the mistakes that helped produce Brexit in the first place. It isn’t a question of who you are for so much as one of who you are against. (And, like everything else in this argument, this applies to Remainers as well as to Leavers.)

Paradoxically, although Remainers might, by and large, be Whigs, there is something unavoidably Jacobite about their cause. Even if it could be done, it is not obvious it should be done. The people have spoken, the bastards. 

Alex Massie is a political commentator.