To Stop Brexit, Remainers Must Give Voters a Different Decision
This week Brexiters secured another victory. The government’s Great Repeal Bill was passed, at second reading, by 326 to 290.
It is the latest of a series of small victories they have won. The economic outlook might be gloomy but the political momentum continues to flow with Brexiters.
In contrast, Remainers have secured few victories. Even May’s botched election gamble has not derailed Brexit. The euphoria as Remainers cut the Prime Minister down to size now seems a fleeting victory. A minor tweak in Labour’s policy saw the party hailed as the ‘soft Brexit’ party, a sign of the low level of expectations.
The problem is more fundamental.
Both main party leaders accept the referendum result. The media has maintained the powerful cartel that aided Leave last year. That calls for second referendum are portrayed as attempts to thwart the will of the people, rather than the rejection of one as anti-democratic, shows the incline Remainers have to climb.
Yet there is a strong democratic argument for the voters to be given a say on the terms that will be negotiated by May. Brexiters, expecting a close result, once made similar arguments: people change their minds. That is why democracies elect governments for terms of offices not for life.
Political views do change. Experience shapes our world view. However, Damascene conversions are uncommon
It is not enough to expect economic reality to tilt enough voters into the Remain camp to stop Brexit. A transition, if negotiated, also means a referendum would be before Brexit Day One - a potential catastrophe. However badly negotiated, Brexit will become the known quantity while, unless the EU publically offers Britain the exact same terms of membership, ‘Remain’ the unknown. Schengen? The euro? No rebate? It seems an unlikely victory platform.
There is also an unacknowledged difference between a general election and Brexit. At elections, voters make decisions based on local and national candidates; they judge competing leaders; they get a feel for policy, if not its intricacies. How far economic interests play in political decisions is complex. One reason given for May’s failure to win a majority is falling wages. In 1970 and 1997, voters rejected governments who had delivered good economic growth.
In between elections, prime ministers change, circumstances force governments to adapt policies, oppositions rarely go into two elections in a row with the same leader or the same policies.
Thus many 1992 Conservative voters switched in 1997 as Labour changed policies while the Tories descended into a mire of sleaze and euro-infighting; 2005 Labour voters switched to the Conservatives in 2010 as one party changed leader for the better and the other for the worse. They did so without repudiating their past votes.
Equally, both leaders might blanch somewhat but many Labour members who voted for Corbyn in 2015 voted for Blair in 1994. What was right for one time is not right for another, they argued.
This may confuse tribalists or ideologues, but most voters are not interested in the minutiae of politics but only its broader sense. How else can one explain the Lib Dems voters who deserted the party in 2015 for Ukip? On an ideological level, this makes no sense. That does not mean it is wrong though.
Political views do change. Experience shapes our world view. However, Damascene conversions are uncommon. Human character is like a length of knotted rope: the hemp and twists used to make the rope might be dramatically different at beginning and end, but the threads provide a connection.
In politcs, people are rarely asked to rethink decisions. They are given different decisions.
That Brexiters have secured numerous political victories does not mean Brexit is going well. It means that Brexit is still happening. A second referendum fought against “Theresa May’s Brexit” would not necessarily defeat Brexit itself. Moreover, were Brexit to collapse, Nigel Farage would attempt to ride a populist tide. He might be successful. For Britain to remain in the EU, there needs to be democratic legitimacy.
Remain did not lose the economic battle. It was that the economic argument mattered less
The danger for Remain is the BrexitRef2 becomes a bad sequel: same script, different actors. Without making predictions, “I Told You So” seems a poor campaign slogan.
Remainers contend - with justification - that Brexit will make people worse off and that any deal will be inferior to our existing arrangement. The trouble is that, just as we have no counterfactual to say that Neil Kinncock would have made a superior prime minister to John Major, Remainers have no counterfactual.
The winning slogans of Vote Leave were not about a golden economic future - though they certainly assured voters of that - but about “taking back control”. As such, Brexit was about a sense of identity and self. In any second referendum, Remainers risk asking the voters to reject a concept, and therefore they are asking voters to reject themselves.
In 2016, Remain did not lose the economic battle. It was that the economic argument mattered less. Leave was fighting on different turf. That is where victory lies. Only by changing what Remain means - in the same sense that David Cameron changed his party as Blair did before him - can Remainers win a referendum.
The only other problem is, they have to get a second referendum first.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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