Reflections on the Brexit Vote by a Remain Supporter

I voted “Remain” and felt absolutely right to have done so.  I felt it was right for Britain and that British membership would help ensure the EU survived—this is now threatened and I am concerned about the consequences of the political entropy, which has begun.

Had roughly 650,000 voters shifted, the result would have been different, a swing of 1.9%.  That 51.9% voted to leave is hardly an overwhelming mandate.  What if there had not been so much rain on the day?  What if Jeremy Corbyn had actually tried?  What if EU citizens living (for a long time) in the UK had been allowed to vote?  What if it did not coincide with Glastonbury?  On such small matters often hang the fate of nations—never has this been more true.

Nevertheless, the nation has voted, the rules were clear, the date was known (oddly right in the middle of Euro 2016) for a long time.  What if the home nations had not fared so well?  What if England were thrown out because its fans behaved idiotically?  We can conjecture all we want.  What is done is done.

To those petitioning for a second referendum I say the following:

  • The first was unnecessary—how can we possibly justify a second?
  • How would we feel if Remain won the referendum and the Leave supporters signed the same petition?
  • If we cared so much to ensure an emphatic majority, why did we not argue for this in advance, when we seemed to be massively in the lead?
  • What if we re-run the campaign and Leave wins? What if the result again is close?  Do we keep doing this until we get the “right” result?  What disdain would this not show for the democratic processes we hold so dear?

I do not think we should have held the first referendum, I certainly do not think we should have another.  We lost and the turnout was over 72%.  It is time to face the future and make of it what we can.

The Campaign

The run-up to the vote was appalling, with insincerity, cynicism and negativity in abundance.  However, let us be fair—our campaign was worse.  Having scared Scotland into backing union, and frightened voters out of voting Labour (remember claims that the Labour Party would be “in hock” to Nicola Sturgeon) Cameron felt he should again deploy his fear tactics—this time he failed miserably.  Cameron and Osborne not only lost a vote we should never have had, but they lost it in a bad way.  Had they run a principled, positive campaign they might have actually won—many voters I know voted Leave BECAUSE of the Remain campaign.  So Cameron’s legacy is rightly discredited.  He made a selfish and cowardly decision to call the vote in the first place, he ran a cynical and negative campaign and he lost—that most unforgivable triumvirate of political sins.  Good riddance.

The Leave campaign did also appeal to our basest instincts, with Farage’s poster only the best known of the worst examples of this.  There were racist undertones to much of the Leave campaign, but this was not the entire summary of the Leave argument and accusations of widespread racism are completely out of hand.  Furthermore, to advocate a case for measured immigration or controls on refugees allowed into the UK is a perfectly respectable position.  In the same way that not all critics of Israel are anti-Semites, not all those concerned about immigration are crude xenophobic bigots.

At least, politicians who were genuine and longstanding Euro-sceptics fronted the Leave campaign.  Apart from the more Europhilic and opportunistic ex-mayor, one absolutely cannot accuse Farage, Gove or IDS of inconsistency—at least on Europe.  That Osborne and Cameron (and Corbyn) led the argument to Remain was simply not credible.  Their position lacked passion because frankly, there was none—the electorate saw easily through this paper-thin curtain.  One never felt that those on the Remain side cared quite as much.

The Vote

To anyone who stayed up until the wee hours, the result and its message was clear.  One could describe it as Hartlepool vs. Islington, or Boston vs. Barnes, or any other combination pitting the losers and winners of globalisation and its effects against one another.  That the likely recession will likely inflict more hardship on the less well off than those comfortably enjoying a leafy, liberal London existence was ignored as the less economically fortunate voted in overwhelming numbers to leave.  It’s true that Scotland (overwhelmingly) and Northern Ireland (marginally) also voted to remain, but these are particular cases.  It was wealthy, multi-cultural London against the more fearful and increasingly hopeless elsewhere.

Those who voted to Leave may suffer negative economic consequences, but the sense was that they felt they were going to suffer anyway.  Governments of all stripes have largely ignored them, and the promises of the current Government, which led the Remain campaign, rang hollow with those who have been suffering from this Government’s policies.  This was their only chance to express their anger and they took it.  They are not all racists, xenophobes, ignoramuses or vindictive old people – they are afraid, and perhaps rightly so.  Even if we do not agree with their point of view, we must come to understand it.

We would not have lost confidence in this Government and its predecessor if it had not sought to balance the books on the backs of those least able to afford it and alternatively extracted sacrifices from those best able to afford it.  Instead, it cut marginal tax rates.  The Coalition Government spent billions bailing out the banks due to their mortgage losses – they could have bailed out homeowners.  I could go on.  The indifference was palpable and has been worsening under this Tory majority Government, whose legislative agenda was becoming increasingly right wing and doctrinaire.

In addition, let me not let Europe’s leaders off the hook.  Across the continent, citizens of all EU member states have been restless regarding the EU’s performance and critical of its flaws.  If its leaders had demonstrated courage instead of political calculation and engagement instead of being aloof, they would not today be confronting their own potential extinction, which the UK Brexit vote has made far more likely.  I understand their (EU officials) resentment, anger and fear, but unlike the unemployed in Athens, Madrid and Hartlepool, their inaction and callous indifference has brought it upon themselves.

The Future

I am really sad that the Remain campaign has lost the Brexit vote.  I have argued that Britain should stay in the EU and have been a longstanding supporter of the European model.  That does not mean I have been an uncritical supporter.  For example, I have always opposed a single European currency as well as Britain’s participation in it – this even as a Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate in the 1997 General Election.  It was, at best, premature, at worst, a stupid idea and yet another example of the conceit of politicians (Kohl and Mitterand, as I recall, in this case) over-shadowing the sensible interests of citizens.  I always felt, and still feel, it would destroy the European Union.

Anyway, my side lost the Brexit battle and now we all need to move on.   What is apparent to me is that this vote will be a powerful catalyst for change.  Even though I would have preferred it, a vote to Remain would have encouraged politicians to do nothing.  Safely embedded in the status quo they would have congratulated themselves on their accomplishments, welcomed the good sense of the country in supporting their point of view and carried on much as before.  Nothing will have changed – this is no longer an option.

I am curious indeed, how a UK Government led by Johnson (or maybe May), Gove, Redwood, David Davies, and the like will deliver to those in Hartlepool who supported their position.  The idea that the farthest right wing of the Conservative Party becomes the champion of the downtrodden feels unlikely, but I have seen stranger twists of fate, and if they can deliver, I will cheer.

I take comfort in the fact that in Britain, our far right consists of people like Gove, Davies and even Farage, and are not Norbert Hofer (who nearly became President of Austria) or Marine Le Pen in France.  This is something to be very thankful for.

On the other hand, in the highly probable scenario that these Conservatives fail to deliver for the disenfranchised, we need to find a new leader on the left – someone who can speak to the fears of the fearful and address the aspirations of our nation’s youth, who are despondent at the outcome of Thursday’s vote.

It is encouraging that Jeremy Corbyn looks set to be deposed.  He seems a decent principled man, but he strikes me as an incompetent leader.  By definition, and despite his democratic mandate, if he cannot carry his colleagues in a Parliamentary system of Government he just has to go.  I expect a safe and unimaginative choice but I am hopeful for the best (I am an eternal optimist).

Caroline Lucas is the UK politician I most admire and is the single person with the most credibility to galvanise our country.  However, she is a member of a disorganised party, and, much as I hate to admit it, politics, to be effective, requires a certain ruthlessness that the UK seem unable to muster.  I am not proposing Blairish deviousness, but would welcome, at least, some Clintonesque pragmatism (that of the Bill variety, not Hillary!)

So what can we do in the meantime?

I rarely want to wait for politicians to lead.  My experience has taught me that this can be very disappointing.  In a democracy, which sits alongside a capitalist economic system, we have seen how policy is dramatically tilted in favour of the better off, and are coming to feel some of the consequences of this (e.g. the financial crash, Greece, Brexit).  This will continue until we address the systemic problems).  What shall we do in the meantime?

A friend of mine rang me on Saturday morning and said — “I just woke up this morning and felt like I want to/have to do something.”  She was utterly distressed, like many others, about the outcome and felt she needed to undertake positive action – for herself and for the greater good of the nation.

I think she will.  All across the country, people are waking up this weekend with a sense of, ”oh shit, this really happened—it was not just a bad dream.”  Some will retreat into themselves.  Some will argue about the results and challenge them – with petitions or other blocking actions.  Some will escape, if they are able, to Canada, Norway, wherever.  However, some like my friend realise that this is the time for real action.  The days of kicking problems into the long grass have ended.

The vote has robbed us all of the ability to keep smiling and pretend things are OK.  Things are not OK and the Brexit vote is forcing us to deal with thorny issues like immigration, inequality, the bankruptcy of Greece, serious strains in the Euro-financial system (in Italy, France and Portugal, just for example), weak financial institutions, an agitated and mischievous Russia and much, much more.

As ever, the only question any of us can answer is, “what am I going to do about it?”

So what are you going to do now?