Alastair Meeks on “The Remains of the Day”
It’s coming up to six months since the referendum and there doesn’t seem to be much sign of peace or goodwill in the Christmas period between Remain and Leave. Remain-supporting newspaper op-ed writers vituperate the behaviour of Leavers. Leave-supporting newspaper op-ed writers screech at the perfidy of Remainers. On Twitter, the Brexit debate has become egg-bound.
Nor is this confined to the empty vessels making the most noise. Opinion polls consistently show that the public remains as split about the correctness of the original decision to Leave as it was six months ago. YouGov recently released a survey in which they asked supporters of each campaign to detail the main reasons why people voted for the other side. The results were unedifying.
43% of Leavers thought voters chose Remain because of fear and uncertainty – as much as every other reason cited put together. A further 9% cited stupidity or ignorance or Remainers being misinformed. Remainers were still less complimentary about Leavers. 43% thought that immigration was the main reason for a Leave vote. A further 36% thought that one of racism or xenophobia, Leavers being misinformed, stupidity or ignorance or lack of knowledge was the main reason.
It seems that Leavers think that Remainers are cowardly cretins and Remainers think that Leavers are bigoted cretins. A political chasm has opened up.
So how is Britain going bridge that chasm? What will post-Brexit reconstruction look like? Both sides need to think carefully about the terms on which they are prepared to coexist. This is a challenge for both the referendum victors and the vanquished. For now, let’s stick with the losers.
Leavers are exhorting Remainers to move on. What Leavers really seem to mean by this is that Remainers should recant their views, but the surface suggestion is a fair one. What does moving on mean?
Remainers first have to accept the fact of the vote. Britain voted to leave the EU and you can deplore that all you like but that’s democracy. In any case, Humpty can’t be put back together again. The Article 50 notice has yet to be served but Britain is leaving the EU. Even if Britain tried to perform a volte face, the EU should not want to stay tied to such a flaky, demanding partner.
The vote needs to be honoured in spirit as well as the letter. From that YouGov poll, Remainers clearly accept that the vote was won through Leave campaigning on immigration. The ability to place restrictions on freedom of movement from the EU is therefore a democratic necessity, no matter how disgusting you might find the basis on which that was achieved.
Next Leavers tell Remainers that they should work with them to make the best of it. This is where it gets difficult. If you think that a decision was an appalling mistake but must be respected, what’s “the best of it”?
Just because something is difficult, however, does not mean that it should not be attempted. Too many Remainers have self-indulgently evaded responsibility, defining themselves not by reference to a positive vision but negatively in opposition to all that they despise in Leavers. The referendum vote was lost in large part because the establishment had taken for granted that the benefits of the liberal consensus of the last generation were obvious. For the last six months it has continued to do so. By doing this, the field has been left clear for the battiest Leavers to put forward the most autarkic, introverted and soft-boiled visions of post-Brexit Britain.
There is no requirement to work with Leavers on this, whatever Leavers might say, unless those Leavers are themselves demonstrably prepared to move on. Out of the ashes, Remainers can argue for a Britain that may well be far inferior to the Britain that would have remained in the EU but that could at least be better than the ravings that Leavers have in store for the country. By honouring the form of Brexit, Remainers can continue to argue for constructive engagement with EU countries, the pooling of sovereignty and a recognition that most immigration is good for the country, holding the government to account. If, of course, that is what they still believe in. So what do Remainers now believe?