Alastair Meeks continues his post-BREXIT analysis
Yesterday I looked at how Remainers should look to the future. Today I turn to Leavers. This should be equally bracing.
As a group, Leavers seem oddly discontented with their victory in the summer. It’s as if, like the Sex Pistols, they didn’t know what they wanted but they knew how to get it. Ever since, the quest to discover what Brexit means has continued, with only the most loyal Conservatives happy with the Prime Minister’s tautological answer.
Leavers are unhappy with the preparation for Brexit put together by the previous government, with the conspicuous and noisy discontent expressed by Remainers, with the inexplicable unwillingness of the rest of the EU immediately and magnanimously to give Britain everything that it might seek in exit negotiations and with the pesky insistence of some to establish the legal mechanisms by which Britain is actually able to leave the EU. That control that they sought to take when they voted Leave seems frustratingly out of reach. Meanwhile, many of them are becoming uneasily aware that many of their fellow citizens do not regard them as heroes but as reactionary backwoodsmen.
So how should Leavers proceed to create this glorious golden age that they aspired to when they elected to cut the cord with the rest of the EU? The starting point must be to identify what they actually want, as opposed to what they don’t want. If you want Britain to be autarkic, isolationist, to stop immigration and are indifferent to short term disruption (no matter how severe) or to the long term strength of the economy in the future, your choices are easy, and we presently seem to be set on exactly that course. If you have greater ambitions for Britain, then the choices get more complex.
In the long term, if Brexit is to be the success that Leavers hope for, somehow or other the chasm between Leavers and Remainers is going to need to be bridged. Leavers accept this in the abstract but when they canter up to Remainers’ concerns, they refuse the attempt and throw the rider. They would have to start by understanding what Remainers think in the first place.
Remainers give no credence to the idea that Leavers voted the way that they did because of sovereignty: a derisory 8% named it as the main reason for a Leave vote in the recent YouGov poll. 43% named immigration (and another 11% named xenophobia or racism). Some Leavers might protest that Remainers don’t know the minds of Leavers and that they’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps they have. But such Leavers might start examining their consciences and then ponder whether they might not have done enough to prevent this impression from crystallising. And whether the impression is in fact true of the majority of Leavers.
For the painful truth is that the choices available to Leavers now are set by the choices that they made in the past. During the referendum campaign they decided that campaigning to leave the EU was more important than worrying that the campaign was dominated by mendacious posters fanning fears of mass immigration. They can’t blame Remainers or the rest of the EU for absorbing that as Leave’s main message.
Leavers who want to correct what they see as Remainers’ misapprehensions about their motives haven’t exactly so far been vociferous in their efforts. Daniel Hannan, for example, has moved seamlessly from a member of Vote Leave’s campaign committee that approved the infamous “76 million Turks” poster to denying that the Leave vote had anything to do with immigration at all. Such Leavers are going to have to do a lot better than that.
Those who wish to work with Remainers are going to need to acknowledge that their past choices have played a great part in alienating those Remainers. They are going to have to give far better reasons than they have managed so far to explain those choices if they are going to be reconciled with those Remainers who regard the Leave campaign as an immoral disgrace. If, of course, they have better reasons. If they don’t and they are unrepentant, the country is going to remain divided for a long time to come. Since the Remain vote is geographically concentrated, those divisions could become much more lasting political divisions. The break-up of the United Kingdom remains a real possibility.
Leavers are, in fact, going to need to do what Theresa May’s government has so far obdurately refused to do and set out their positive objectives for Brexit. Do they favour low tax and low regulation? Do they prioritise keeping barrier-free trade, so far as possible, with the rest of the EU or restricting immigration? How far do they wish to co-operate with other EU countries and on what subjects? Some of those things are entirely inconsistent with the campaign that the referendum was won on. Leavers are going to have to work out how they square their objectives with the way in which referendum victory was won. The requirement to honour the result is not just for the losers.
Sooner or later individual Leavers are going to have to decide where they compromise. Do they want a united country? If so, they will have to find a more constructive way of working with Remainers other than telling them that they are wrong. Do they want a constructive relationship with the rest of the EU? If so, explaining where they want to work together rather than taking to the airwaves to wish its destruction is a necessary (but not sufficient) next step.
It’s simple enough deciding what you don’t want. Deciding what you positively want is much harder. In the second half of 2016, we found out that Leavers by and large hadn’t thought about that at all. 2017 is a year where Leavers are going to have to decide what’s really important to them.