Remainers need a more patriotic tune to challenge a hard Brexit
Even if the economy slumps it’ll make no difference. For some there will always be too little Brexit, never too much – there is no quick rebuttal for that. Rafael Behr.@The Guardian
Stir salt into water and you get a clear solution. Boil off the water and you have a residue of salt again. But whisked eggs stirred in a hot pan cannot be unscrambled. Some changes are more reversible than others.
Since last year’s referendum, many of those who voted to remain in the European Union have treated Brexit as a contaminant in their lives. Politics tasted different, and it was disorienting that so many people had chosen a pungent new flavour. But reversal was theoretically available.
Lawyers disagree on whether article 50 is technically revocable, but in practice that feels irrelevant
The letter Theresa May sends to the president of the European Council today changes everything. Lawyers disagree on whether article 50 of the Lisbon treaty is technically revocable, but in practice – in cultural and political terms – that feels irrelevant. The prime minister is not adding salt. She is breaking eggs.
Article 50 is not just something the UK does to itself. It imposes change on 27 other countries. In other European capitals, Brexit is part of a pattern of contagious nationalism that, along with Donald Trump’s election, requires urgent quarantine.
The spectacle of Britain and the US coping with their maverick electoral choices may already be having some inoculating effect on European populations. Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right leader, failed to press home an early opinion poll advantage in parliamentary elections last month. French moderates are cautiously optimistic that the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, can be thwarted in a presidential ballot next month. A threatened surge by Germany’s ultra-nationalists has yet to materialise.
Fascism taking the runner-up slots in western democracies is hardly cause for celebration, but it has allowed pro-EU politicians to imagine a navigable route to renewal of their project: Emmanuel Macron, the young liberal, wins in France and, after Bundestag elections in September, forms an alliance with the leader of a grand German coalition, Angela Merkel or her Social Democratic challenger Martin Schulz. This partnership becomes the engine for reform to restore dynamism and legitimacy to the rusting Euromachine.
Liam Fox, the international trade secretary and president of the board of trade with Damian Green, work and pensions secretary, at No 10 on 21 March 2017. Photograph: Dinendra Haria/Rex/Shutterstock
That is a feasible scenario, but no more plausible than forecasts of multiple crises: a revival of Greek debt woes, fraying Italian attachment to the single currency, a steeper slide towards authoritarian rule in Poland and Hungary, another migration panic, Russian mischief in the Baltic.
Even if the EU muddles through between renaissance and meltdown, there will always be problems that hardline British sceptics can point to as justification for the decision to leave. There will always be reasons to say we got out just in time.
If Britain suffers financial trauma in the coming years, Brexiteers will claim it is the birth pangs of a wondrous new era, to be suffered stoically. If the freedom dividend still doesn’t arrive, it will be because severance is incomplete. The prime minister will be accused of obstructing prosperity by compromising too much with Brussels; foreigners will be charged with sabotage. The problem will always be too little Brexit, never too much.
Pro-Europeans will struggle to disprove those arguments because there will be no demonstrable counterfactual. The claim that Britain would have been better off on a different path will be no more effective than the prediction in last year’s referendum that Brexit would hurt. No one who ignored that warning wants to be assailed with a smug chorus of “we told you so”.
May cannot deliver a fraction of what was promised by leavers, but voters who are left feeling betrayed will not respond well to being told it is their own stupid fault for believing dodgy promises and xenophobic fearmongery.
‘May cannot deliver a fraction of what was promised by leavers, but voters left feeling betrayed will not respond well to being told it is their own stupid fault for believing dodgy promises.’ Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images
People do not change their minds anywhere near as often as politicians think they should. We tune into arguments that vindicate past choices and filter out inconvenient data. Pro-Europeans and Brexiters are equally inclined to sift the news for items that flatter their prejudices.
Meanwhile, details of the negotiations – the acronyms and interlocking parts of European regulatory jurisdiction – will not capture the public imagination any more than they did last June. The vast majority of the British public has never been interested in the workings of EU, and is probably less interested now that the decision has been taken to leave.
Pro-European hopes of a change of heart triggered by realisation that the whole thing is a folly are misplaced. Ken Clarke compares Brexit to the Iraq war – a foreign policy choice that enjoyed majority support until gruesome reality intervened. But leavers didn’t passively go along with this new adventure: they voted for it. For many that was an emotional investment, motivated by feelings of belonging to a certain place and fearing it had become somewhere else without their consent. Such allegiances are not casually discarded. Insistence that Brexit is necessary will continue to overpower technical exposition of its impracticality.
The main contest over the coming years is not going to be about regulations and budgets. If those issues penetrate the public consciousness it will be as proxies for bigger questions about Britain’s place in the world: who speaks for the country; what kind of country will it be? That is a rivalry over the terms of national identity and patriotism, not tariffs and trade.
Those of us who wished Britain could have remained in the EU must understand the cultural magnitude of our defeat. We have surrendered the idiom of national destiny. We have been too squeamish in declaring love for our country, and that impedes the warning that it will be ruined by Brexit.
There is no comfort in the technical superiority of complex arguments that no one hears. Those arguments must still be made, but there is a prior task: winning back the right to an audience with people who chose Brexit because it is what they believed was best for themselves, their families, their country.
There may come a time when that faith falters. But by then, the EU will no longer be the thing it was when the UK voted to leave. The case for integration with our neighbours will have to be made anew. Article 50 does not promise a set destination, but it seals off the past. The shell of Britain’s EU membership is broken. Let there be no more talk of remain.