If we ever imagined that June’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU would end the arguing, we would have been much mistaken. I have taken part in this arguing enthusiastically, but it is time to take a step back. Where are we heading?
Let’s start with the Remainers. A recent poll has shown that few people who voted to remain in the EU regret their vote. They mostly believe that the results of Brexit will be highly detrimental, and many continue to protest. But what for? The vote for Brexit was narrow, but decisive within Britain’s political system. Most English and Welsh MPs have seen significant majorities for Leave in their own seats. The Remain vote was inefficiently distributed, with majorities mainly in London and Scotland, which is now politically marginalised by the rise of the SNP, a process that is likely to lead to that country’s breakaway. The vote is widely seen as an English and Welsh revolt against London, and the bulk of MPs are minded to heed it, and no general election will change that. The chances of stopping Brexit look thin – and would entail an ugly fight with Leave supporters that would do nothing to heal a divided nation. Only if the cohesion of the Leave side starts to break could alternative possibilities emerge – and there is no sign of that. Some leave voters express regret or apprehension, but this is very soft and is not a political move of any significance.
So why can’t Remainers move on and make the best of it? Because so many of them regard it as a matter of values. Remainers really don’t like the values of the stereotypical Leave supporters, whom they see as being illiberal – though not all are, of course. They get the anger of white working class voters, but blame it on national government failure not EU membership, and do not find that it is an excuse for narrow-mindedness or, as they see it, stupidity. Real venom is reserved for the many middle class supporters of Brexit – seen as a combination of the awkward squad, who always criticise and never take responsibility, and people who can’t accept that the world moves on. The rise in hate crime since the vote only convinces Remain supporters that they should stand up for their values. One way of looking at this is the popular model of grief, which sees denial followed by anger, bargaining, depression and only then acceptance. Remainers are stuck somewhere between anger and bargainings. They know that moving on means depression, and we are scared of the abyss, so are stuck on anger and bargaining.
What of the Leave side? It is possible to have some sympathy for them. The boot is on the other foot now. They are the ruling elite, receiving all the brickbats instead of giving them. Much of what is said against them is spurious or speculative, with an intention to stir up trouble rather than anything constructive. They find that nearly half the population is angry about the cause they support, and they don’t know how to handle it.
What Brexit supporters need to understand are the dynamics of change management: any disruptive change is going to be stormy. On one model I was taught in management training, change in an organisation goes through four distinct phases (clearly related to the five phases of grief). First there is denial. People think that the change doesn’t really affect them – it is about other people. Inexperienced managers mistake this calm for acceptance and think things are going well. Then comes anger, as the effect of the change sinks in and people realise that their comfortable ways will be threatened. Management is often accused of being clueless by people who haven’t understood what the management is trying to do. The next phase is chaos. As the change moves into implementation, things start to go wrong; people feel lost in an unfamiliar environment. Management’s reputation remains low. Finally things settle down and we have renewal. You have to understand that this pattern is inevitable in any meaningful change. In a well managed change there is still anger and chaos, but they are short-lived. In a badly managed one the change can be derailed, even if it is ultimately a good idea.
This is what is happening over Brexit. Brexit was always going to be disruptive: if you supported Brexit, this is what you signed up for – there’s no point in being annoyed about it. We have moved on from denial to anger: that’s progress. But the next phase is chaos – this has to be embraced rather than deferred, because otherwise we will never move on. The chaos phase will probably start with the invocation of Article 50 of the EU Treaty, which makes departure all but inevitable. But how to minimise the downside? The process has not been well planned (or planned at all, some would say), so getting through it quickly will be impossible. Brexit supporters need to keep moving things on so that things can start to settle down in a new reality. This requires a relentless focus on problem-solving, and not arguing about why you are doing it. But Brexit politicians tend not be strong on problem-solving – they are the disruptive types who like to blame others for anything that goes wrong, rather than sort things out themselves.
But within this chaos, there is a clear threat to liberals. Liberalism does not command majority support, but neither does its antithesis. If liberals form the right coalitions they can be politically dominant, as they often are. But the Brexit coalition is dominated by conservatives. Liberalism has been split. Most are Remain supporters, but many supported Leave. Leave liberals see the EU as an institution whose flaws are so deep that they threaten its avowed liberal values. They seek to combine liberal values with stronger self-determination.
So the threat is that conservatives dominate the ruling coalition, while Remain liberals absent themselves in a sulk. The result will be illiberal measures such as: excessive immigration curbs, which in turn limit the opportunities for Britons in the rest of Europe; conservative social policies, such as selective school admissions; and, in all probability, increased austerity as government finances come under pressure. Worse than all this there will be a prevailing political culture of blaming outsiders for the country’s mounting problems, resulting in a rise in intolerance of ethnic and religious minorities. Liberals of all stripes must resist this.
In the short term the anger of the Remain side may serve a useful purpose for liberals. It will weaken the Brexit conservatives, many of whom vastly overestimated the ease of transition, and certainly played down the difficulties during the campaign. But at some point Remain liberals will surely have to admit defeat and team up with the Brexit liberals to define a liberal Britain (with or without Scotland) outside the EU, and appeal to Brexit voters sceptical of the conservative political establishment.
How will this come about? Not by refighting the referendum. The two sides will simply have to agree to differ on the wisdom of leaving the EU. But liberals should find common ground in political and economic solutions that will make the country a better place. Political reform; devolution; improved education for all; better public services; and better support for communities disrupted by changes to technology and trade. Reconciliation will be hard, but if liberals don’t the conservatives will set the agenda.