Where do Remainers go from here?

Last Saturday I joined the March for Europe in LondonIMG_1114. These are the hard core of people who voted Remain in June’s EU referendum. By my estimate between 10 and 20 thousand marched from Hyde Park to Parliament Square, with Liberal Democrats prominent among them. The anger of these marchers was evident. Where to go next politically was not.

It is worth considering what the feelings of the protesters is, as media types and professional politicians attempt to move on. These people feel that a part of their birthright has been taken away – that the result is an assault on their very identity. They were not pro-EU because, as the Remain campaign emphasised, they thought they would be a bit better off economically. They feel part of a bigger Europe. And if there is one single thing they feel most acutely about, it is freedom of movement, because those rights to move and work around the Union are the most tangible and beneficial to them. Some were citizens of other EU countries who have settled here, having felt secure in rights to do so. Many more were British but want the right to move around the rest of Europe – or more strongly, they want that right for their children. It was an Australian, with a British daughter, that made that point most forcibly to us; Ozzies are acutely aware of the difference that an EU passport makes in freedom to move around, and they prize that freedom.

This is significant because British politicians have rightly identified that the issue that bothers Brexit voters the most is precisely freedom of movement – or fear of immigration from other EU members, especially the less developed countries or the less skilled workers. Many are searching for a compromise whereby much of the single market is preserved, but freedom of movement is restricted. This would cut no ice with most of the protestors, though the umbrella Remain organisation, Stronger IN, has hinted at compromise, while renaming itself Open Britain.

It is easy to understand the politics of the compromisers. The Brexit majority was small, and within that 52% there was a clear divide, between those who reject globalisation and want to adopt protectionist policies (echoing Japan perhaps), and those who chafed at the EU’s slow engagement with the rest of the world, and want Britain to embrace free trade (echoing Singapore). If you detach the latter group, and attach it to the Remain 48, you might get a majority behind a “Swiss” solution, with one foot in the EU, but nevertheless outside. Except it would not be like Switzerland, because the UK would need to be able to restrict immigration from EU countries, perhaps severely.

This would not satisfy the hard core Remainers. So what do they want? They want to stay in the EU, and to ignore or reverse the referendum result. A number of arguments are made. The Referendum was merely advisory: parliament can take a different view. Only 38% voted to leave the EU (even if 36% voted to stay) and therefore isn’t a strong enough mandate for such a drastic change. The Leave campaign was deliberately misleading. They might give credence to reports of buyer’s remorse immediately after the result. Alas these arguments carry little weight in the current political landscape. Most (estimated at 421) English and Welsh MPs will have found that their constituencies voted Leave. Under a first past the post constituency vote there would be a majority to leave of  getting on for 220. That strengthens the mandate. The aftermath of the vote has turned to anticlimax, allowing Brexiteers to say that the economic costs of the vote were highly exaggerated by Remain supporters, neutralising the “lies” argument somewhat. There is little hard evidence to show that buyer’s remorse adds up to anything substantial. There is no basis to call a repeat referendum.

And what would a second referendum be about? A popular proposal is to have one on whatever new deal for exit is eventually struck. The trouble is that we will only know what that is long after Article 50 of the EU treaties has been invoked, by which time the situation will be nearly irretrievable. The UK would in effect have to re-enter the EU: but on what terms? The danger is that we have yet another referendum whereby a loss by the government will create uncertainty and chaos.

Still, the political situation may change. A backlash by Brexit supporters against the claims made by leave campaigners would start to build the case for a reversal. The trouble is that even if they wake up in time, they are likely to blame the Remain politicians anyway. This is clearly the narrative that Brexit politicians are now trying to build. The government should have prepared the ground for Brexit better, they say. The politics of anger and resentment is like that. Admitting you are wrong is as hard for voters as it is for politicians.

So do we hardcore Remains give up and shout abuse from the sidelines? Not yet. The government’s majority is small; it will find it hard to form a consensus around a new vision for Britain. A constitutional deadlock could yet unfold. In that situation things could change.

That is a small hope at the moment. Otherwise we must await a generational shift of voters’ attitudes. Brexit is almost bound to disappoint a large number of its supporters, if only because they want so many different and incompatible things . Younger people are more international and open in their outlook; their views will increasingly become mainstream. Re-entry to the EU, or perhaps a reformed successor is still something to hope for. But this time the case needs to be made on identity and emotion, and not by pretending that such things don’t count.

10 thoughts on “Where do Remainers go from here?”

  1. What proportion of the 48% do you think are ‘hardcore Remainers’ who voted out of a feeling of European identity, and what proportion don’t actually feel European at all, perhaps would have liked to vote ‘Leave’, but in the end voted ‘Remain’ because they were worried about the economic impact of leaving the EU?

    1. Difficult to know. One common reaction to the referendum is that people did not realise that they felt a European identity until after the Brexit result. Before that the conventional wisdom was that the hard core was a very small number (about 10% of the Remain vote) – but it is almost certainly higher if you probe it. But quite a few people voted Remain out of fear for their jobs – but by anecdotal evidence not nearly as many as the Remain campaign thought they would. Thus a lot of workers in the NE voted Leave in spite of having a lot to fear from the disruption (Nissan workers, etc). And old estimate is that about 30% of the total was hard-core either way with the rest undecided. That would suggest that over half the people who eventually voted Remain did so from identity. But I think recent polling suggests that the proportion of people wanting to reverse the result is much smaller.

  2. What surprised me, after a quite a few years of being out of the country, was how the Left support for Leave seemed to be now much diminished. Even Jeremy Corbyn had, supposedly, changed his mind. And yet, the arguments made by the late Tony Benn are stronger now than they have ever been.

    Up until recently, I would have voted remain. I first started to wonder what was going on when the people of Cyprus had their bank accounts clipped. The pretext was that the Russian mafia had stored their ill-gotten gains there. Come on! What about Geneva and London? What about all the sterling area tax havens? Are the citizens of Gibraltar going to have their bank accounts raided too?

    Then there was Greece. That was the clincher, Greece voted in a government the EU, or rather the German led EU, didn’t approve of. The Greeks ended up having their bank accounts frozen too! It’s just appalling that many elderly Greek people who may well have earned their euros outside Greece were deprived access to their money as a punishment. Can we imagine Scottish people being denied access to their bank accounts if there happened to be a serious dispute between the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments?

    A key duty of any central bank is to protect the currency and protect all assets held in that currency no matter who they are. The duty of the ECB was to stay out of the dispute between the EU and Greece.

    To make matters much worse the dispute wasn’t so much between Greece and the EU as between the Greek and German government. Angela Merkel has no democratic legitimacy whatsoever outside German borders.

    There is a huge gulf between the EU we would all like it to be and the reality. The problems seems to be that left progressives see what they want to see in the EU and ignore that reality.

    So how to turn the tide of public opinion in the UK? The answer is simple. Fix up the problems in the EU. Make it genuinely democratic. Fix the economies in Spain, Greece, Italy etc so that unemployment levels are similar to Germany and the Netherlands. That would satisfy nearly everyone. Those, like myself, who dislike the anti-democratic nature of the EU would have to change our minds. Those who have a problem with immigration wouldn’t have an argument either. There might even be a reverse problem of too many people wanting to leave the UK to work in the sunnier climes of Southern Europe.

    1. I suspect that many on the left were wary of supporting Brexit because they so disliked its rightwing supporters. Only this week Lawson is hailing Brexit as an opportunity to complete the Thatcher revolution. After all Varoufakis was urging those on the left to support Remain as Brexit would not help the EU to undertake the democratic reforms that many on the left seek.
      As somebody who balks as self-describing as being on the left, you would expect me to be wary of this left wing critique. After all this “democracy” seems to involve Greeks and others making free with German taxpayers’ money without the German people having any say. Still I have to admit that debt poses real challenges to democracy – as David Graeber points out, it is often an instrument to enforce slavery. Democratic systems must have means of cancelling debts – I think that in the Euro zone that means have a sovereign debt bankruptcy regime. I think Cyprus was a case of the Eurozone learning by its mistakes, and realising that saving a failed banking system requires bank creditors to be bailed in. The problem was that bank creditors had got clean away with it Ireland and Spain – so there was little justice overall.

  3. After all this “democracy” seems to involve Greeks and others making free with German taxpayers’ money without the German people having any say.

    Of course, this is the mainstream narrative. But if the mainstream had it right, the eurozone would work much better than it does.

    We have to look at the problem from another angle. Germany is very protective about its trade and Germans (at least all the ones I know) pride themselves on running a surplus on their current account.

    OK Fair enough – but the corollary of that is that others must be allowed to run a deficit. Everyone’s surplus is another’s deficit. There’s no getting away from that.

    Until German economists get their heads around this very simple truth there is little hope for the euro, or indeed the EU in its current form. There’s quite a bit more involved to successfully running a single currency than setting up a central bank, imposing a set of fiscal rules on everyone, and hoping for the best.

    What happens when the best doesn’t eventuate? The PTB have been reckless in the extreme with their half-baked euro idea. It’s that and the problems it has caused which has led to the recent Leave vote, and the re-emergence of the far right in Europe.

    1. You espouse the conventional wisdom on German economic policy (outside Germany), and I don’t disagree, in spite of the contrarian in me. But my point is that this still doesn’t justify the left’s sanctimonious references to Greek austerity being undemocratic. Mistaken: yes. Undemocratic – I don’t buy that.
      And as for the Euro driving the rise of nationalism: what nonsense! It affects countries in and out of the Euro alike. Russia is one of the worst, and the US is heading that way too. And why isn’t it gripping Spain and Ireland, both at the heart of the Euro crisis? Immigration and Muslim terrorism are the flash points – what has that to do with the Euro? I think the Euro project was deeply flawed, but you dump too much on it. The southern European economies were in a mess before the Euro – the single currency merely postponed the day of reckoning. Their own currencies were running out of road and losing credibility; interest rates were rising; government debt reaching sustainable limits.

      1. “Immigration and Muslim terrorism are the flash points – what has that to do with the Euro? ”

        Islamic extremism has been brewing for decades so obviously I wouldn’t blame the euro for its causes. Nevertheless the malfunctioning EZ economy does severely limit our ability to deal with it.

        It isn’t just the about euro in the EU. Its actually more about the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact (which really should be called the Instability and Little or No Growth Pact ! ) which is applied all the economies of the EZ with the possible exception of the UK.

        The link between all this and the migration imbalances we see in the EU is easy enough to see. People will naturally want to move from economically depressed areas to more prosperous regions. If the flow becomes too large, and too asymmetrical, then we start to experience the kind of social problems we see now.

        I’d say the failure of the euro has been the underlying reason for the recent Leave vote.

      2. There’s no getting away that what has happened in Greece is undemocratic. The people of Greece voted twice in 2015, firstly in an election and later in a referendum, for a change of economic direction. They didn’t get it.

        The people of Greece didn’t vote for their bank accounts to be frozen. They did get that.

        1. We will have to disagree on that – I don’t think you dare take on this leftist nonsense. The Germans, Dutch, etc were not part of the electorate on either occasion and would certainly outvoted the Greeks if they had. And it was their money the Greeks wanted, not their own. The choice faced by the Greek electorate was an unpalatable one: face terms dictated by creditors or leave the Euro. They chose the former – asking their pols to do the best they could. In a sense they did vote to freeze bank accounts, as that was the inevitable consequence of staying in the Euro.
          People may vote to have their cake and eat it. they fact that they can’t have it does not make the process undemocratic.

  4. “which is applied all the economies of the EZ with the possible exception of the UK.”

    should be

    “which is applied all the economies of the EU with the possible exception of the UK.”

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