How (not) to argue with Brexiteers

A picture of Nigel Farage, a white man in a black suit jacket with a white shirt and dark grey, pink and light purple striped tie, against the blue and pink backdrop of the BBC's weekly Question Time panel show.Last Friday Nick Cohen posted a series of tweets about what he described as the tendency of Labour Remainers to “snuggle down in the soft warm bed of conspiracy theory” in explaining why the Leave vote won the 2016 referendum; he accuses Andrew Adonis and Alastair Campbell of attributing it to BBC bias rather than “examining his [Adonis’s] own faults, and acknowledging where he went wrong”. Cohen concluded “Despite stiff competition, the Brexit vote is the stupidest thing Britain has done in my lifetime. But it won’t be reversed unless my side argues with leave voters respectfully.”

He’s right in that we cannot reverse the vote by arguing with leave voters and calling them dumb bigots. But not for the reasons he thinks.

Since June 2016, the people have not been in charge of what happens as a result of the referendum vote. Even in the 2017 general election, there was no major party that campaigned on a platform of staying in the EU although a few individual MPs did. The agenda of what Brexit will even mean has galloped far away from what most people imagined in June 2016, with the media having given the impression that an arrangement similar to Norway’s was the most likely outcome, even though it would mean us having to implement EU directives without having a seat at the table where they were formulated. It was only after the vote that politicians decided that the motive for the vote to leave was immigration and that freedom of movement between the UK and the EU had to end.

With the Pound having lost a significant about of value against the US Dollar and Euro shortly after the vote, and there being much uncertainty about Britain’s strength on the international stage in light of the aggression by Russia and about the viability of British business after the loss of tariff-free access to European markets, it might be expected that some people who voted to leave might have changed their minds and there is evidence that some have, particularly in light of revelations about Leave campaign overspending and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica. People are starting to realise they had been duped.

But the people no longer have any say in what form Brexit takes, if any. It is entirely in the government’s gift to decide if there will even be another referendum, and currently they are insisting there will not be one; with both parties knowing that significant parts of their base voted Out and the Tory parliamentary party in particular having fallen to the anti-EU tendency in the years since they were voted out of office in 1997 and Jeremy Corbyn beholden to people who cling to a “workers’ Brexit” fantasy (and possibly entertaining such delusions himself), neither party will admit that leaving the EU right now would bring only disaster. They both repeat the mantra that “the people have spoken” and do not want to take the risk of allowing them to speak again. And calling politicians hidebound fools is not the same as calling voters the same thing, to their faces or otherwise.

And yes, New Labour policies (and electoral strategy) did contribute to Brexit, and there is no possibility of re-running the 1997 campaign, something the remnants of New Labour seem unable to grasp now. It’s one reason why Tony Blair and other figures from that period are not really the best suited to lead any fightback against Brexit.

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