Blaming ‘Remainers’ for hard Brexit

A poster on a billboard that reads "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote Leave" with a picture of an open door with a British passport displayed on it, with footsteps passing through it. The Pinnacle/ClearChannel billboard appears in front of a railway bridge.
A Vote Leave poster in Salford, containing a obviously false claim.

There is an article on the Guardian website by Owen Jones, probably due for publication in the print/daily edition tomorrow, blaming those he calls “hard Remainers” for the current threat of no-deal Brexit (and the likely bad deal the government is negotiating) on the basis that they refused to compromise after the 2016 referendum, portraying anything less than overturning the result as “both disastrous for the country and morally untenable”, and devoted themselves to overturning the referendum result despite it having been a democratic result, patronising Leave voters by harping on the illegalities and lies of the Leave campaign and claiming Russian interference rather than winning them over, and in some cases using the issue as a means to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. There is some truth to this: Remainers did undermine their own cause, but not in the way he suggests and he ignores the history of some of today’s Remain politicians.

People forget that Remainers and Leavers didn’t exist until 2016. In the mid-2000s, leaving the EU was the demand of fringe parties such as UKIP (who were in the wilderness under Lord Pearson’s leadership, entertaining Dutch far right politicians at Parliament) and of some fringe elements in the Tory party. Even during the Coalition years, some of the politicians now known as Leavers were saying that they opposed leaving, or that it would be ‘madness’. By 2015, the momentum had built up and the Tories won a majority on the basis of a promise of an “in-out referendum” in an election in which UKIP, then under the leadership of Nigel Farage who had spent the past five years harping on immigration, won the third biggest share of the vote (3.88 million or 12.6%) and made the biggest gain (9.6%) despite holding only one seat and losing one (both involving former Tories). In explanations for the Tories’ majority that year, the collapse of the Lib Dems as a result of the coalition and the collapse of Labour in Scotland, leading to fear of a Labour/SNP coalition are often cited, but support for that referendum is also likely to have been a major reason. However, the Coalition made no moves towards leaving the EU, bound as it was by the Lib Dems’ involvement; that same coalition was responsible for the Hostile Environment and the harassment of the country’s disabled people through the austerity programme, as well as the destruction of so many local services in the name of deficit reduction. It is no surprise that many people who had voted to stay in the EU could not stomach voting for a Remain splinter party that included many of them, let alone one of the parties that participated.

A number of what British people perceive as problems with the EU are in fact of our own making. Britain has a history of engaging with Europe to the benefit of business rather than of ordinary people. Other countries have open borders; we (and Ireland) are the only countries that always required everyone to have a passport to travel. The benefits of EEC and EU membership were largely sold as a free trade agreement that made it easier to sell and buy goods and services to and from Europe. This lay at the root of Tony Blair’s decision to allow unrestricted worker migration from eastern Europe in 2004, a decision not replicated in other European countries; opponents to that were dismissed as racist. The upshot was that hundreds of thousands came here. As someone who was working in a manual occupation, I can say that my wages did not go up for several years and when I gained an HGV licence, I found it extremely difficult to get jobs because employers required two years’ experience because it gave them advantages with their insurers and there was no shortage of drivers with that because of the influx from eastern Europe. In an unregulated labour market like ours, an influx of workers from a country with a weaker economy than ours benefits business owners, not native workers; it frees employers from having to invest in native talent. Academics will dismiss objections as “lump of labour” (i.e. the idea of there being only so much work to go around) and say that economic activity generates more work, but there is no guarantee that natives will benefit when employers have found immigrant workers reliable. By 2016, the influx was water under the bridge; workers were no longer arriving in large numbers, but the damage had been done.

As for the behaviour of Remainers after the referendum, Jones blames their intransigence in demanding a re-run or revocation of the referendum result but does not really go into another factor which was their sabotaging of their own cause and indeed their country’s future. This was first really apparent in 2017 when the first election was called; calls for people to hold their noses and vote Lib Dem as a way to hold off a hard Brexit, or preferably any, were shouted down by people who made an issue of Tim Farron’s views on homosexuality, which until then had not been widely known of and in any case were not party policy. By the 2019 election, a number of prominent pro-EU MPs had defected from Labour and a smaller number from the Tories to form the Independents/Change grouping, most of them ultimately joining the Liberal Democrats. Labour dissenters harped on Corbyn’s association with antisemitism while ignoring Boris Johnson’s very obvious history of brazen racism and the fact that his party had rounded up innocent Black British citizens and expelled them from the country for no reason. Such a policy might have been justifiable if the alternative to Corbyn had been a middle-of-the-road Tory like, say, Stephen Dorrell, but it was Boris Johnson! I even saw a Twitter thread that claimed that a Corbyn premiership was “a disaster on at least the same scale as No Deal” because “Jewish charities and organisations would no longer feel they had a sympathetic ear in government” and “Israel would be slandered at the highest level” (as if anyone needed to slander Israel). The author of this drivel was not even Jewish. The consequences of a no-deal Brexit could be calamitous and the loss of jobs and the disruption to food and medicine supply cause all kinds of social breakdown and even violence, yet we who don’t have another country to go to are supposed to just put up with it so that Israel can get an easy ride?

Remainers’ ‘intransigence’ really became an issue after Leavers decided that the reason for the result was immigration and that the ‘Norway’ option was not an option because it would mean workers could still come here freely from Europe (and we could do the same, but nobody appeared to believe that was important). It was the next best option after remaining in the EU but it suited nobody: it was being signed up to the rules without having a seat at the table when they were being written. It was not on the table and it was not even certain that EFTA, the organisation we left when we joined the EEC, would even have us back given that we would have a bigger population than the rest of the association combined. Yet, ‘Norway’ is what we were promised before the referendum — Leavers talked about the benefits the Norwegians got all the time — and if that was not an option, there was only one that delivered what people were promised, which was simply staying in; people who thought we would end up with no deal were a tiny minority of those who voted to leave, but the result did not reflect that. And why did people believe it was morally unacceptable to leave? Because of its impact on Northern Ireland, because of its impact on EU nationals who had lived here for decades and had families here and on British mixed families in the EU, because Scotland had rejected it, because tariff barriers would threaten jobs and red tape would threaten all kinds of trade. There is a limit to what can be justified on the basis of what people want, or think they want.

Image source: Geograph, posted there by Neil Theasby. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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