The intense debate coming out of the Chequers agreement in the past 10 days has focussed heavily on whether the Prime Minister is staying true to the spirit of the referendum and implementing the “will of the people”; the 52 per cent of the electorate who voted to leave the European Union on 23rd June 2016.
My own view is that Chequers forms a reasonable compromise and is a practical delivery of the verdict of the referendum. But it has been very badly communicated. This is not simply because Theresa May is a bit reticent on television. It is because there has been a lack of intellectual clarity in the Conservative Party and the political class about the complexity attached to the referendum result.
Until that picture is better understood and articulated, there is little hope of finding consensus in Parliament or the country at large.
In the two years since the referendum there has been an overwhelming tendency by politicians and commentators to treat the 52 per cent as a homogenous block of people who wanted lower immigration, more control over their lives and an overarching values-based view that the nation state is the best method of realising that vision. Hard Brexit, for want of a better term.
To an extent that description is true – and it is unanswerable that it formed a significant portion of the Vote Leave coalition. You cannot understand the intensity of the debate in the last 2 years without understanding this values-based division in Britain today.
But whether it formed a homogenous view among all the people who voted Leave on referendum day is a much more complicated question – and one which throws up a number of difficult quandaries about referenda and how leaders of mature democracies should respond to them.
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Politicians are usually sniffy about abstract academic concepts, and sometimes quite rightly so. But they would do well on this occasion to think about the distinction between memory and history.
They are two separate things.
As the French historian Pierre Nora put it: ‘Memory is life borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting. History on the other hand is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.’
What Nora was really saying here is that how we remember the past, and the things we did at the time are inextricably bound up in how we view the present. On a practical level, if you are still with your wife or husband then you more likely to look fondly on your first date than if you are divorced because of arguments later down the line. If you don’t believe me, this broad argument has also been prosecuted by Dominic Cummings, the ferociously intelligent Campaign Director of Vote Leave.
A number of people in the Conservative Party are now arguing Brexit must mean a clean, categorical and final break from the EU – or it means nothing at all.
I believe that the argument is less clear cut. There is no absolute truth or manifest destiny about what the referendum said – there never is in a referendum. It is plainly impossible to knit together a unified Brexit prospectus on the back of a coalition of 52 per cent of the electorate. I would certainly go so far as to argue that the prospectus being offered now would have been snapped up by some Eurosceptic Conservative MPs in 2013 when David Cameron first called the referendum.
We now judge the decision to leave – and the Chequers agreement as the negotiating position following on from the vote – based on how leading political actors have defined what leaving means, as much as we do on the arguments that were run at the time.
Memory is telling some people that Chequers is a betrayal. History is more complicated.
I put this argument forward with all due humility. I am a former special adviser who worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May – the idea that I can entirely separate history from memory is not true.
The best and most accurate histories of this subject will be written in 20 or 30 years’ time. Nonetheless, there is nothing to stop mature and sensible debate happening now. Indeed, it is essential.
Cast your mind back to the morning of 23rd June 2016. I suspect it began like any other for most ordinary voters, except the fact that there had been a torrential storm overnight.
Did the biblical conditions serve as an indication for an equally seismic expression from 52 per cent of the British people?
For a decent portion of people who voted Leave the answer is probably yes. They were voting for a Hard Brexit. You cannot read the speeches of figures like Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart during the campaign – as well as the impressive digital output of Vote Leave – without arguing anything different. There was a clear demand to take back control of our borders, our laws and our money. There was a certain, but not complete, level of consistency that this would involve leaving the single market.
You can argue whether figures like Boris Johnson genuinely believed this or were using it as a proxy for their leadership ambitions, but that is another question entirely. Hard Brexit was the proposition put forward. Organisation such as Open Britain and Labour politicians like Chuka Umunna do the intelligence of voters a disservice when they suggest otherwise and argue that less well off, less well-educated voters were duped. It is also frankly pathetic, and the height of conspiracy theorising, to suggest that campaign spending irregularities are a reason to run things again.
In a question as binary as a referendum though, a salient and more problematic historical question is whether more than 50 per cent of the voting public at the time were voting for the outcome of Hard Brexit.
No one will ever know for certain what was in the minds of each voter who trundled along in the puddles of 23rd June to go and vote. That’s not how it works.
Historians in future generations will have more time and space to look at qualitative attitudinal studies and a much greater wealth of information. But anecdotally from my very atypical life, there is certainly ground to question a grand narrative.
My mother, a comfortably off Polish immigrant to Britain 35 years ago who now lives in leafy Surrey, voted for Brexit because she thought the European Commission was corrupt and reminiscent of the excesses of 1970s Communism. She told me that she wanted to use her vote to shock the bureaucracy into reform and strengthen David Cameron’s hand in a new negotiation (not a million miles away actually from what Boris Johnson said when he first declared his intention to campaign for Leave in February 2016).
Some of my friends – who are predominantly metropolitan elite South West London dwellers– voted for Brexit for a multitude of reasons, very few of which were related to the nation state or taking back control of immigration.
I almost voted for Brexit because I was deeply sceptical about uncontrolled free movement in an expanding bloc with markedly different living standards between East and West – and wasn’t convinced the EU would reform in time to realise this. I wanted to send a message because I was pretty sure that Leave weren’t going to win and the status quo would be victorious in the end.
All of us now have some concerns about what Hard Brexit would mean in actuality for the country.
Polls have uncertain currency in today’s world – although this is usually because people obsess over the headline voting intention numbers rather than the attitudinal data underneath. A poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft on referendum day certainly questions the idea of a homogenous 52 per cent whose will was obvious and undeniable. According to the study:
22 per cent of Leave voters decided how they were going to vote either the day of the referendum, a few days’ before or the week before. There was a significant level of flux and uncertainty in voting intention in the final 7 days, questioning the idea that attitudes of all the 52 per cent were hardened and set in concrete over the course of several years. The referendum was a snapshot in time rather than a pre-ordained outcome as all votes are (Lord Ashcroft, EU Referendum ‘How Did You Vote’ Poll Data Tables, p.13).
46 per cent of Leave voters thought on referendum day that their side would win – while 54 per cent thought Remain would win. Of all voters who made up their mind on polling day itself, 25 per cent thought Leave would win while 75 per cent thought Remain would win. Much more work needs to be done in the years to come, but based on precedent from other elections, there is a case that a potentially significant number of people who voted Leave at the time did so with less expectation that the promises of the campaign would be brought to fruition (p.17).
Given options to choose from, 69 per cent of Leave voters most agreed with the statement ‘the decision we make in the referendum might make us a bit better or worse off as a country, but there probably isn’t much in it either way’. One can certainly argue that the Leave campaign was effective in sealing the deal with voters – but it is far from certain that they had demonstrated the economic magnitude of the choice on their Hard Brexit prospectus. A majority of Leave voters certainly did not view it at the time as a ‘quiet revolution’ that would change their lives significantly (p.21).
39 per cent of Leave voters agreed with the statement that ‘for most children growing up in Britain today, life will be better than it was for their parents’. This is far less than the aggregate of Remain voters who agreed with the proposition – but still illustrative of the fact that not all Leave voters felt that their communities had been irredeemably let down by globalisation and uncontrolled immigration (p.97).
58 per cent of Leave voters agreed most with the statement ‘if you work hard, it is possible to be very successful in Britain, no matter what your background’ – questioning the idea that all Leave voters had a hopeless sense that Britain as it stood on 23 June 2016 offered them no hope for the future (p.93).
While 62 per cent of Leave voters agreed with the statement that immigration had been a ‘force for ill’, 14 per cent of Leave voters agreed with the statement that immigration had been a ‘force for good’. This perhaps indicates that a statistically significant minority did not necessarily see reducing immigration as a priority – or at the very least that there was some limited divergence of views on the impact of immigration within the coalition (p.168).
It is an equally fair point that the 48 per cent who backed Remain were far from homogenous in their outlook. The point is often made that some wanted to back Leave but were put off by ‘Project Fear’. But such is the difficulty in taking moral certainty from a close referendum result.
Indeed, voters’ motives deserve even more attention in a referendum than in a General Election. In a General Election, voters will have differing reasons for backing a party but by convention every policy in the formal manifesto is assumed to be endorsed in the Parliament that follows. Vote Leave and Remain both put forward policy documents during the 2016 campaign – but there is no such convention as to what constitutes a manifesto and what doesn’t.
Much more historical work will need to be done on the Leave voting coalition in the years to come – but it is nonetheless clear that it was a little more complicated than 52 per cent of ‘nation state backers’, deeply let down by globalisation and uncontrolled immigration, voting to break with the EU whatever the cost.
Fast forward two years, how does this relate to the debate now – with Conservative resignations aplenty over the Chequers compromise? A significant proportion of Conservative MPs are now arguing that the Leave vote was a uniform demand for a Hard Brexit no matter what. Boris Johnson has resigned from the Cabinet over it and others have followed from ministerial and other junior roles.
This is where we get to the crux of how history and memory collide. My growing sense is that the sense of betrayal is as much a consequence of post Brexit rhetoric by the Government as much as it is an accurate reflection of the ‘will of the people’.
Of course, some Conservative MPs wanted a very Hard Brexit from the start – so did a significant part the Leave voting coalition.
But it wasn’t true for everyone who voted Leave – and in a close referendum on a binary choice these things should inform how leaders take event forwards.
He may be fairly gung-ho about a Hard Brexit now but Boris Johnson’s article in the Telegraph the Monday after the referendum points to a sense of compromise that is more absent from his writings later on.
As he said at the time: ‘And yet we who agreed with this majority verdict must accept that it was not entirely overwhelming. There were more than 16 million who wanted to remain. They are our neighbours, brothers and sisters who did what they passionately believe was right. In a democracy majorities may decide but everyone is of equal value. We who are part of this narrow majority must do everything we can to reassure the Remainers. We must reach out, we must heal, we must build bridges – because it is clear that some have feelings of dismay, and of loss, and confusion.’
Michael Gove in his victory speech immediately after the result came in was equally measured in his declaration about what the referendum signified:
‘In the coming days Government ministers and officials can meet to decide the next steps. Officials and diplomats can start scoping out the broad parameters for full scale talks with our European friends and the institutions in Brussels. Our shared mission is clear: securing the best possible terms for Britain…overall the changes we will see will be a process of gradual divergence and it’s important than representatives from every part of the United Kingdom, every community and different political traditions are involved in shaping our future.’
Gove, to his credit, has been consistently sober in talking about the referendum result since.
Trying to set aside my own memories and prejudices, I have thought very hard about the threads running through my conversations with Conservative MPs in the immediate days and weeks after the referendum result. Everyone will have their biased own accounts for history and future generations will judge who was right. My overwhelming sense from MPs was one of ‘Christ – what do we do now?’
Although it is not a perfect science, MP endorsements in the Conservative leadership race of 2016 are also noteworthy. While Andrea Leadsom’s leadership speeches were pretty primary colour in their tone, Theresa May’s were more moderate.
Launching her leadership bid on 30 June 2016, the Prime Minister spoke of the need for balance and hinted at the difficulties ahead. She said that limiting free movement was a priority given much of what the Leave campaign had talked about, but indicated also that it was not going to be an open and shut case that could be solved quickly and easily:
‘I want to be clear that as we conduct our negotiations, it must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services – but also to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe. Any attempt to wriggle out of that– especially from leadership candidates who campaigned to leave the EU by focusing on immigration – will be unacceptable to the public. The process of withdrawal will be complex, and it will require hard work, serious work, and detailed work.’
Many of the most vigorous defenders of a Hard Brexit in recent days backed the Leave supporting Andrea Leadsom in the run off of the final 2 candidates in 2016. However, a perceptible number of MPs who have publicly protested against the Chequers agreement in recent days also gave their endorsements to Theresa May and her more nuanced platform.
The gradual shift over 2 years to the moral certainties of today can be best explained, I think, by the manner in which the Prime Minister chose to define what Brexit meant in the months after the referendum.
Sensitive to accusations that she was a ‘Remainer in disguise’, her definition of Brexit as an unambiguous national call to leave the single market entirely and remove ourselves from the ECJ was partially a political device to persuade the most vocal Leave Conservative backbenchers that she got it and to cement her position.
The vision was given further definition by some of her most senior team – who for entirely noble reasons had long seen themselves as the defenders of the white working class.
And for a senior team who always defined themselves against David Cameron, the wish to set out punchy red lines ahead of a negotiation was very strong too.
This combination of factors is the context through which you can better understand Theresa May’s two party conference speeches in October 2016, which set the framework for how the Conservative Party came to think about Brexit. On any objective reading, they are very different indeed to the views she set out in April 2016 when she argued cautiously that Britain was better off in the EU, while rejecting the hifalutin claims on either side of the debate.
Negotiations are always a kind of mutual discovery about what are red lines and what aren’t – and it’s better to say you have more than less. But in a negotiation that was always going to be conducted in public, there was arguably not enough expectations management of the difference between negotiating principles and hard and fast red lines. This is a very difficult art but on balance one that was not well executed.
In a structured negotiation, based on fact and hard-headed reality we were always likely to end up with something like the Chequers agreement in the end. And it was incumbent on the team in Downing Street to roll the pitch for this.
You could argue compromise would always be unacceptable to some. But historians in the future will want to do more work to trace whether the highly cautious views expressed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in the immediate aftermath of the referendum were shared by a material number of people – and whether debate could have been led to a more consensual place.
With the history lesson over, let us return now to the present and the immediate implications for where we go next politically.
Clearly a second referendum now would be very divisive. Irrespective of what people thought on 23 June 2016, attitudes have only have hardened since and been shaped by political commentary.
You could well get a more definitive result in favour of Leave because of frustration with the lengthy process and anger that politicians are deigning to ask the question again in a country that prides itself on democratic legitimacy.
You could conceivably get a vote for Remain if the three options on the ballot paper were No Deal (which was never raised by Leave as a realistic possibility in the referendum campaign), the Prime Minister’s negotiated Brexit (which many in the Conservative Party have now trashed to the electorate) and staying in.
You could get an equally close result on the same lines as before. Or you could get a more motivated youth vote pushing the dial ever so slightly towards Remain.
There is no perfect answer to this intellectual quandary, otherwise it would have been seized by now. In the current context, very little good would come from a second referendum – not least because those whose values are ingrained the hardest, will be the most aggrieved by the result. In a debate that is emotional as much as it is rational, you won’t persuade people by asking the question again in the next 9 months.
What is undoubtable though is that the Prime Minister needs to articulate some of the realities at hand and explain why we have the Chequers agreement we have. Weeds and detail won’t be enough – and neither is a claim that the content amounts to the simple prospectus of Vote Leave as it is patently more nuanced than that. The only way through is to build a coalition in Parliament for the compromise and in turn explain to the British people why it is needed. You might just about be able to force the current negotiating position through Parliament in the autumn under the threat of ‘no deal’ – but unless properly explained there is a real risk of significant alienation between voters and politicians.
In truth, the country is divided between different values systems and views of the world – and a good portion of people who subscribe to a bit of both. These attitudes have developed over many years and were given popular expression by the referendum. The balance was tipped into the Leave column through a much more complicated chain of events and attitudes than politicians have been ready to acknowledge.
Britain is a democracy and the result must be respected but the will of the people is less clear cut and simple than politicians have argued up until now. As Boris Johnson and Michael Gove said in the immediate days after the referendum, the result was not entirely overwhelming and all points of view must be respected when shaping the future we have to now build together.
If that means an imperfect compromise for now, then so be it. There is no consent at this point for anything else – demonstrated by both attitudinal studies today and the General Election last year.
But the Chequers agreement should not be viewed as the end state of our relationship with Europe for a hundred years, it is a version that will have to do for now. If future governments and electorates want to materially improve the situation then they will have to run on manifestos setting out their proposals and they can proceed if they secure a mandate from the people. The EU may also materially change in the next generation, which will in turn affect our relationship with it and the prospect of further reform.
Such an argument may not work because attitudes have become so hardened and so much has been said in the last 2 years. There are obvious political risks. I was not born yesterday and have spent most of the past decade working in and around the bowels of Westminster. But I would argue the political risks for both the Conservative Party and our democracy are greater if we continue with the unresolved state of affairs as we have now.
We’re often told that voters respect authenticity and honesty from politicians. Now would be a good time to show it. History – and possibly even memory too – will credit them for it.
Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special Adviser who worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.