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When historians of the future look back on Britain in our time, they will surely see our row over Brexit as extraordinary. Not because people disagree and campaign: that is normal and healthy. But because an influential section of the country, and particularly of its upper classes, are refusing to accept the will of the majority as legitimate or binding. It is no exaggeration to call this a revolt, even though it rarely hits the streets.
Its unusual nature is shown by the arguments of its hardline supporters – arguments that would undermine any democratic system, and which have rarely been heard in any advanced country since the nineteenth century. For example: that most voters do not know what they are voting for; that working-class voters are too ignorant to make a choice; that people without advanced education should have their political rights reduced; that older people’s opinions have inferior legitimacy.
Leaving aside ethical questions concerning equal rights – questions that most of us would have thought had been resolved by the end of the 19th century – these views show astonishing misunderstanding of what democracy is and what it is for. They lack the slightest degree of historical awareness. Yet they are put forward with assurance by people who openly regard themselves as superior in education and intelligence.
Up to now, it is those who voted Leave who have been scrutinized as an oddity – poor, old, stupid, ‘left behind’, and so on. But what of those who are still scrambling to keep us, in one form or another, in the EU, despite the fact that the EU is visibly in crisis, and despite the fact that by resisting the will of the majority they are risking a political and constitutional crisis? They have been little if at all studied or analysed: so we at the Briefings for Brexit group are publishing a series of articles, mostly by young academics, in the hope of encouraging discussion.
There seem to be three main categories of Remainers: Ideological Remainers, Professional Remainers, and Worried Remainers. The Ideological Remainers, however vocal, are a small minority: opinion polls suggest about 5 percent of the population. They include young people, some of whom, our findings suggest, have adopted a kind of Euro-nationalism. There is also an older generation of Ideological Remainers: I vividly remember at a meeting in London to discuss national identity an elderly middle-class lady, trembling with rage, saying ‘Why are we wasting time discussing this thing, England’. They have in common a negative image of both our history and our present society, which they convince themselves are tarnished by exploitation, racism and violence. ‘Europe’, they think, must save the British from themselves, and the other peoples of Europe from being at each other’s throats. This group provides the flag-wavers for Remain.
More formidable in numbers and influence are the Professional Remainers: executives of multinational companies, employees of lobby groups and think tanks (many receiving funding from the EU), academics in receipt of EU grants, politicians representing Remain parties or constituencies, retired politicians who supported or indeed worked for the EU, civil servants and diplomats whose careers have been built round integration with the EU. For this group, familiarity with EU systems and contacts in Brussels give a major career advantage; conversely, Brexit poses a career risk. They provide the brain and muscle for the Remainer revolt. Their arguments for Remain are overwhelmingly technical, such as the cost and complexity of leaving. They avoid ethical issues, such as democratic sovereignty or socio-economic justice, or indeed the future of the EU itself.
The third and largest category are the Worried Remainers. Most who voted Remain – a third of the total electorate – said that they did so primarily because they were worried about economic consequences. Their support for the EU is conditional and negative – as a lesser evil. This is the only group likely to change its mind if and when ‘Operation Fear’ proves bogus, and which wants the government to ‘get on with it’ and provide leadership. Worried Remainers deserve to have their fears taken seriously and the effort to reassure them by well based arguments is an urgent political need. This will be the basis of re-establishing national consensus.
Do Remainers as a whole share any common assumptions? One appears to be ‘declinism’: the idea that Britain is a diminished and weak country unable to function economically or politically on its own. Another is that ‘Europe’ is a guarantor of peace and harmony. A third – though surely weakening in the face of the facts – is that the EU represents the Future. Rational discussion of all these issues is desirable. Hard-core Remainers are unlikely to be converted, but might the Ideological Remainers or those Professional Remainers whose personal interests are at stake be converted? If the latter see those interests changing, they will shift their position without any qualms.
Robert Tombs is Professor of French history at St John’s College, Cambridge
The full series of articles on “Understanding the Remainer Revolt” will be appearing on the Briefings for Brexit website.