Last Friday Iain Martin asked if the ultra-Remainers had all gone mad. Saturday’s comments by Michael Howard and another near-hysterical Observer leader, suggest that, if anything, the ultras on all sides have only been emboldened by triggering Article 50.
But over the weekend, should you want to find them, little clues started to appear that erstwhile Remainers are slowly moving beyond the baleful “shouting at their followers on Twitter” phase. The excellent Janice Turner stood up the argument that it is either Brexit or Labour for the liberal-left in a fine “we must move on” piece in The Times. Henry Porter breathlessly announced he was organising a London convention of some sort to look at what the hell his tribe do next and Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn reminded Observer readers that out beyond the M25 reside millions of Leave voters who are unlikely to reward Labour MPs for sulking since last summer.
But how to they begin to mount a challenge? Here are my starters for ten:
1. It’s about identity stupid! Invoking sentiment and nostalgia around national identity may not always triumph over economic self-interest but as of this moment eschewing the former and invoking the latter is inviting defeat. When Remain ran with the “Project Fear” narrative emulating, as they saw it, the success of the Tories General Election campaign the year before they ignored the decisive factor that secured that win: Nicola Sturgeon. Her emergence and the alacrity with which Lynton Crosby exploited it in “deep England” was ultimately more important than any campaign message about Tory economic competence. The English already held Miliband in little regard, but on the doorsteps the notion that he could govern, but only with Sturgeon, proved devastating for Labour. The four million UKIP votes and the SNP landslide in Scotland were not the only signals of national identity re-asserting itself in 2015.
2. Re-join not Remain. It is now time to stop talking about “staying in” or “Remain”. The UK is leaving the European Union notwithstanding the mercurial ingenuity of Jolyon Maugham’s Dublin legal challenge. It is over, Remain lost on 23 June and subsequently needed an economic storm to avert the triggering of Article 50 and there was none. The long term focus needs to be on “Re-joining” not “Remaining” if it is to be fresh and credible.
3. Avoid cheerleading. The temptation to cheerlead for Tusk, Juncker and the EU through the negotiations must be avoided. It serves only to embolden your opponents. Re-joiners have good reason to be anxious that the government and Tory press will blame the EU if a deal is not struck or if their is a economic downturn, but countering this is an argument that probably can’t be won. If the EU can’t offer us a deal equivalent to Canada I’d strongly urge Re-Joiners to not to crow “I told you so”. When in the early stages if the EU demand €60 billion call it out as the act of a protection racket it would constitute, and when we leverage our security assets don’t decry foul play. If Re-joiners come to be characterised as cheerleaders for the EU they are doomed from the outset.
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4. Jettison campaign detritus. I am sorry but all the little internet memes gifted by AC Grayling are now only fuelling your indignation and need to go. So stop tweeting references to a “non-binding referendum”, to counting non-voting babies to suggest Leave had no majority and to the £350 million banner on the bus. There can be no more describing Leave voters as stupid or uneducated. Dismiss for good the notions of “low information” voters or eliding Brexit with Trump. None of it worked.
5. Engage with issues of the 52%. To their credit Miliband and Benn now recognise the need to engage with Leave voters, particularly the 2.8 million new - mostly working class - voters who didn’t vote in 2015 but turned out last June. The prime minister upon entering Downing Street made great claims about reaching out the “left behind” but so far has been unable to provide any detail of specific policies that are likely to appeal to them. This should now be a contested space where post-Brexit centrists are active and effective.
6. Re-imagine immigration. With 70% of the public still opposed to freedom of movement, at a time when unemployment is at it lowest level since 1975, this country is very quickly going to have to accept its dependency on immigration and establish an immigration policy that has public consent. There could hardly be a bigger policy prize than to create one. Sunder Katwala’s British Future proposal for a preferential system for EU immigration is a model of the sort of imaginative and pragmatic responses Re-joiners should be advocating before they invite us into a second referendum.
7. Deeper EU or twin-track? Wolfgang Münchau in his weekly FT column reminded Re-joiners that if the UK ever decides to rejoin, it would “have to do so under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. That would be the full Monty - with the euro, the Schengen zone, EU involvement in home affairs, no opt-outs, and no budget rebates”. In the Sunday Times yesterday Niall Ferguson argued that the real significance of Brexit is for the EU not the UK. They are now free to pursue their long term ambition for further integration with the main obstacle to it: us. Re-joiners need to be clear about which EU they want to re-enter, one with the pedal to the floor on deeper integration or a two-speed Europe of the kind David Cameron once envisaged. Both will take time to consider and patience to pursue. Farage-like resilience must be the order of the day.
8. Tuck into Tombs. Brexit can only really be understood as a very English revolution and will only be reversed by those who appreciate its meaning. The best possible guide is Robert Tombs. His The English and their History is less a book, more a monument. Over its 900 pages it leaves nothing out capturing England’s sense of exceptionalism and enduring traditions. Vitally he concludes:
“We who have lived in England since 1945 have been among the luckiest peoples in the history of Homo Sapiens, rich, peaceful, and healthy. Not uniquely so: the lot of the whole Western world has been comparable, and in several countries, slightly better. But for that, too, the people of England can take a share of credit: for their economic and technological labours; for their long pioneering of the rule of law, of accountability and representation in government, of religious toleration and of civil institutions; and for their determined role in the defeat of modern tyrannies.”
But Tombs, despite his voting Leave, has a hopeful message for those Re-joiners. He wonders: “It is commonly said that Britain joined the Common Market too late. Perhaps, on the contrary, it joined too early - just before the European economies entered a period of stagnation, and before it had faced up to its own economic shortcomings.” Perhaps there is still time….
9. Take to the North. The case to re-join needs to be forged outside London and away from the metropolitans. Sure the number of city-dwellers may well rise but to build a foundation to win Re-joiners should take to Doncaster, to Wigan or Carlisle and begin to build grassroots support far away from the cities full of people who agree with them. Find convincing frames for voters in these towns and then return to London to renew the argument to re-join.
10. Read Haidt. His Righteous Mind may have been written for a largely American audience and within the context of America’s political culture but case he make for engaging across a wide range of moral foundations has a compelling resonance that uniquely speaks to this moment on both sides of the Atlantic. It is hard to imagine any movement that doesn’t absorb his ideas ever succeeding.
None of this is going to be easy, it must take time but envisaging any fast-track alternative really is for the birds.
Perhaps most of all they need to hang on to Pablo Neruda’s - the great Chilean radical and poet’s – paean to optimism and hope
“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”