No, I don’t support a ‘hard Brexit’

Owen Jones
Aug 2, 2017 · 8 min read
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I’ve been off on holiday (I’m back tomorrow, lucky me!), during which a never-ending twitter storm continues to batter my timeline. It comes from ‘hard Remainers’: those who wish to reverse the EU referendum result either by Parliamentary vote or through a second referendum. Given the intensity and volume (we’re talking thousands of accounts emblazoned with EU flags and the word ‘saboteur’ recast as a badge of honour), you’d think that I was Nigel Farage. Rather than, say, someone who campaigned for Remain and doesn’t advocate a ‘hard’ Brexit and never has. So here’s some points of clarification to those who have decided their priority target is somehow me.

  1. I campaigned passionately from a left-wing perspective for Remain during the referendum campaign, in rallies across the country, on television, in my Guardian articles (like here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), on social media, in YouTube videos (like here and here). I received threats of torture and violence as a consequence, which was pretty unpleasant.
  2. A year before the referendum I wrote a column suggesting the left needed to consider the arguments for Leave because there was a left-wing critique of the EU which centres on the devastating cuts imposed across the eurozone, the treatment of Greece, and treaties and directives which institutionalise pro-market ideology. There was therefore a left-wing case for exit — or Lexit, if you will.
  3. I came very swiftly to the view that Lexit was a fiction. Not because the critique wasn’t valid, because I stand by every word of my criticisms of the EU in its current form. There was no ‘flip flop’ (although it’s curious how hard Remainers bandy ‘flip flop’ around when their success depends on flipping the views of the electorate): I remain a left-wing critic of the current incarnation of the EU. But ‘Lexit’ didn’t exist. Britain would only exit on the terms of right-wing xenophobic populism. The benefits of the EU (like workers’ rights and action on climate change and tax avoidance) would be imperilled. The rights of migrants would be threatened. The things I didn’t like about the EU (the pro-market ideology), on the other hand, would only gain ground. Left forces, such as Podemos in Spain and ex-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (who I campaigned with for Remain), wanted Britain to stay, and for a unified continental campaign to change the EU.
  4. The official Leave campaigns waged a disgraceful, xenophobic, deceitful campaign. I’ve said this over and over again and in no way do I rescind from this.
  5. The day Britain voted to leave the European Union was — and I’m sure this goes for many of the people reading this — one of the worst days of my life, a day celebrated by the most reactionary elements of British society. Not because the majority of Leave voters were all thuggish racists — which is absolutely not true: but because the minority of thuggish racists felt emboldened. I haven’t changed my view that the result was, frankly, terrible for the country.
  6. The official Leave campaigns, prominent Leave politicians and the pro-Leave tabloid press share responsibility for the surge in hate crimes which followed the Leave vote.
  7. Since the referendum, I’ve passionately rebutted the argument that those who voted Remain are expected to just shut up and disappear. That’s not how democracy works. Remainers — who are not a homogenous bloc (as I’ll come on to) should be vocal about their views. The country’s future belongs to both those who voted Remain and Leave, and all voters have a right to shape that future.
  8. I’ve been particularly outspoken about the attempt to delegitimise dissent towards— or even scrutiny of — the form of Brexit on offer from the right-wing hard Brexiteers, which paints any internal opposition or criticism as somehow treasonous (like here, here, here, and here).
  9. Even when I was, quite frankly, disillusioned with the Labour leadership, I argued in favour of their decision to vote to trigger Article 50 in order to honour the referendum result. I also argued that those who resigned had no choice but to do so, representing as they did constituencies that voted decisively for Remain.
  10. However, I’ve repeatedly made the case that Labour should fight to stay members of the single market and the customs union. My timeline is full of people claiming that I now support a ‘hard’ Brexit, even though there’s no evidence for it. Like, none.
  11. There is certainly an issue with a democratic deficit if we retain membership of the single market and customs union, because we will be subject to the laws and rules of EU membership but have no say over it. That was one of the most powerful arguments against leaving the EU in the first place. It’s why voting to leave is a bit of a mess. It’s an issue I’ve been trying to grapple with. Leave voters believe they would regain sovereignty: actually this would mean they end up with the caricature of the EU (completely undemocratic, imposing laws without popular consultation) the Leave campaigns painted during the referendum. Tough, some will read this and say. The economic consequences of leaving both will be disastrous, the implications for democracy are unfortunate but nothing else. Life doesn’t work like that. Badly functioning democracies fuel dissent which is then exploited by populist movements with far-reaching consequences. That’s partly why we ended up with Brexit — or indeed Trump — in the first place. So this problem has to be addressed and I don’t have an obvious answer to it.
  12. Being members of both single market and customs’ union should remain on the table. Fine, it might not be possible to retain membership of the single market and customs’ union in the end. If that is the case, Labour have to spell out how the “maximum benefits” of both can be retained, and what at economic and political cost.
  13. Those arguing the referendum is advisory and thus can be disregarded as beyond delusional. You can’t say the referendum was full of lies, and then say a referendum the government — and opposition — promised to honour was “advisory”. That’s now how the public saw it, whatever the technical nature of the referendum. Such an act would destabilise our democracy. How would our democratic system ever be trusted again? It would be regarded as a coup against the popular will.
  14. Those arguing for a second referendum are perfectly entitled to do so. Again, my own view is that most Remainers accept that the referendum result should be honoured. If a second referendum hypothetically throws up a narrow Remain vote, what is to stop the Brexiteers demanding yet another referendum, and the already poisonous divisions in Britain being widened? But it’s up to those hard Remainers to make the case. That means being persuasive and having a grassroots campaign — not seeking to reverse the decision through the courts and/or Parliament — that wins over those who voted Remain, let alone Leave. Yes, Britain did have two referendums on Europe (though the referendums were not the same thing). But they were four decades apart.
  15. Some hard Remainers show absolute no interest whatsoever in understanding why so many voted to leave the EU, showing they have absolutely no interest in understanding why they lost in the first place.
  16. I’ve consistently and passionately argued against anti-immigration sentiment, and defended the rights of EU citizens in Britain (like here, here, here, and here). Arguing otherwise (as some have done on my timeline) is just farcical, to be perfectly honest. Labour has made it clear that it would grant EU citizens their rights from day one. Those saying Labour are throwing EU citizens under a bus are being disingenuous — and causing unnecessary fear to those who are already feeling deeply insecure. Is this not a sizeable difference between Labour and Tory Brexits, given the impact on three million people as well as their lovers, families, friends, colleagues and neighbours? If it’s being argued there’s no tangible difference between Labour and the Tories’ Brexit position, then surely the argument is the rights of EU migrants is inconsequential?) Jeremy Corbyn himself has more consistently defended migrants and refugees than almost any other politician — his first act on becoming leader was to address a pro-refugee rally. That said, the way he described EU immigration on the Marr Show was clumsy and wrong and must be avoided in future.
  17. I believe freedom of movement across Europe — combined with firm, progressive legislation to protect workers’ rights and prevent a race to the bottom — is a good thing and should be preserved.
  18. Hard Remainers need to learn that most of the population do not share their uncritical adulation of the European Union. Theirs is a fringe view, not shared by millions who voted Remain, let alone Leave. If they believe Remainers are all EU flag waving zealots, they are in for a rude awakening. They need to understand where people are if they are going to convince them.
  19. I’m sorry, but the Hard Remainers online are increasingly becoming a cult, which is ironic because that’s how many of them traditionally describe the left. More and more they resemble ‘cybernats’ (who were themselves entirely unrepresentative of SNP voters). Intolerant, hectoring, obsessively repeating a mantra that doesn’t convince outside of their bubble, subjecting any who dissent from their hardline stance to repeated social media pile-ons, engaging in outright abuse and harassment, saying that people who voted Remain aren’t really Remain supporters and are heretics. Every time I tweet about anything — including LGBTQ rights, with some comparing themselves as Remainers to when gay and bisexual men were persecuted by the law — they obsessively bring it back to Brexit. Do they think they are going to persuade anyone with this sort of behaviour?
  20. There is no question that ‘centrists’, ‘Macronists’, whatever you want to call them, are seeking to weaponise Brexit for other political purposes. I campaigned for Corbyn to become leader and voted for him twice, but I lost faith in his ability to win before the election on grounds of presentation and polling. Centrists disagreed with him politically, but relied on a pragmatic argument — that left-wing platforms would lead to electoral oblivion, whoever the leader was. When the election discredited this argument, they needed a point of principle to justify their existence. And Brexit provides that convenient point of principle.

As I’ve said, if I’m the enemy of these Hard Remainers, then I have absolutely no idea whatsoever how they believe they are going to convince the rest of the country (particularly those of them casting the electorate as backward, thick and bigoted). They need a better strategy than this. A much better strategy.

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