A Tory Brexit is a disaster for this country. That’s why, despite my own criticisms about the European Union, I campaigned for Remain and made the case as best I could on TV and in print. The official Leave campaigns ran on a toxic fuel of bigotry, racism and lies, with dire and lasting consequences for British politics.
In our politically polarised society, those of us on the Remain side have a very clear picture of the Leave campaign and the cynical charlatans — like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove — who led it. There is less clarity on how the Remain cause is seen amongst many of those who voted Leave. Why does this matter? It matters because we lost the referendum and the polling average shows that nearly everyone who voted either Remain or Leave have not changed their mind since.
To many of those who voted Leave, the Remain cause is seen as a cynical Establishment stitch-up driven by contempt for the people who voted Leave and a desire to overthrow the democratically expressed will of the people. That’s definitely not how the Stop Brexit wing of Remain voters see their cause: they believe that it is an attempt to save Britain from economic disaster and political isolation. But if they wish to achieve their stated aim they have to do two things: win over a considerable number of those who voted Leave, as well as the chunk of Remain supporters who believe that — having lost the referendum — we have no choice but to make the best of the result that we can.
But what has been desperately tragic is that many of the Stop Brexit cause seem to have *less* than no interest in both dealing with their reputational problems, or in winning over converts. Desperation and anger at Brexit, and those seen as complicit in Brexit — often particularly those who campaigned for and voted for Remain — seem to be sufficient.
“It’s only an advisory referendum!” they say about a vote in which the government sent every single household in Britain a leaflet promising to honour the result, whichever way they voted. Leave voters are often portrayed, implicitly or explicitly, as bigots, racists, thick, and/or dupes.
And then there’s the figureheads wheeled out to champion the Stop Brexit cause. Like Tony Blair. Polling tells us that he’s one of the most unpopular individuals — let alone politicians — in Britain, partly because of the small matter of a war sold on a false pretext which ended up an even worse calamity that many of those who opposed it predicted, and who then got paid millions to work for murdering torturing dictators. Oh forget about all that, say the Stop Brexit crew, it’s what he’s saying that matters! The morality of this aside, do they think a single Leave supporter — let alone Remain supporters resigned to the result — are going to reevaluate their views because someone they are profoundly (and understandably!) angry with is telling them why they are wrong? In everyday life, most of us do not like to accept we are wrong. Is an ex who has deeply hurt us telling us why we’re wrong going to do anything other than cement what we think?
The same goes for Nick Clegg, who by undermining faith in democracy and implementing austerity, helped pave the way to Brexit. Much of his message may be appealing, logical, well-thought-out, it might have you fist bumping the air, yelling: ‘Thank god someone in Westminster has the courage to call this madness out!’ But the messenger does matter in politics, whether you like that fact or not, and no, Clegg is not going to achieve anything other than reinforce the negative image the Remain cause has.
Which brings to me to Lord Adonis. A Twitter thread I wrote from last night has prompted quite the Twitter storm amongst Stop Brexiteers. Here are three of the tweets:
The response to this has focused on my alleged reverse snobbery, my contempt for skiing. So for the record, no, I have no objection to people skiing. The only reason I’ve never skied myself is I have an embarrassing lack of hand-eye coordination and would probably inflict a terrible physical injury on both myself and anyone in the vicinity.
I come back again to how the Stop Brexit cause is seen by its detractors. And, frankly, if I was a Farageist Leaver, having someone who failed in his aspirations to elected office, became an unelected Lord instead, deciding to resign from an unelected post whilst skiing in Austria in order to overturn a referendum result — well, I wouldn’t be able to craft it better if I tried. The optics are, frankly, disastrous — because they reinforce almost every negative image the Stop Brexit cause has. You can say ‘these things shouldn’t matter’ until your face turns the same colour as the EU flag, but it doesn’t mean they won’t.
But Lord Adonis is the son of an immigrant who grew up in care, as several dozens of tweets have pointed out to me. So if I was to give Lord Adonis some advice — take it or leave, it really — I would do this. I would renounce my peerage (as Tony Benn once did), denouncing the House of Lords as the sort of undemocratic institution that has to disappear in the new Britain that has to be built. I would emphasise that, no, there can be no turning back to either Cameron’s or Blair’s Britain, that there must be a new Britain rid of the injustices that help drive Brexit in the first place. I would tour Leave areas as part of a new grassroots national campaign, emphasising my background, that I know what hardship and insecurity is like from my own lived experience, and directly appeal to Leave supporters. I would run for elected office on this basis. I would not, as an unelected Lord, given an interview to a newspaper talking about how I decided to resign from an unelected post whilst skiing in Austria, given how the Remain cause is widely regarded, however unfair that image may be.
What is somewhat bemusing is many of those expressing outrage at this argument are committed torchbearers for ‘centrist Labour’ or ‘New Labour’. Political optics has always been at the absolute core of their argument. A left-led Labour party would inevitably fail, they said, because of optics, rather than specific policies which were superficially popular in isolation.
And no, Brexit isn’t simply about class. A majority of working-class people under 35 voted for Remain; a majority of middle-class people over 65 voted for Leave. Some of the most economically insecure people in Britain voted for Remain; some of the most affluent people voted for Leave. What does matter is that Leave supporters — both working-class and middle-class — genuinely believe they won a democratic vote fair and square, and that there is an Establishment stitch-up to subvert that vote.
I thought — and predicted Brexit would happen. This sounds arrogant but one leading right-wing blogger says I’m the only newspaper columnist who did, and the reason was because I thought the official Remain campaign was going down like a cup of sick with the people it needed to win, including some of those I grew up with. Here’s a video I recorded a week before the vote:
Frankly: I despair. Many in the Stop Brexit campaign seem to have absolutely no interest whatsoever in assessing why Remain failed in the first place. It’s comforting to just blame the lies of the Leave campaign, and go no further. There seems little interest in trying to build bridges with Leave voters — or Remainers resigned to the result. The same mistakes are just repeated ad infinitum. Anyone who points out that this mistaken strategy is doomed is subject to the greatest anger of all. Politics is won from the heart above all else, whether you admire or hate this fact. If stopping Brexit really is your objective, unless the numerous failures are addressed, then nothing will change, and a lifetime of angry political failure awaits.
P.S. I’m often told that my position is dictated by loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. My view on making the best we can of a referendum result I didn’t want is completely unchanged from that grim night in June 2016: