Having a reasoned debate about Brexit is impossible. That’s not because of the large majority of people in Britain, irrespective of how they voted. It’s because of a vocal but unrepresentative minority of Remainers and Leavers who are intolerant of political disagreement and believe that dissenters (even those who voted the same way as them) are threats to Britain, either by destroying the economy or surrendering sovereignty.
I campaigned for Remain; like most Britons, I had problems with the EU. But my view was the referendum campaign wasn’t even about the EU. It was about, above all else, immigration. The official Leave campaigns made the strategic decision to wage a poisonous xenophobic campaign which scapegoated migrants and refugees for all the multiple social injustices which don’t just scar British society, but define it. A victory for Leave, therefore, would be a victory for some of the most reactionary forces in Britain, given the nature of the campaign. Furthermore, my view was that workers’ rights and co-ordination on tackling tax avoidance and climate change would be imperilled, and that the economic dislocation caused by leaving the EU would cause pain to those who are already struggling. Left forces across Europe — like Podemos in Spain — wanted us to stay, and they were right.
Then we lost, and many of the fears that I expressed in a video filmed a week before the result were realised. Ever since I’ve done my best to campaign against the legitimised xenophobia and racism, and to defend the rights of EU migrants in Britain, which Labour have pledged to safeguard from day one of a new government.
In the last couple of days I’ve been in the midst of a never-ending twitter storm of people angry about the referendum, and determined that Britain must stay in the European Union at all costs. They’ve been whipped up by certain blue-tick celebrities. The anger has been caused because I’ve said, as a Remainer who is a democrat, that I accept and respect the referendum result, which is the view I’ve had ever since we lost.
The response has varied. Some are just disappointed, others in passionate disagreement; others have resorted to the age-old crutches of online debate, like seeing ulterior motives for people’s opinions because of an ability to accept that others can possibly disagree with them in good faith. Others have suggested that I must be mentally ill and/or be having a mental breakdown. Others have simply been abusive. Others have repeatedly tried to weaponise my sexuality, repetitively arguing ‘oh, would you accept a referendum on the criminalisation of homosexuality’, a thoroughly stupid argument I’ll come on to.
The polling shows that most Remain voters (let alone the rest of the population) have the same view as me: that we regret the referendum result but in the interests of democracy it must be respected.
If they are subjected to the obsessive haranguing I’ve had for the last 48 hours, then their views will only be hardened. Wanting to overturn a referendum result is an entirely legitimate perspective to have. It is an extremely controversial perspective currently, with polling suggesting little evidence of Leavers regretting their vote.
To shift opinions would need a number of things: a charm offensive that persuades those who voted Remain in 2016, let alone Leavers; a grassroots movement; and emotional arguments that go for the heart as well as the head. None of these ingredients appear to be on offer from hardcore anti-Brexiteers who are angrily lashing out at Remain supporters like me, let alone the 52% who voted to Leave.
Let me explain where I think they’re going catastrophically wrong.
First, questioning the intelligence and ability of the electorate. The electorate are not informed enough to make a decision on such a complex issue, or so this argument goes. Some, frankly, express outright contempt for the public’s decision-making abilities. This form of elitism is profoundly anti-democratic and repels people.
Secondly, describing the referendum as advisory. This, I’m afraid, is an argument which languishes in the No Man’s Land between pedantry and sophistry. Any British referendum is only technically advisory because of the nature of our parliamentary democracy. But the government made it explicitly clear that the referendum result would be honoured, whatever it is. “The Government will implement what you decide,” as the official Government EU leaflet put it. “The Government will regard themselves as being bound by the decision of the referendum and will proceed with serving an article 50 notice,” as Philip Hammond put it. That was accepted by the Official Opposition, as well as the official Remain campaign. Arch anti-Brexiteers argue (as I’ll go into) that the referendum campaign was littered with lies. The ultimate lie would be the key protagonists on all sides accepting the referendum result as the definitive word, and then afterwards dismissing the result on the basis it was only advisory. I’m afraid only those who have not spoken to people outside of their political bubbles can possibly regard this as remotely politically persuasive; if it was ever acted on it, it would cause probably permanent damage to trust in democracy (which I’ll come on to).
Third, the referendum result is illegitimate because of the lies of the Leave campaign. Yes, the official Leave campaigns were full of lies, from impending Turkish membership of the EU to £350 million extra money a week for the NHS to just blatant xenophobic hatred. Unfortunately there are many elections — let alone referendums — across the world (let alone this country) which are full of lies. And quite frankly if Remain would have prevailed, Brexiteers would now be claiming the exact same thing: from George Osborne’s threats of a punishment Budget (which never transpired) to threats to peace in Europe to wilder warnings of economic armageddon.
Fourth, imagine if Remain had won by 52%. This keeps being put to me by hardcore anti-Brexiteers: wouldn’t Nigel Farage be demanding another referendum and denying the legitimacy of the result? Yes he would, and these same hardcore anti-Brexiteers would, if they’re being honest with themselves, be passionately opposing such a call. They’d say the matter is settled, we had a referendum, we’re not having another one.
Fifth, I’m accused of hypocrisy. Don’t I campaign against the Tory government? I’m writing this on the train having spent the day campaigning for Labour in Boris Johnson’s constituency, after all. If I can campaign against the government which came to power in the last election, why can’t I campaign against the referendum? The critical difference is that, in our democracy, parliamentary elections are inherently transient. They happen every few years so we have a chance to reject those who govern every sphere of life in Britain if they cause us dissatisfaction. That is not the same as a one-off referendum on a single issue, where the result was accepted in advance by all key protagonists on both sides. If we were having a referendum on the EU every five years, they would have a point. We’re not. That may be an argument against referendums of any kind, but it is still irrelevant to the matter at hand. Does that mean a referendum result is permanent? No: but you have to convince enough of the electorate that another referendum is even necessary (which doesn’t apply to parliamentary elections), let alone that the last referendum result should be overturned.
Sixth, would you support decriminalisation of homosexuality if the majority voted for it? I keep having this tweeted at me because I’m gay. Let’s be clear here: there is a difference between a referendum on a constitutional issue, such as Britain’s precise relationship with the European Union, and the majority voting to deprive a minority of its civil rights. Yes, the referendum result does have an impact on a minority of non-citizens — EU citizens — who this country depends on: in the economy, culturally, as our friends, neighbours, colleagues, lovers. That’s why Labour has pledged to guarantee EU citizens’ existing rights on day one, and why I’ve campaigned — as best I possibly can — to oppose the xenophobia legitimised by the referendum, and to support EU migrants (like here, here, and here).
Seventh, sorry, but I’m convinced that overturning the referendum result would cause catastrophic, possibly irreversible damage to our democracy. It’s quite clear that one of the factors which drove Leave was disillusionment with the political elites. If a referendum result presented as the definitive word is overturned, what exact message will that send out? That you can vote for something, but tough? Imagine 52% voted for Remain and the government went, sorry, but tough, we’re leaving anyway?
Eighth, didn’t Labour’s unexpected successes have a lot to do with Remainers? Well look, the Lib Dems were the party that promised to have a second referendum and overturn the last referendum: and they flopped. Labour had the same position during the election as they do now. If attempting to reverse the referendum was really the priority for millions that it’s now being presented by some, then why did so many Remainers vote for Labour and not the Lib Dems? Why is Labour’s vote holding up in the polls, particularly among the younger voters who most decisively plumped for both Remain and Labour? Is it really being suggested they’re being ignorant when Labour has over and over and over again made it clear it honours the referendum result — including voting to activate Article 50 before the election result, much to the chagrin of the hardcore anti-Brexiteer faction? I’m afraid this is the most disingenuous of all the arguments. I knocked on I don’t know how many doors across the country in this election, and Brexit barely even featured. It is just not a priority for the majority of people.
That’s why it’s been my position — ever since the referendum — that Labour should honour the referendum result. That’s been their position, and they are right and showing leadership on the issue — even though I did believe that Labour MPs representing Remain constituencies had no choice but to defy the whip over Article 50. I regret the referendum result. I don’t think it’s good for our country. But the arguments above lead me, in good faith, to conclude that we have no choice but to honour the referendum result. If there is a decisive shift in public opinion, then it is a subject worth revisiting. My own view now is that campaigning to reverse the referendum result will cause a very considerable backlash and undermine faith in democracy. Which is why my view is the debate now has to be what Brexit we should have — rather than whether we should have Brexit at all.