About Liberal Leavers and Remainers working together

Ian Dunt published an interesting viewpoint this week (here), essentially saying it is time for Liberal Leavers and Remainers to work together to lobby for a smoother Brexit. Which seems like a totally fair and reasonable thing to do.

However there are some snags with it.

First a point about definitions. The term “Liberal Leave” was coined, in part, after my article “The Liberal Case for Leave” was published on the Adam Smith Institute’s website at the start of the referendum campaign.

My position and that of the ASI is a classical liberal or “Whiggish” one, so the term “Liberal Leave” was, from the very start rather ambiguous, inviting the attention of some Liberal Democrats who assumed I must be one of them. As it happens I’m not, but it isn’t such a wild suggestion considering some of the outriders in the Libdem family such as former Libdem MP Paul Keetch who supported Leave (and, just to confuse matters even more, set up a small referendum campaign grouping called “Liberal Leave”).

No, my general political persuasion is more attuned to a certain wing of the Conservative Party, represented by the likes of Daniel Hannan, Steve Baker etc.

The other ambiguity in the definition of “Liberal Leave” is for commentators to call anyone a “Liberal Leaver” if they have a more outward-looking, globalist view of post-Brexit Britain. In other words, back to the Hannans, Bakers and Carswells of this world. Totally logical of course, when one considers that our broad outlook is the same but what this conflation doesn’t capture is the differences in approach to leaving the EU that had separated my stance from theirs.

Put aside that this might seem a bit “People’s Front of Judea”, and instead let’s run with the common and looser definition of “Liberal Leave” as simply meaning outward-looking globalist Brexiteers.

This group is a large and influential one within the Leave movement. It often has a classically liberal, free trade outlook and isn’t unduly stressed by immigration numbers (only that Westminster should have the power to control the numbers). In the context of post-Brexit Britain, its chief proponents may even end up on the side of the domestic debate that argues for a very open immigration policy.

Within that “Liberal Leave” group is a sub-group which I’ll call “Technically-Smooth Leave” or TSL for short. So I’m in the “Liberal Leave” group but I’m also in the TSL sub-group and during the referendum campaign, my preferred option for a technically-smooth exit was to initially step out to an EEA-only position as a transition towards a new UK/EU trading relationship.

But while the EEA transition step was the TSL sub-group’s solution during the referendum campaign (in which the main Leave camp deliberately ignored technical mechanisms for leaving the EU), it didn’t inevitably need to be that solution. It became so mostly because of Dr Richard North, who almost alone within the Leave movement constructed a well-researched approach to Brexit. Prior to 23rd June, most TSL contributions including my own can be traced back to North’s research. But the landscape has steadily changed in the six months since 23rd June, with other expert voices coming into the debate from the Remain-voting side, who now support a more broadly Liberal Leave position that does not involve EEA. Additionally, opinion across the political spectrum has generally shifted in a more “Leavewards” direction.

But setting aside the technicalities, the overriding and consistent objective of the “Liberal Leave” group *and* the TSL sub-group was always to leave the EU. And if the country voted to leave, as it then did, why would you not try and do it in as “smooth and orderly” way as possible (to use Theresa May’s words)?

That brings me back to Dunt’s piece. He appears to hold an unsaid assumption that within the term “Liberal Leave”, the word “Liberal” trumps the word “Leave”; that if we Liberals could just come together “again” then all will be well. Setting aside the stretchy definition of the word “Liberal”, perhaps there is also an unsaid but connected assumption here that assumes a bit of deft and cunning footwork can peal away Liberal Leavers from their nativist fellow travellers.

But it isn’t like that.

Liberal Leavers are fundamentally Leavers. We started out as Leavers (for democratic reasons), who also saw a future post-Leave Britain that was open. We did not start out as Liberal-minded agnostics or instinctive Remainers who then spotted a niche way that Brexit might work for the UK.

I don’t know if Ian Dunt understands this, but it’s clear that a subset of Remainers don’t. I have lost count of the number of Remainers on social media who reserve a special place in hell for Liberal Leavers whom they see as betraying Liberalism (howsoever they personally define it). Consequently they think Liberal Leavers have played a deluded political game in this referendum; who have cynically “laid down with the devil” in order to achieve “something that was never achievable” and “now look like a bunch of idiots”. “A Faustian pact with illiberal forces”, as many have said, including Hugo Dixon’s InFacts website.

This view held by some Remainers is nearly always linked to a hysterical standpoint that sees every event since 23rd June as proof of the UK turning bad. The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers and the hysteria that followed it was a case in point.

In such a context, these same Remainers may increasingly see Liberal Leavers as rather brow-beaten, sorry souls who need to be helped and offered a new political home— “people whom we should stop attacking as liberal traitors and bring back into the fold instead”.

But as I say, this betrays a deep and fundamental misunderstanding of what Liberal Leave is and what its protagonists want. They are still Leavers.#

Which brings me to the biggest problem all Liberal Leavers will have with Ian Dunt’s piece. After going for the TSL sub-group’s EFTA/EEA transition option (although the word “transition” is left out), he lets slip the real reason for seeking this option [emphasis added]…..

“For Remainers, committing to Efta and single market membership does mean dropping the calls to get back into the EU immediately and campaigning for a type of Brexit, if only a soft one. That is a big pill to swallow and I don’t underestimate it. Reluctant Remainers like myself and countless others find it hard to make this case. We didn’t vote Remain out of any great love for the EU, but out of alarm and horror at the anti-immigrant prejudice and political hysteria which parts of this country seemed to experience during the campaign. It’s harder for us to make the case that Remainer strategy has to move from demands for a second referendum to getting stuck into the what-type-of-Brexit debate. It needs big, full-hearted, red-blooded Europhiles to make that point with any credibility.
In truth, this is a false dichotomy anyway. You can pursue tactics which are idealistic and practical at the same time. In the long term, being in Efta makes it much easier to re-join the EU, because you maintain regulatory equivalency and a close relationship. In the medium term, backing a moderate Brexit now doesn’t prevent you calling for a referendum in 18 months or so if there is a massive public swing away from Leave. And in the short term, it is a much less damaging option than the hard Brexit pursued by the government.”

I realise he is probably trying to give something to both sides here but such an approach is no basis for engagement between Liberal Leavers and Remainers. Indeed, it is at risk of driving Liberal Leavers away (especially those in the TSL sub-group), as they will not want to combine with any Remainer using the option as a kind of Trojan Horse. Indeed the article just reinforces the fears and anger of UKIP-types who think EFTA/EEA, even as a transition state, will be exactly that.

Liberal Leavers Ben Kelly and Iain Martin discussing Ian Dunt’s article

Liberal Leavers including TSL Leavers are as pleased with the 23rd June as any other Leaver. And that continues to be the case.# It is Remainers who need to recognise that Leave won the day and that support for the result is still solid after six months.

In other words, it is Remainers who need to pause and engage in a period of calm reflection, self-examination and acceptance i.e. the usual convention for a losing side.

However on a more positive note, I’m happy to say that a significant part of the Remain lobby is looking to engage with Leave constructively. For example, Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna have made some extraordinary shifts in their positions in recognition of the reality of 23rd June.

There is therefore a real opportunity to bring people together on the correct Leave-based footing and I look forward to such initiatives.

But the Dunt approach is not it.


# Footnote: It is possible that Dunt’s impression of Liberal and TSL Leavers is formed by Dr Richard North’s continued “catastrophising” of every Brexit strategy other than his own, describing the current situation as an emerging “train wreck”. This has reached the point where North is coming close to suggesting that remaining in the EU would be better than a so-called ‘hard’ exit. But North is now a marginalised figure within Leave, including within the Liberal Leave group, and increasingly now within the TSL sub-group.