“I am angrier than I can ever remember being about anything.”
I wrote that on 26th June 2016 in an email. I wasn’t alone. As Barry Shitpeas has perceptively observed:
“Before the referendum the people who wanted us to leave Europe were angry all the time… and the good thing about [the] Brexit result was that afterwards they stayed angry… but now all the Remainers were angry too. So it brought the whole country together.”
Why did Remainers become so angry? And why, six months on, haven’t we calmed down? In his own review of the year, Anand Menon offers this analysis:
“It is hard to avoid the feeling that the sense of bereavement that ran through Remainer reactions stemmed not from [Brexit’s] anticipated impact, but from the fact that it was not their preferred outcome. These, simply put, are not people who are used to losing.”
This post is partly a response to that argument. It allows me to write on a subject on which I am an authority: myself. But I expect I am also a reasonable representative of one slice of ‘Remainer Britain’.
I certainly reacted strongly to the referendum result. But it is worth separating some of those emotions. The reason I felt profoundly unhappy — ‘bereaved’ if you like — is indeed because the result was not the one I had dearly hoped for. I highly value my & my family’s European citizenship, and am distressed that we are set to be stripped of it. (I don’t see anything ignoble in that feeling: I am entitled to my disappointment.)
So, Menon is perfectly correct that the reason Remainers are sad is the straightforward fact that we lost. But the reason I was — and remain — angry is something entirely different: the manner of that loss.
I can explain it in two words: Vote Leave. I can also prove categorically that it is not a consequence of my “not [being] used to losing”. Firstly, in point of fact, I am entirely used to coming out on the wrong side of democratic votes (although none of those previous defeats had a fraction of the emotional impact of June’s referendum). Also (and I think this should be a decisive point) I wrote about my considerable anger before we lost.
I wasn’t the only one. To quote the usually measured John Major: “I am angry at the way the British people are being misled”, and Michael Dougan: “the Leave campaign has degenerated into dishonesty, really, on an industrial scale”, both speaking before the vote.
Win, lose, or draw — and quite apart from the pros and cons of EU membership — the official Leave Campaign was an appalling low point in British public life, which to my mind Menon’s 2016 review badly underplays. With so much else going on, I don’t think its ramifications — as distinct from those of Brexit — have been fully appreciated.
For anyone wanting to understand the acrimony in the country now, pointing at Remainers failing to “move on” and “get over it” is insufficient: Messrs Elliott, Cummings, Johnson, Gove, & co must also get their due.
“Turkey is joining the EU.”
“We send the EU £350 million a week.”
By now, everyone is bored sick of these deceptions and their debunkings, but I make no apology for dragging them out once more: after all, the number of times they were deployed is even higher. For me, a pinch-yourself moment was Boris Johnson’s appearance before the Treasury Select Committee: the future Foreign Secretary calmly sat there, jokingly telling lie after lie after lie.
Beyond Vote Leave’s numerous individual untruths were two overarching whoppers: firstly that we can leave the EU while retaining the essential benefits of remaining and feeling no economic pain, i.e. that we can have our cake and eat it. (Yes, Mr. Johnson’s motto is a well-known metaphor for attempting the impossible. How did no-one notice?)
Their second grand fiction was to place the NHS in the centre of their campaign. It wasn’t only on their infamous bus, but in TV ads and plenty of other messages. This was in the face of opposition from numerous medical bodies who know that there is negligible likelihood of the NHS benefitting from Brexit, and every chance of it being harmed, possibly terminally.
Make no mistake about it, the leaders of Vote Leave knew this too. Their ethics were those of a charity collector rattling a tin for blind orphans, and then depositing the takings in their own bank account with nothing more than a vague assurance that the poor sightless darlings would certainly benefit, in some way or other, in due course.
A nasty transformation has happened to politics in this country. Britain’s proposed exit from the EU is only part of the story. The ugliest aspects of the US culture war have been, deliberately, imported into our public life. As a consequence — in or out the EU — the country is a darker, more divided, less truthful place. So how about we lay the blame where it is deserved?
Vote Leave took a win-at-all-costs approach to the referendum. Since they won, we have all begun counting the costs. It is emphatically not just Remainers who should be furious. Vote Leave have ensured that Project Brexit has been set up to fail. Unmeetable expectations been raised. For some Leave voters — such as those wanting to secure the NHS more money — the whole escapade has already failed. Vote Leave promised all things to all people; now no-one who voted leave, whether pro- or anti-immigration, pro- or anti-free trade, can have any confidence of seeing the consequences they hoped for. The British people — a majority of referendum voters (the 48% plus some unknowable, but surely significant, proportion of the 52%) — are the victims of a swindle.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Brexit occurs and the country manages to heal. But if that is to happen, some sort of radical detoxification is going to be required. It is no good simply commanding Remainers to fall into line. Instead, Brexiteers must take the lead, propose serious compromises, and offer meaningful olive branches. Insult us however you like, but for many, the whole endeavour is tainted, not only because we consider it inherently a bad idea, but by the circumstances of its birth. (As an ongoing reminder of this, Vote Leave — now re-branded Change Britain — continues to pump effluent into our national discourse.)
All of which leads me to…
A Government of National Disunity
If Vote Leave is why I became angry, two further words can explain why, six months later, I still am: Theresa May.
In her New Year’s message, the Prime Minister called for national unity, and assured us that she would also seek to represent the 48% in her negotiations with Brussels. These are welcome sentiments, but — frankly — I’ll believe it when I see it.
Her actions till now incline me to file those warm words in the dustbin.
For one, the Prime Minister simply cannot give one of the Great Offices of State to the blithering pseud Boris Johnson, and expect non-partisan support. True to form, he has continued his work from Vote Leave by further trashing Britain’s reputation for pragmatism and diplomacy. You want to unify the country behind him — are you joking, Mrs May?
But it is not just him. It is also her. If the referendum result tops the list of 2016’s Worst Moments For UK Politics, in second place is May’s speech to the United Kingdom Independence, sorry, Conservative Party conference. With its spiteful attack on “citizen[s] of the world” and strong anti-immigration slant, it marked a lurch not just towards Brexit, but to a senselessly destructive Hard Brexit.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May has gone to great lengths to appease extremists within the Tory Party; her New Year’s message is the first indication I can recall of any concern whatsoever for Remainers.
Harry Hutton once said of Michelle Malkin: “I’ve never been as angry about anything as she is about everything”.
Many Remainers, I suspect, are not used to this extreme level of exasperation. It’s certainly new to me. What to do with it? Here are some thoughts:
1. Undirected or misdirected rage is only ever negative and destructive. I am not angry with Leave voters, at least not en bloc. The majority are decent people with whom we should be able to make common cause, at least on certain issues. Or, if not, we can at least agree to disagree in a civilised fashion. (Remember when that was a thing?) Don’t become a mirror-image Malkin. Keep the ire channelled in the right direction: at the head-banging extremists, and the confidence-tricksters behind the Leave campaign, and the cowardly politicians now shambling towards disaster.
2. No seriously, keep it focussed. The UK’s national conversation has become dangerously heated. Tempers fray, but shouting matches achieve nothing except festering ill-feeling. Don’t let relationships suffer needless damage. Don’t make things personal, or take things personally. De-escalate rows. Look for common ground. If nothing good can come of a conversation, politely end it. This is all possible without compromising on important principles. Exhibit the decent, tolerant country the UK has been, and can be again.
3. Compartmentalise. Don’t let political anger poison other aspects of life. Stress is unhealthy. Don’t obsess. Have non-political conversations & hobbies. Chill.
Having said all of which:
4. Stay Angry. If the Eurosceptic movement has taught us anything, it is that unrelenting anger, over time, can be an immensely powerful driver of change.
Remainers (boosted by Bregreters and further, on some issues, by Neutrals and Liberal Leavers) now comprise a large, lively, and powerful lobby. But we have not yet fully mobilised, and consequently are still being sidelined and provoked.
Some examples: Soft Brexit (e.g. EEA membership) is sometimes argued to be politically untenable because senior Leave campaigners insist upon a drastic reduction in immigration. To which the appropriate response is: who cares a damn what they insist upon? If there’s one thing that should be taken off the table immediately (and thrown on the floor and stamped on) it is their Clean Break, which would be insanely damaging. There is no mandate for it, there is no majority for it, it is categorically against the national interest. Why are we even discussing it?
Another case in point: Theresa May is said to be mulling the UK’s exit from the European Convention on Human Rights. Why? Has she not got enough on her plate with Brexit? Has she not already sufficiently sacrificed our international standing? She calls for national unity from one side of her mouth, while announcing fresh schemes to antagonise us from the other.
Meanwhile, our national institutions have come under attack: firstly (and most ironically) the sovereignty of Parliament, then the independence of the judiciary, now the neutrality of the civil service. These assaults mostly originate from the tabloids and backbenches, but the government is complicit too, through its abject failure to provide a robust defence. Why? Because the government is terrified of Conservative hardliners. Well, we must see to it that they are terrified of us too.
The political class hasn’t heard us roar yet, but if they carry on like this, they surely will, and sooner rather than later.
And this is where, maybe, we owe Vote Leave a debt of gratitude. Their lies were so brazen, their campaign so totally outrageous, that it has bequeathed us a useful legacy: an enduring ability to inflame the passions. If I ever catch myself slipping into a meek acceptance of post-truth politics, or standing by while British science and higher education are pointlessly wrecked, or otherwise acclimatising to the grot of Brexit Britain, I have a reliable tool to snap myself out of it: I can just bring to mind Boris’s bus, one more time.