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How to win the Brexit Civil War. An open letter to my fellow Remainers

Brexit has already begun. Any attempt to deny this and merely ‘stop Brexit’ will fail. To succeed we must overthrow the Brexit project with another, positive one.

Dear Fellow Remainers,

We are failing to keep our country in the EU. Even as Brexit softens to the point of complete incoherence positions are hardening. Normally I write for all interested readers whatever their particular views. But here I just want to address you. Not because I want to close off what I’m saying from those who support Leave. But because we Remainers are not engaging with Leave voters in the way we must. So I’m writing to you about how we should communicate with Brexit supporters.

To do so we have to face up to reality: we are in the midst of a deep struggle over the future of our country. It is not just a matter of opposing views but the nature of the antagonism.

For over a year competing Remain campaigns had no coherent vision and made no impact. At last, thanks in good part to the efforts of Henry Porter, Director of the Convention on Brexit, most of us are uniting around support for People’s Vote. Its demand is that if a deal is formulated, voters should have the final say: is the proposed actual Brexit one we want, or should we stay in the EU? When I went to visit the crowded office of People’s Vote last month in London’s Millbank tower, nine organisations were working together, mobilizing support for a large demo on Saturday 23 June, and a tenth, Better Britain is cooperating.

I support People’s Vote to the hilt. But we should be careful what we wish for. Despite significant shifts towards Remain in Northern Ireland and Wales, there is a good chance that if there is a referendum we will lose - while a narrow win without an energetic, positive follow-up could put Nigel Farage in No 10 within five years.

We have to aim for the long-term as a full-spectrum contest is underway. This being Britain, it is mainly argued about in terms of trade, business and how to organise economic growth. The forces that unleashed it, however, are fired by patriotism rather than pragmatism – on both sides. To put it in terms of opposing, negative caricatures: a passionate rejection of losing our independence to the EU is up against our stubborn refusal to embrace Great British isolationism. Each side is committed to a future unacceptable to the other.

Most Remainers and Leavers are understandably reluctant to see themselves as initiating such an alarming confrontation. The Tory Brexiteers hoped success would be like the advent of Thatcherism. There would be cries of pain and continued opposition from multi-cultural leftists. But they expected the political order as a whole to accept the outcome, rally to their vision, and continue the British tradition of ‘losers consent’, while Whitehall delivered Brexit. In a parallel fashion, leading Remainers wilfully hoped good sense would prevail, as the impossibility of leaving the EU while retaining the benefits of membership sunk in; then Brexit would be abandoned like the Poll Tax, and the country would revert back to business as usual. On both sides, leaders saw their opposition to the other as a way of returning the country to its old normality.

In fact, a political revolution is the ineluctable consequence of the Brexit vote. There is no way back to how the UK was governed before 2016. The question is whose revolution will it be. Dominic Cummings, the mastermind of the Leave campaign, has just published a furious open letter to Tory MPs and donors on the “Brexit shambles” accusing them of failing to understand this. His devastating critique of the May government’s hapless approach to Brexit (“The Government effectively has no credible policy and the whole world knows it”) seems as unanswerable as his core argument: that “Brexit cannot be done with the traditional Westminster/Whitehall system”. His final warning: “If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it… Best wishes”.

In a separate blogpost, Cummings applied his warning equally to those Remainers like Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson (who in effect chaired the disastrous ‘Stronger In’ campaign for the Remain side in the referendum), and ex-Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and all those who hope a second referendum will return the country to being ruled by their successors. Cummings tells them that such a re-run will leave SW1 – his shorthand for Whitehall and Westminster – a “smoking ruin”.

Finally, the penny seems to be dropping on our side. To take a dramatic example, Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton, both of whom played significant roles in the reproduction of the Blairite political order, open their new book Saving Britain with a ringing declaration: “Brexit voters were right. The status quo is insupportable”.

Adonis, who was a minister under Blair and is now in the House of Lords, and Hutton, who edited the Observer and is now a columnist for it, have entered the process that Michael Sandel and Jon Cruddas have called for: an essential reckoning with the recent past. Adonis and Hutton accept that a despotically over-centralised UK state was responsible for delivering the country into the hands of a neoliberal form of globalisation, which then generated its Brexit repudiation. They rightly insist that the source of the problem is in Britain itself and not the EU and that staying in Europe is essential to repairing the damage.

The bitter paradox is that the democratic cry of ‘Take Back Control’ has been captured by hedge-funded bigotry. Were Brexit to succeed, it will deliver not independence or an honest democracy but rule by oligarchs and their financial servants, such as the hard-right Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, under a mendacious exploitation of the rhetoric of sovereignty. The two authors call on us to resist this outcome with all our might, and conclude their book with Tolstoy’s sober warning in War and Peace, “A battle is won by those who are firmly resolved to win it.”

As anger rises on both sides, Martin Wolf, the influential Chief Economics Commentator for the Financial Times, who rarely comes to a judgment without at least two supporting graphs, observes that the result is a form of “civil war… over the sort of country this is”. He sees a clash between two “irreconcilable… evenly-matched” sides. Although he’d have loved for Brexit to be halted, he advocates “damage limitation” and a deal that keeps the UK in the customs union because frustrating Brexit will “tear the country apart”. In response, Ian Dunt, editor of Politics.co.uk and a coruscating critic of Brexit, tweeted that for him it is already a form of civil war and to cease calling for a reversal of Brexit would be to accept a defeat he has no intention of embracing.

On the Leave side, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Daily Telegraph’s columnist on global economic affairs, thundered that the compromise Wolf wishes for will in fact result in exactly what he hopes to avoid. Leaving the EU while staying in the customs union is a “Brexit from Hell. Such an outcome would risk a slow slide towards civil war”. Evans-Pritchard predicts fury, “volcanic fury”, if Britain remains in the Customs Union,

“How can any British parliamentarian support such a formula? It cannot plausibly lead to a settled outcome. It must chafe so badly that passions erupt with volcanic fury within five years or sooner, further poisoning British relations with Europe, and nurturing a lethal sentiment in much of British society that this ancient island democracy has been subverted by a self-interested elite”.

Adamantine language goes back to the immediate period after the referendum, when regular people in working class constituencies were asked if they would accept any other consequence than ‘Out’. Just watch this clip from a fish and chip shop in Burnley, which voted 67% for Leave. Speaking calmly and steadily from over the counter Liz Pugh tells Michelle Clifford of Sky News it will be “civil war” if politicians do not deliver.

Two years on there is a shift of tone and class, wending its way via UKIP’s Neil Hamilton in 2016 threatening “armed revolution” to Farage saying in 2017 that he would “pick up a rifle” if Theresa May does not deliver Brexit. Now, it is the arriviste political-media elite who speak of violence. Unlike Pugh they lose their cool. Allison Pearson observed the House of Lords debate on May 1 for her Telegraph column. Her response is worth reading at length as it reeks of the stench of right-wing cordite,

"Watching the debate, I was absolutely disgusted. Who were these unelected toads dripping with condescension for the British people? Lord Bilimoria actually said that Parliament knows what is “in the best interests of the people and the country”. No, mate, you are the servants and we are the masters. Hard to compute in your ermine-lined ivory tower, I know, but the clue is in the word “democracy”… Theresa May should tell the Tory rebels, ‘This is a matter of confidence’… the Lords if they have any sense… will accept the Commons verdict, if they don’t then I’m afraid it’s war. The British People vs Parliament. I’m looking for a tank on eBay. Do they really think we will be told we voted the wrong way by an elite no one voted for at all?"

Leave aside the vile, pseudo-plebeian swagger - no proletarian worth her salt would write about people as “mate” in this manner - as Sunder Katwala observed, if Pearson had been a Muslim who tweeted she was searching for a tank on eBay, the police would be knocking on her door. The Telegraph removed Pearson’s article from their website but it is cached in Press Reader.

The Daily Mail, being better edited, is careful not to incite violence directly. But when its front-page headlines denounce judges as “enemies of the people” and members of the second chamber as “traitors” (in response to the same debate Pearson wrote about), its language is more seriously inflammatory, because so much more prominent. 

Brexiteers don’t have a monopoly on virulent, polarising rhetoric. They are expressing their frustration more loudly now. Immediately after the referendum, along with an appalling rise in bigotry, Remainers belittled Leave voters in a vile fashion and were also responsible for the initial hardening of positions; as the Brexit-backing Claire Fox’s recent testimony demonstrates.

What is needed is not more alarmism but a cool grasp of the forces at work. These are not rational or transactional ones. The Daily Mail, at least, has an understanding of the difference:

“The truth inveterate Remoaners cannot grasp is that it was not wholly, or even principally, on economic grounds that the country voted to leave. No, the decision owed far more to a deep-seated human yearning to recover our national identity and independence by taking back sovereign control of our borders, laws, money and trade. For this precious prize voters were prepared to risk taking a knock to their standard of living, at least in the short term, should Project Fear’s scare stories prove true”. 

Everything we know about the referendum confirms this is how it was seen, certainly by the English outside London, who voted by an 11 per cent majority for Leave. These two contrasting word-clouds illustrated what happened: 

Researchers, Chris Prosser, Jon Mellon, and Jane Green of The British Election Study Team asked a large cross sample what mattered to them in the referendum. The word-clouds map the answers. Remainers were overwhelmingly concerned with their economic future. Leavers said ‘immigration” but “were actually more likely to mention sovereignty related issues overall”. The conclusion? “The referendum campaign was not a fight about which side had the best argument on the issues… Instead, the fight was about which of these issues was more important.”

Both sides argued past each other and dug in. Not all referendums are like this. Scotland’s in 2014 on independence saw voters engage within a single shared framework of issues, as did Ireland’s more focussed one on abortion. Why should a new UK-wide plebiscite on EU membership, however, be any different from the first? When the Prime Minister embraces a form of customs union as she must, what if she calls a snap referendum this Autumn to deal with her back-bench hard-liners and any Cabinet dissent?

Even if Labour supports Remain in such a referendum, are we going to win England - if we are calling for free-movement, are all over the shop on sovereignty, and say we should stay in an EU that is visibly in crisis and screwing Italy? I doubt it.

Three things are necessary.

First, we have to get our tanks onto their word-cloud. We have to engage with issues like immigration, sovereignty, regulation, and ‘taking control’ as well as economic policy. Above all, we need to make the democratic impulse locked within Brexit our own. Confining the argument to economic consequences, especially when the Euro is on the edge of a meltdown and there could be another global financial crash, won’t cut through (nor should it). Brexit is about how we are governed not how much money the country makes. Like Adonis and Hutton, we must embrace the referendum’s verdict on the UK’s democratic failure - and come up with credible solutions to it. We need to begin this now or, if we have to scramble for unconvincing answers in October, we will be positioned as nostalgic for a failed status quo. We have to show, in a principled fashion, why the EU enhances our capacity to govern ourselves, how we can manage free movement, that we need not be afraid that Brussels will undermine our democracy or stop us improving our way of life, that there is no such thing as “our” oligarchs, and that fleeing into their arms in any EU crisis only leaves the fat for the fire. And we need to sum this up in a clear positive story.

Second, we must not indulge in infantile, self-defeating bouts of verbal terrorism against the other side that simply consolidate their sense of grievance and defiance. We must not treat them as if they are simultaneously venomous and inconsequential; A.C. Grayling, for example, tweeted that if we stop Brexit, the episode will evaporate like a “nasty, temporary, hiccup, soon forgotten” - as if the judgment of 17 million people was a mild outbreath of halitosis. Even those who take the forces of Brexit very seriously, like Timothy Garton Ash, can use language that implies it is a passing danger, as when he called on us to “foil” Brexit as if it was a mere thrust, potentially deadly but not in itself of lasting significance. This is especially important in terms of respect for Labour MPs. Some with North and Midland constituencies share what their voters feel. Our starting point for every argument about the need to remain in the EU should be “Brexit voters were right. The status quo is insupportable”.

Third, mobilising to march through London, speeches that rally the converted, poster campaigns that reposition the EU in a positive way, exposing the economic dangers especially to employment, are well-tried methods of strengthening one’s own side and shifting opinion. But what is happening is unprecedented and Brexit will not be reversed by traditional techniques alone. We need to be gathering in Leeds, where 49% voted Leave, as well as London, or Doncaster (69% Leave) as well as Westminster. We need to talk with those who think anyone seeking to stay in the EU is trying to “kill democracy”, see January’s vivid Guardian survey.  We could create more citizens assemblies on Brexit like the Manchester one and give them national publicity. We need to learn from last month’s Irish referendum. As Fintan O’Toole describes, those who won decided to “talk to everybody and make assumptions about nobody” and they did not “jeer back”.

If we want another referendum the work needs to begin now to make it an honest one. O’Toole emphasizes that the best thing about the Irish referendum was the way voters shared their own stories, which proved a vital antidote to hi-tech marketing. This is hard to emulate when it comes to EU membership, which is so remote that people project their bogies and fantasies onto Brussels. Yet something personal is taking place. Jon Trickett is, in effect, Corbyn’s Shadow Secretary for the constitution. In an important speech on why “the change that is needed can’t be achieved by the existing arrangements” (as he put it in the discussion afterwards) he emphasised, “For many, the sense of community, of purpose, of who we are, and of the place we inhabit, is so disrupted that the future now feels more dangerous than the past”.

Fear. Fear is an important ongoing reason for Brexit. Fear of  the future, fear of loss of security, fear of cuts, fear of being without a government that knows what it is doing, fear of a government that does know and is indifferent to you, fear of a general ‘loss of control’. Fear and precarity are generated by a culture of competition and a form of capitalism that feeds off anxiety, insecurity and debt. Well justified fear. The EU, while not wholly innocent, is not primarily responsible. And it is the English who fear most of all. We must heed these fears in one of the richest countries of the planet, if we are to reverse Brexit. The Irish Yes campaigner’s showed us how to do it. They listened to people’s fears, assuaged them and went positive - instead of going negative and playing on people’s fears, as the UK’s Remain campaign did in 2016.

Brexit has already begun. Any attempt to deny this and merely ‘stop Brexit’ will fail. For we have to reverse a fundamental challenge over the nature of our country; one that is well advanced. Already, it has ensured that we can never return to the Britain of 2016 in any of our country’s four constituent nations. Let’s strain every sinew to rescind Article 50, but to succeed we must overthrow the Brexit project with another positive one - a more democratic patriotism of diversity. Fail to recognise this and we will lose the civil war.

This is the start of short series of pieces on Brexit, next: Sovereignty and Regulation: a fourth branch of government.

The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit & America’s Trump – Anthony Barnett

“Brilliant”, Suzanne Moore, “Blistering”, Zadie Smith
“A dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind in print, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking. Do read it.” Andrew Sparrow, Editor, Guardian Politics Live
“Responding to momentous events with deep and passionate arguments… for his verve, range and insatiable urge to take on vast themes, Barnett deserves loud applause… this is a very good book.” John Harris, New Statesman
“The best book about Brexit so far… brilliantly caustic, there is some comfort in that Barnett has been right about so much before.” Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times
“One of the most important political books of 2017”, The Guardian Editorial on Renewing the United Kingdom, 1 January 2018
“Essential reading for students of politics, constitutional law and international relations.” Professor David Marquand
“A wonderful and compelling page turner that artfully weaves together debates on freedom, security, liberty, sovereignty and nationalism... This is a book that deserves to be read.” Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths Professor of Media and Communications

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness


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