Remainers should be careful not to stoke popular resentment when seeking to influence the outcomes of Brexit – it will outlast the negotiations.
This week the House of Lords voted for an amendment to the ‘Brexit bill’ through which Theresa May will invoke Article 50: the bill must now include a guarantee to introduce protections for EU citizens residing in the UK.
There are, of course, two interpretations available. Perhaps, free of the shackles of electoral accountability, the Lords were able to follow their consciences and prevent May’s immoral use of European residents as “bargaining chips”. Perhaps it’s just a wrecking amendment, designed to delay Article 50 for the time it takes for Remainers to re-group and change public opinion.
It doesn’t matter which is true – both could be. It feels good when principle and political strategy come together. What does matter, though, is how votes like these affect popular perception of the political class, whatever kind of Brexit we eventually get.
Just as there are two parallel interpretations of the Lords’ vote, there are two parallel interpretations of the Supreme Court ruling. These parallel interpretations feed into two different histories about how Brexit happened.
In three years’ time – and perhaps, more importantly, in eight years time, when the two parties ready to govern well are staring down the twin barrels of wage and debt crises – one of these histories will grip the popular imagination.
In the first story, the Conservatives offered a referendum thanks to a bit of electoral provocation from Nigel Farage’s naughty boys. The establishment’s better judgment was that we should be governed by the EU, and so they defended that option; a slim majority of people disagreed nevertheless. After the vote, those charged with representing the people dutifully did so, even though they had private reservations. Brexit negotiations were tough, but negotiators and legislators did their best – and they’ll do their best with the bilateral trade negotiations set to dominate UK foreign relations for the next two decades. Vote Labour. Vote Conservative. Back to normal.
In the second story, bringing about the referendum took decades of agitation by a band of righteous underdogs and earnest misfits. Those misfits won a campaign in which the offer of hope and freedom faced off against international capital shaking its whip, iron fist of the threat of poverty wrapped in the velvet glove of anti-racism and cosmopolitanism. But in this second story, the referendum victory was merely step one, the battle of Edgehill in a bloodless civil war with years of fighting left. The establishment never had any intention of allowing UK independence, and spent the next three years fighting tooth and nail to frustrate the process. In a legal, propaganda and electoral game rigged in their favour, they made every play available to them.
The second story becomes progressively more dangerous as events fork from here on: the longer Article 50 is delayed, the ‘softer’ Brexit is when it happens, the more persuasive whispers of betrayal and conspiracy will be by those who benefit from distrust and division.
This second story is being told now. Its bards have been honing its beats since 1975. Its archetypes are ancient. It does not end well in the real world.
Not just Remainers, but all those who are concerned to make sure we continue to be governed by responsible and experienced people, should be wary of feeding this second story with exciting new chapters.
The organisations behind the Referendum have not been disbanded, but proliferated. Vote Leave still exists. Alternative media organisations, from the well-funded and well-heeled to two-man teams of internet troublemakers, are springing up to re-cycle reportage in favour of leaving. New grassroots campaigns are emerging to muster crowds and stoke resentment. They form a connective tissue between ends of the political spectrum which the establishment could once count on remaining divided and ineffective. The UK Independence Party continues to poll in third place, in spite of factionalism, staff incompetence or candidate dishonesty, and electoral failure in Stoke. Social media make it possible for tiny numbers of people with extreme views to reach a massive audience with savvy marketing. Britain First can reach 20 million Facebook users with a post. Moderates should not congratulate themselves that such posts get this reach only because they communicate generic populist messages rather than anti-Muslim hate. Those populist messages are not harmless, and 20 million people do not need to hear them.
If the second story has a grip on the imagination of Leave voters, there will be electoral consequences well after Brexit whether or not Remainers get the Brexit they want. Conservative MPs, ever light on principle, will tack populist, at the risk of saddling their platform with poor policy. Labour’s manifesto will reflect the priorities of voters likely to swing to Independence.
To make the first story plausible, politicians, civil servants, and legal professionals need to take extra care when wielding influence over the invocation and outcomes of Article 50. It’s not enough that the rule of law, and democratically accountable procedures, are followed: they need to be seen to be so. Their motives must be unimpeachable. Their message must be conciliatory, not combative. They need to look loyal, not just be loyal.
Hugh Burling is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. His last article is here.
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