At last: a Remain campaign
London4Europe Committee member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg looks back on that awful morning when the results came in. Are we any further forward now?
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Amongst the many political misjudgements I have made (President Hillary, Theresa May’s increased majority, …) was not to take the referendum seriously.
Like David Cameron, I thought that UKIP/ Brexit was the preserve of a bunch of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”.
By the time I realised that the referendum was not going our way it was a bit late. I could not really see how to help. Stronger IN was a rather distant campaign. It did not seem to wish to have volunteers and did not lack money.
I watched with horror the rise of nationalism and racism, the lack of understanding – even on the part of its defenders – of the European project. The way leave campaigners just batted away problems, their obvious lack of a plan, that the electorate did not seem to mind.
I hoped that the murder of Jo Cox MP on 16 June at the hands of a nationalist extremist would make Leave-voters realise the path they were setting out on. But it didn’t.
Night of 23/24 June
I had cast my postal vote and was on holiday in Berlin. I could not sleep and watched the results on my iPAD. I spent the day walking in the woods in a daze.
An analytical response
As a retired but still cold-blooded HM Treasury official I treated it as a policy problem. The immediate petition calling for a re-vote, but this time the electorate please to get the answer right, was the wrong approach (so is the call now for immediate revocation).
Only a referendum has the political authority to overturn a referendum. We could not ask the same question again. So it had to be a referendum on the terms of Brexit.
Several things followed. We would have to persuade Leave-voters to choose to vote Remain in their own best interests. That would be hard. So we had better start now, with two campaigns: one to obtain the referendum; the other to Remain. The campaigns had different targets and messages and so should be separate.
Much else followed: one should not diss the 2016 vote or Leave voters; we would need to explain and connect people with the hopes and ideals of the European project. The political parties would have to be involved as only they could address underlying grievances - but the Remain campaign should not lose sight of the fact that people had actually voted Leave.
Failing to get traction for the strategy
I can do analysis but claim no political ability to get the message across. I sent my strategy to various bodies, including the European Movement – then in compromise mode seeking a soft Brexit; no impact.
I set up my own Facebook page “Campaign for the Real Referendum – on the Terms of Brexit”. But it never took off and I closed it down.
Remainers preferred to follow Professor Grayling and others who told us that, since Leave voters were wrong, Parliament had not just the right - but the duty - to disregard them.
That approach did us enormous harm. It marked us out as bad losers and anti-democrats. It meant we wasted years complaining amongst ourselves about Leave voters when we should have been talking with them and bringing them round to our side.
I joined a political party that was unequivocally for Remain and a referendum, and watched the 48% in 2017 back the two main parties, both campaigning on manifestos supporting a hard Brexit.
Subsequent campaigning for Remain/ referendum
I’m doing my bit. Many blogs on London4Europe - I hope they are useful in feeding lines to campaigners. I am running out of new ways to say the same thing (I looked back at my summer 2016 papers and yes it was much the same proposal – so little has changed over three years). If you wish to try your hand at writing blogs please send them in; all pro-Remain voices welcome.
I also compile the new-blogs and actions-and-events e-mails - sign up for them on the home page.
In April 2018 the People’s Vote was founded
I claim no credit for that. I applaud its success in putting the referendum on the terms so firmly on the table.
But it is only one of the campaigns that we need to fight decades of euroscepticism. Not having started the Remain campaign in parallel cuts down the time to do that; it undermines the campaign for the referendum. No-one cares about a process – it’s the result that matters.
It is disappointing how little has changed over three years
Rafael Behr sums it up nicely in 90 seconds. The EU negotiations have proven conclusively that you cannot have your cake and eat it. The Government’s analyses have shown that we will be poorer. Theresa May could not bring herself to say that Brexit would be good for the country. Most Leave advocates have stopped claiming substantive benefits for it.
But Theresa May was unwilling to explain any of the trade-offs or problems to the electorate. In part she was constrained because Jeremy Corbyn continued to promise a jobs-first fantasy Brexit that would deliver the referendum promises. Farage has run his betrayal narrative.
So Leavers are stuck on No-Deal Brexit. MPs still feel bound by the 2016 referendum result to run with some sort of Brexit. Theresa May’s deal and Corbyn’s near-identical customs union, which would have been regarded as a hard Brexit in 2016, are now presented as though they were a compromise for which Remainers should be grateful.
A Remain campaign at last
The decision of Britain for Europe to launch March for Change as the start of a Remain campaign could transform the position.
If all the Remain national bodies back it, if the People’s Vote campaign and the new Remain campaign agree to play nicely together, then we have the hope of a new start, offering a real chance to campaign for something worth while: the UK to stay in the great European peace, freedom and friendship project.
That is what I sought in late June 2016. Perhaps it is now going to happen. If so, this time it will all be different. A big change is going to come.
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