The cliché of ‘the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’ is as relevant to reversing Brexit as to many other big decisions. Let’s take those first steps, argues George Stevenson.
A recent poll suggested that the population is still pretty evenly split between those who, in hindsight, think Brexit was the right or wrong decision- 44% v 42%, with 14% unsure. Conforming to stereotypes, a majority of older voters feel that it was the right decision, with a majority of 18 to 24-year-olds saying it was the wrong decision. The results are perhaps unsurprising, as it’s only six months since the end of the transition period - the effects of the pandemic are still making it hard to disentangle any effects from Brexit.
So, if we had a referendum tomorrow, maybe we could win, if enough of the ‘don’t knows’ are younger, and if we could convince them, but not by a convincing majority. Equally we could just lose, as was the case in 2016.
Also important is that the same poll shows that 77% of those who think it was the right decision would oppose a campaign to rejoin. Again, this isn’t surprising, as this group have just got what they wanted, and are unlikely to want to see it taken away soon. Maybe they’re like someone who’s just met a new partner, and is unwilling (yet) to see any flaws in his or her character.
No matter how fervently we may desire it, an immediate campaign to rejoin doesn’t seem to have majority support - and could end up alienating those who we need to persuade. In a previous blog, I’ve argued that no-one likes to be told that they’re wrong, or to feel that their views have been ignored.
But before we become too down-hearted, there is a way of overcoming this unpromising situation - a step-by-step approach, gradually repairing the damage which has been done.
A few years ago, on an ‘influencing skills’ course, I was told about a study into whether residents in roads affected by speeding cars would be willing to display a poster asking drivers to slow down. Only a small number of residents agreed to display a full-sized poster. However, many more were willing to display a smaller sticker in their window; and crucially, once they’d agreed to this, more were happy to display a full sized poster. It seemed that agreeing to a large poster in one go was too much for many, but once they’d got used to the idea in a lower-risk way, then many more would be willing to take the next step.
Rejoining the EU in one go is likely to be too big a step for many people, particularly when for many it feels too soon to assess what the effects will be. But many more may be persuadable to correct some of the worst aspects of the current deal. Then they may be willing to go a bit further, starting to reclaim some of the benefits we previously had, and so on until we’ve undone much of the damage that has been caused. Then, it may be less of a step to propose a full rejoin - by then those who are opposed may well be in enough of a minority.
It may be helpful to think of attitudes towards Brexit as a series of concentric circles. Furthest out, but hopefully the thinnest circle, are those who are happy with the deal, and would oppose any changes. Next in are those would accept the sorts of changes which would correct some of the worst damage, but don’t require much negotiation or compromise: for example, touring visas for musicians, alignment of veterinary standards or joining Erasmus+.
Then there are those who would accept changes which don't undermine the fundamental deal, but which would require some compromise between both sides: reciprocal travel and residence rights, reduction in the paperwork required for exports or imports, or changes that would require acceptance of European Court jurisdiction.
Moving yet further in, there are those who would be happy with a more fundamental change to the deal, even if it reduced UK so-called independence, but not a full rejoin. The big prize here could be Single Market and/or Customs Union membership, by which stage we would have regained many of the advantages we had, although not yet the emotional element of being fully part of the EU.
Finally, we have those, such as ourselves, who would like to see, or could be persuaded towards, a full rejoin of the EU.
Crucially, anyone can move in either direction between these circles, but it’s far easier to move from one circle to the next than from one of the outer circles to the inner one. No-one’s views are entirely fixed: people can - and do - change their mind over time, but as in the example above, it’s easier to do this in small steps than one big change.
So if we focus on the fights we can win, then we can gradually move more people towards repairing more of the damage. Eventually, the question of Single Market membership or a full rejoin may not seem such an unimaginable step. And as any political party knows, a small victory, such as by-election win can create its own momentum, leading to further wins.
Of course, this slower approach is deeply frustrating for many of us who bitterly resent the decision that was made, and how it was implemented. I’d love to see a poll showing that ‘rejoin’ had a clear majority, but this seems unlikely at the moment. But a step-by-step approach has a much greater chance of achieving what we want, and maybe more quickly than we fear; and we will also have the satisfaction of putting right the many wrongs of this decision.
The cliché of ‘the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’ is as relevant to this as to many other big decisions. Let’s take those first steps.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.