An illuminating recent webinar organised by London4Europe with Stijn van Kessel and Adam Fagan discussed themes arising from their book ‘The Failure of Remain’. George Stevenson reflects on the consqeuences.
Their book analysed the approach of the Remain movement during the 2016 EU referendum campaign up until the election of the Johnson government in December 2019, and the reasons why, despite a massive popular mobilisation, it failed to achieve its aims.
The presenters set out many causes for this, but among them was the failure by the Remain/Anti-Brexit movement to set out a positive and compelling vision for UK membership of the EU, and why this was worth fighting for. Of course, many individual campaigners did make these points, but this was not reflected in the national campaign.
As the list of grim news, from food shortages and rising food prices to travel chaos at Dover, partly or largely resulting from Brexit grows ever longer, its disadvantages and of this particular deal are becoming abundantly clear. ‘Sovereignty’ seems a particularly hollow concept when you’re worried about being able to afford your weekly shop. Given there are no tangible benefits for most people, then it’s hardly surprising that the number of people saying that, in hindsight, it was the wrong decision to leave the EU has been steadily rising. There now seems to be a solid majority thinking it was the wrong decision. In a supreme irony, even Nigel Farage has recently stated ‘Brexit has failed’.
It’s important to keep pointing out these adverse effects given how serious they are, and to emphasise many of them are a direct result of the threadbare deal that was agreed. However, there is a risk that this can come across as just complaining or unduly negative. Appearing to blame someone for the consequences of the decision they took is unlikely to be a winning strategy. It could also leave us open to the charge of ‘what’s your alternative, then?’, as has been seen in the debates on the illegal migration bill.
Our position now is perhaps similar to that of an opposition party getting closer to an election, facing an unpopular government, and with a chance of being in government. We’ve spent the last few years telling people how bad our opponents are (an important task for an opposition party), but now we need to start putting forward our solutions as well as highlighting the disadvantages of the current situation. We need to avoid fighting old battles, and avoid any sense of ‘I told you so’ (one of the more unhelpful phrases in the English language). And like an opposition party preparing for government, we need to be deciding what are the most important things we want to achieve when we can exert our influence.
Given changing public opinion and the possibility of a new governing party or coalition, we have a golden opportunity now to influence the debate, and to achieve some real beneficial changes. However we need to have both clear aims in mind, and a wider message that goes beyond the practical which can inspire people. What are our immediate priorities? Improving conditions for trade? Improving scientific collaboration? Rejoining the Erasmus scheme and improving student interchange opportunities? Making it easier to work in the EU? Making travel easier? Or something else?
And what are our underlying core reasons for wanting improved co-operation with, and ultimately rejoining the EU? We need to be able to agree on a vision that will resonate with people more widely and persuade them of our cause. As any successful politician knows, success comes from both offering practical solutions, but equally from offering an overall vision which people can identify with. Think Thatcher in 1979, or Blair in 1997.
If we can do both of these things, then we stand a good chance of being able to influence and ultimately win the debate, and persuade reluctant politicians to address the issue instead of ignoring it, hoping that it will go away. The opportunity is ours to take.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.
* The Failure of Remain
6x9 • 216pp • 8 diagrams • January 2023
ISBN 9780228014126 • Cloth • £99.00 £69.30
ISBN 9780228014133 • Paper • £34.99 £24.50
• Marston Book Services, [email protected], +44 (0) 1235 465577