When I voted for ‘Remain’ on June 23rd, it wasn’t out of any great enthusiasm for the European Union as it is, or of hope for what it might become, but because I felt that its negative effects on Britain were marginal, nothing like as damaging as the Brexiteers claimed; and offset by a number of similarly marginal but still important advantages, both personally, as a bi-national resident – shortly to become a dual citizen, I hope – and more generally, arising out of some (not all) of the social and legal legislation it has forced on reluctant British governments over the last few years. So far as Britain’s present problems are concerned, none of them, I felt, had anything at all to do with our membership of the EU, but were more the effects of runaway capitalism, which I trusted a ‘sovereign’ right-wing Brexit-dominated British government to grapple with much less effectively than one that was still constrained, to an extent, by the relative ‘statism’ that the EU represented. As a Leftist I valued the support of our socialist and anti-austerity comrades on the Continent, and the help we might give to them. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/08/31/two-cheers-for-the-eu/.) I thought our mutual progressive causes stood more chance within Europe than outside. I also, incidentally, wanted to remain friendly and solidaric with foreigners.
I certainly wasn’t taken in by that now notorious slogan on the side of the ‘Brexit battlebus’, promising that the £350 millions a week that Brexit would (allegedly) save the country could be spent on our ailing NHS. But it’s possible that many were. I wonder how they now regard Theresa May’s screeching U-turn on that particular promise (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/14/no-extra-money-for-nhs-theresa-may-tells-health-chief); or the prospect of higher prices (of imports, due to the plunging pound) that now seems to be the inevitable implication of that decision on June 23? How many people were warned that their Marmite, of all things, was under threat? (Most were probably under the illusion that we made it ourselves.) Might they not be feeling now that they were sold a pup? If not, shouldn’t they be? At the time many of us lamented the very low quality of the debate surrounding the referendum, on both sides (except Corbyn’s), so that outrageous lies were told, and corrected, but then still persisted in, usually by politicians who were regarded by many foreigners (as a part-time expatriate I know this) as simple clowns. But the clowns won; not just because of their propaganda, and certainly not because of the voters’ credulity or stupidity, but because of the underlying – and I would say reasonable – contempt that so many of those voters had for the political ‘establishment’ that was plugging the ‘Remain’ line; which contempt was rooted in turn in the underlying failings of our economic and political systems. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/.)
In any rational society that should be good cause for a re-run of the whole thing. The nation voted as it did – narrowly, we must remember – on what has turned out very quickly to be a false manifesto. Whether it would have voted any differently if it had not been so deceived is impossible to say. Hostility to the ‘establishment’ might have won the day in any case: just as much of Donald Trump’s support in America appears to be entirely unfazed by his lies and the scandals surrounding him. Academics are talking now of a ‘post-truth’ political discourse; it may also have become a post-rational (or, if you like, though this is a more scholarly term, a ‘postmodern’) one. It has happened before. You can’t argue with these people. If you try to, they tend to put you down as an intellectual snob. As Michael Gove said during the course of the referendum campaign: ‘I think people in this country have had enough of experts.’ And that coming from an ex-Education Minister. Which only goes to show how deeply – or high – the anti-rational bug has penetrated.
But almost no-one on the old ‘Remain’ side is pressing for a re-match. They’re too nervous. Anyone still expressing doubts, even, about Brexit – that is, at least 48% of the population – is branded a ‘whinger’ and even a ‘traitor’ by the right-wing tabloid press. (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/daily-mail-express-brexit_uk_57fdfd14e4b08e08b93d2ad3.) Now that ‘the people’ have spoken, it’s wrong to express any criticism at all of the decision to pull out of the EU, or even to offer constructive ideas about how it might be done with least harm to the UK. Which is why ex-Remainers have to emphasise repeatedly and boringly how they’re not disputing the result of the referendum.
My suspicion is that the old English prejudice against ‘poor losers’ – like the Germans after World War I – has something to do with this. Accept your defeat like a man. (Or a woman, but it was usually men then.) You knew the rules; you can’t change them now that the final whistle has been blown. That’s the spirit of the game. Complaining is just ‘not cricket’.
Unfortunately there are things that are just a little bit more important than cricket. (I never thought I’d find myself writing that.) Britain’s relationship with her neighbours is one. The Europeans don’t play cricket, after all. Surely they’d let us have another go?
PS (Monday): there’s an excellent argument in favour of a re-run on https://www.nchlondon.ac.uk/2016/10/14/letter-professor-ac-grayling-650-mps-urging-parliament-debate-eu-referendum-outcome-12-october-2016/.