There is a way back into the European Union – just ask the Brexiteers how

There are Ukip and Tory activists who have been campaigning for Brexit since before the Maastricht rebellions of 1992. They didn't mind being seen as a bonkers ideologists, such was their confidence that this moment would arrive

John Jenkinson
Monday 10 April 2017 11:24
Grassroots Brexiteers campaigned for Britain to leave the EU for decades, unafraid of ridicule. In 2016, their views finally triumphed
Grassroots Brexiteers campaigned for Britain to leave the EU for decades, unafraid of ridicule. In 2016, their views finally triumphed

As those of us who desperately wanted Britain to remain in the European Union lick our wounds, now is not the time to give up. The Brexiteers, ungracious in victory, may be attempting to silence opposition to the coming divorce, but we must not let that happen.

Opposition to our impending departure from the EU cannot just take the form of angry marches and flag waving, however. That will make absolutely no difference, not least because mass rallies objecting to a mass vote – which we lost – look quite ridiculous. No; we must accept where we are, and we must dig in.

There are still millions of Britons that would like to see the UK remain as a fully signed-up member of the EU, but none of them can stop the Article 50 process now that it has begun. They must, instead, accept that any campaign about Britain and its EU membership will now be about rejoining the union in the future. This is the time to take stock, to plan, and to recommit to the cause.

There is a precedent for such an approach giving birth to unimaginable success. That precedent was here in the UK, and it shows what can be achieved with a never-say-die approach, a willingness to be mocked, and a commitment to the political long-game.

I speak – fully aware of the irony – of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

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For many, many years the idea of Little Old Blighty walking away from Brussels was considered easily as lunatic as a campaign for us to rejoin might seem in 2017. It was a fringe view; it was eccentric.

To realise how far the Brexit rump has come, take a moment to remember Jimmy Goldsmith's Referendum Party, which stood for election in 1997. They were so mad you half expected Louis Theroux to pop up and make a documentary about them. But who’s laughing now?

The first clue, of three, in how to rebuild the pro-EU movement lies exactly with the Referendum Party and its bastard child, Ukip. These were one-issue obsessives who could muster committed campaigners, keep the dream alive and ultimately shift the terms of political debate and of public perception of what was possible. The more you repeat something, the more people get used to the idea.

Ukip acted as the provisional wing of the Eurosceptics. They made the Tory Brexiteers seem relatively sensible by comparison.

When it came to the crunch in 2016, where was the provisional wing of the Remain campaign, the equivalent of Leave.EU? Possibly somewhere among the federalists of the Liberal Democrats, but it was silent. Where it did emerge, it seemed embarrassed by its own opinions; possibly because of the success of Ukip in moving the conversation, it became a case of courting ridicule to state an emotional case for enthusiastic membership of the EU.

Second, the Brexiteers had vision. It might not seem like it to the ears of a Europhile, but the Eurosceptics presented an idea of a new, refreshed Britain, while the Remainers stuck endlessly to George Osborne’s tired script about economic risk. You, the Independent reader, might not like the idea of return to Little England, but for many this was an idea worth voting for – as were “taking back control”, the Commonwealth free trade zone and an extra £350m a week for the NHS.

What would be vision for a Britain fully engaged in the EU look like? Nobody has even contemplated making that case since Tony Blair and Pater Mandelson tried to sell “café culture” to the country in the aftermath of their early landslides.

But neither of those points is as significant as the last lesson from the Brexiteers, and that's patience: the willingness to play the long game.

There are Ukip activists and Conservatives who have been campaigning pretty much full time for Brexit since before the Maastricht rebellions of 1992. The likes of Tory MEP Daniel Hannan appeared not to mind being seen as a bonkers ideologist at the outset, such was their confidence that this moment would finally arrive. He was almost blindly confident that his time, and the time of his fellow travellers, would come. When nobody believed him, he strode on with absolute confidence. Nigel Farage, John Redwood and the rest were exactly the same.

And then, in 2016, it finally happened. A Tory-led coalition staring over its shoulder at surging Ukip, a horrific civil war in Syria driving vast waves of immigration across Europe, the bite of globalisation's nastier side effects and another euro crisis all combined into a perfect storm. All Hannan's ships had come in at once – and he and his colleagues were ready to take full advantage.

When the Europhile's perfect storm will arrive is hard to predict, but it will come. We must be ready in 2020, or 2050. We must be patient. We must be organised. We must set up a provisional wing of the argument. And we must be willing to be ridiculed.

We might even ask Louis Theroux to pop by to follow us around with his film crew.

John Jenkinson a journalist in his late thirties living and working in London

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