As Boris Johnson’s increasingly rogue government ramps up the threats and rhetoric, and death threats land at MPs’ doors, Britain’s worried political herbivores are frantically hunting for a Brexit outcome that can put a divided country back together before its frenzied carnivores rip it apart for good.
It is a worthy cause, but a deluded one. There is no Brexit outcome that will heal Britain’s divides. There is no deal that can be struck, no new vote that can be held, that will not inflame opinion on at least one side. A second referendum won’t do it. Nor will revocation. Nor will Norway Plus, nor Theresa May’s deal. No deal won’t cut it. Nothing can achieve it. It is impossible.
The main reason is the role of “elite cues” – the way that voters draw their opinions from trusted elite voices on their side. Nigel Farage, one such elite, will always benefit from whipping up anger over any Brexit short of no deal; the Lib Dems, while far less toxic, will benefit from exploiting Remainers’ resentment at the pitfalls of any Brexit at all.
Consider how Brexit has played out. Theresa May pledged to end free movement of people. As if by magic, pro-Brexit elites ceased their years of moaning about immigration and found other grounds for complaint. Johnson looks at excluding Great Britain from the sovereignty-limiting backstop – and so Farage claims any Brexit deal is no Brexit at all. Leave promised a deal would be easy; now, any deal is a sell-out. The transformation is remarkable, and manufactured entirely from the top.
On the other side, Labour has been dragged to the position angry Remainers long demanded – a second referendum with Remain on the ballot. Right on cue, the Lib Dems switch to supporting outright revocation of Article 50. The sudden perceived inadequacy of the policy hard Remainers wanted is striking.
It is not that everyone is waiting to feel betrayed. But if half the voters on each side are impassioned, around a quarter of the voting public is liable to be inflamed by an unfavourable Brexit outcome. That’s a large minority to feel angry and alienated in an electorate – and it cuts across traditional party divides on either side, giving it a lasting destabilising power in British politics.
Consider the response to any of the Brexit outcomes. The pro-Brexit reaction to revocation is easy to imagine. Were Leave to lose a second referendum, its leaders would cry foul and whip up conspiracies over the conduct or terms of the vote. Remainer reaction to the chaos of no deal writes itself.
A hard Brexit deal – out of the customs union and single market – would lead to rapid economic losses. Every subsequent factory closure or round of job cuts would be blamed on the Brexit deal, leading to demands to rejoin the EU on one side – and for an even harder Brexit on the other.
This brings us to soft Brexit – “Norway Plus”, inside the single market and customs union, with ongoing free movement of people, but officially outside the EU. This represents the midpoint of public opinion today. But that midpoint is not where most people stand – polarisation finds few people wanting compromise.
Polling shows soft Brexit to be the least inflammatory outcome – but that is because it hasn’t been on the table since May set her red lines. As a result, Farage and others focused their fire elsewhere. Now Labour is swinging behind free movement, Leave elites are ferociously attacking it. It will not be long before Norway Plus brings a furious response from Brexiters.
This is the problem with Labour’s referendum proposal. Putting Remain against Norway Plus in a vote is technically Remain vs Leave – but Leavers aren’t going to buy it. No matter what Remainers say, Leave voters will just see the continuation of what they oppose – immigration and Brussels laws.
This is also why the chances of Brexit not happening are currently underpriced. If an election results in an anti-Brexit Commons majority, the post-election government would likely negotiate such a soft Brexit deal that Leave voters would boycott the subsequent referendum, resulting in a Remain win by default that Leavers would simply regard as illegitimate – including if they got back in power.
There are no magic bullet Brexit outcomes that will solve Britain’s divisions. Increased investment in economically struggling areas can help; increased socioeconomic rights and provision will do more to “take back control” than complex constitutional changes.
Politicians should not be bounced into any lasting decision based on the mythical promise that “getting Brexit done” will bring things back to normal. It won’t, especially as leaving the EU is the start of a long and painful process, not the end. The focus should be on the best outcome for the country, both now and in the future, and one that can carry the broadest legitimacy possible.
What does that mean in practice? I do not pretend to have the answer. But one option – should the EU indulge the UK with sufficient time to pull it off – could be to hold a second referendum where the Leave option is created by a citizens’ assembly made up of Leave voters, as a way of undercutting the power of elite cues and giving Leavers some ownership of the process. But safeguards would be needed to protect, for example, the rights of existing migrants and the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement. And the referendum campaign itself may, once again, be a brutally divisive affair.
How did we get here? Forty years of rising regional inequality; decades of media and political hysteria against foreigners and immigrants; ten years of savage austerity; political cultures that reward demonisation, tribalism and sociopathy; and a false sense of national invincibility that keeps crashing into reality.
To put Britain back together, you must take all that apart.
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