The failure of the People’s Vote has hard lessons for us all

Sunday National, 29th December 2019.

It is one of George Orwell’s most famous lines. “To see what is in front of one’s nose”, he said, “needs a constant struggle”. It’s still true. We live in forgetful times, perhaps even more so than the first half of the 20th century when he produced Animal Farm and 1984. Livestreamed, live tweeted, your correspondent, live at the scene – the modern innovation of 24-hour news and 24-hour comment means we always have a ready supply of hot takes and snap judgments. But in the slow news days between Christmas and New Year, I’ve been wondering what good all this excess really does us.

Junk food and junk news both feed an appetite. But the constant attention demanded of the social media age that seems to have gone hand in hand wandering wits, a faulty memory, and shorter and shorter attention span. There has never been more information at our fingertips – but we’ve never seemed more forgetful.

2019 has been a dramatic year in politics. One Prime Minister fell, another was raised up. The damn holding back Brexit finally cracked, swamping the Labour Party. The SNP knocked the cocky Scottish Tories back – but a whole new generation woke up to a Conservative landslide.

Journalism is a career for people with nerves. So is politics. In the hurly-burly of the year, both trades often lack time to stand, stare and think. Deadlines, tomorrow’s splash, this afternoon’s column, this speech, that scandal – much of our public life is reactive, tactical, short term and shallow. The urgent crowds out the important, and today’s scandal often obscures our society’s real scandals. One of the quiet pleasures of this suspended time is scope to do a little low-pressure ruminating. This December, it strikes me there’s an important untold story of how we got here.

So let’s start somewhere surprising. The People’s Vote campaign launched in April 2018 – but for a full reckoning of its effects only because apparent this year. For me, it is one of the pivotal moments in the politics of the last three years. In the Electric Ballroom in Camden, a doomed coterie of Remainer diehards launched the campaign which – perhaps more than any other this year – has contributed to the politics of the UK we find it this December.

The group demanded a second EU referendum. The MPs, celebrities and business leaders who launched the campaign gave their stated aspirations as “uniting anti-Brexit groups.” The reality is they achieved precisely the opposite of their stated intentions, fracturing and misdirecting the political energies of those unconvinced of Brexit’s merits. The consequences of this failure has hard lessons for any student of politics.

In 2016, the Leave campaign won the majority, but given the scrappiness of the planning around it, the contradictions in the case made for leaving the EU – it was anything but inevitable that the leading-lights in the Brexit campaign should be given a free hand to shape what Brexit means. This was a challenge for Leavers, and an opportunity for those who wanted to stay in the EU. The Scottish Government, to its credit, tried to do this early on in the Brexit process. Nicola Sturgeon’s administration argued its first preference was to remain in the EU – but failing this, that Brexit Britain should remain in the single market and customs union. This constructive but it fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t what the most committed remainers wanted to hear.

A good chunk of the losers didn’t want to give Brexit their blessing – and that’s fair enough. There’s no shame in holding to your convictions, even if the majority is agin you. I’m from four generations of political losers who believed Scotland should be an independent country through the doldrum days of Thatcher and the seemingly unending domination of the Scottish Labour Party. I get it. But there are consequences to this kind of political immobility.

The effects of this on the whole course of Brexit – and the fate of the Labour Party – cannot be overstated. By opening up – and feeding – the extremely remote possibility that the 2016 referendum could be set aside, the People’s Vote campaign divided and distracted anti-Brexit bloc between two incompatible goals. Should the priority be – to borrow a little from the SNP battle-bus – to “stop Brexit”, or ought the priority be to define Brexit in a way which would make Dominic Cummings cry? It was a political and psychological either/or. Divided – in the end, they achieved neither.

The psychology writes itself. Confronted with an unpalatable reality you don’t want to accept – why not take refuge in a fantastic alternative which doesn’t compromise your identity or beliefs? Psychoanalysts call this avoidant coping. The whole People’s Vote campaign had an air of this kind of unreality to it. There was never any ghost of a sign that there was a majority, even in the last divided House of Commons, to re-run the 2016 poll. But the wisp of the idea continued to sparkle and dance in a beguiling way which the grimy, compromising work of detailing what Brexit could look like couldn’t hope to emulate.

As soon as the concept of a People’s Vote gained traction, attention turned to finding ways to delegitimate the outcome of the 2016 referendum. There was plenty of material to work with. Oddball donors, dark money, illegal overspending, campaign cynicism, social media propaganda, the apparent abuse of private information – this was a dirty campaign, unscrupulously and sometimes unlawfully fought.

But in the end, how pivotal do you really think all of this can have been? What is more likely to have made the difference to the outcome – a few Facebook ads, or decades of propaganda against Europe across most of the tabloid and broadsheet media in Britain?

Without condoning overspends, illegal campaign donations, or collusion between campaign groups and apparently neutral social media platforms – fixating on these procedural aspects of the 2016 referendum too often gave people who voted Remain, who were never reconciled to the result – a pretext to imagine the poll could and should be rolled back, and all right-thinking people would be with them. Ask Jo Swinson how that worked out.

With the benefit of hindsight, fixating on re-running the EU referendum was a remarkably high-risk enterprise. Faced with a majority vote across the UK in favour of EU withdrawal, champions of the People’s vote laboured under a series of political disabilities. Firstly, they had no obvious parliamentary majority for a second referendum. Secondly, they didn’t enjoy the support of the dissident elements of the Tory Party or the Labour leadership for most of the last parliament.

Beyond this, next to no thought seemed to have gone into how a second poll might actually be won by the Remain side. Their demands were almost entirely process-driven. There seemed to be little insight into why, rightly or wrongly, a majority of people in England and Wales – if not in Scotland or Northern Ireland – might have concluded that the European Union was best abandoned. Never mind the oughts and shoulds: it alarmed me the people keenest on a “people’s vote” were the very sorts who believed the UK would never vote to leave the EU in the first place.

Talleyrand’s sharp line about the Bourbon monarchy applies here. After the French Revolution and the execution of Louis XVI, the deposed royal house had, he said, “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” This could be Scottish Labour’s mantra these days. It applies just as neatly to the self-styled centrists and moderates dominating the People’s Vote campaign, all of whom were relieved of their seats in the general election.

For the sake of the remote possibility of avoiding Brexit altogether, a large part of the remain-voting political establishment simply disengaged from defining Brexit. But this willow-the-wisp led – not back into Europe – but straight into the swamp of a majority Tory administration, the certainty Britain will agree a worse accord with Brussels than the one Theresa May brought back, with the real possibility of a stand-off and no-deal Brexit by the end of the next calendar year. And the people that counselled following it must bear some responsibility for setting Britain onto this course.

Responsibility lies in many places – including on the Tory benches and on the shoulders of the ex-Prime Minister herself – but the Labour Party’s feckless combination of unconstructive neutrality on Brexit secured Boris Johnson’s election to Downing Street, a generational political defeat which puts Michael Foot’s shade in the shade, and which has achieved nothing in terms of either stopping Brexit or alternatively, helping to define its terms.

The clumsy dance of 2019 looks like just another example of tactics trumping political strategy. The 2017 election was only revisited because Theresa May’s deal couldn’t pass. I respect the argument that some MPs had no mandate from their electorates to support it – but the pretext for Labour MPs from pro-Brexit constituencies to resist it is far, far thinner. By prioritising the transient pleasure of watching Theresa May’s screws coming painfully loose, the Labour Party made Boris Johnson’s thumping re-election and their own destruction possible.

But for the failure of Theresa May’s deal, she would not have been replaced by Boris Johnson during the summer of 2019. But for this change of leadership, there would have been no election in December. But for this failure to reach an agreement on Brexit, Boris Johnson wouldn’t have been able to run the election campaign he ran. Johnson could only weaponise the slogan of “getting Brexit done” against his Labour opponents because a divided House of Commons, with no strategic leadership from the majority of Remain-minded MPs, handled the issue with all pace of three-toed sloth strolling through a treacle factory. But for the December election, there would be no Tory majority. But for the Tory majority, there wouldn’t be – in all likelihood – a decade of Tory domination awaiting us after 2020.

Looking back over the past twelve months and beyond – the People’s Vote campaign stands exposed as a classic case of making the best the enemy of the good in politics. Huge emotional and political energy was poured into the fantasy of a second European referendum, rather than the grubbier, compromising task of accepting and defining Brexit. The contagion of this idea consumed the Labour party, sucked the marrow from the Liberal Democrats – and gave Boris Johnson the political tools Theresa May lacked in 2017 to trounce his opponents south of the border.

Doubtless, there would have been other consequences if Jeremy Corbyn’s party adopting either a distinctive anti or pro Brexit position in this month’s election. There always are. There would be different losses and gains, different failures and different successes. Politics is always fought with two-edged weapons. One truism of life – one truism of politics – is that that your actions will always have consequences you haven’t foreseen.

That’s what makes political strategy difficult – and that’s why I don’t envy the people who shoulder the responsibility for it. The best laid plans of mice, men and Prime Ministers gang aft agley.

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