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Who are the Remainers? By Robert Tombs

brexit remainers
Written by Robert Tombs

Let us begin at the most basic level, by trying to identify and categorize the main outlines of Remainer support, and estimate the numerical strength of its various components. I suggest three broad categories of Remainer opinion: Ideological Remainers, Professional Remainers, and Worried Remainers.

These categories are fairly simple to discern, for the EU itself has made sophisticated efforts to discover public attitudes, though the systematic Eurobarometer surveys of opinion, and then of course we have the result of the 2016 referendum itself, and of some subsequent polls. They may overlap to some extent, but they are not identical.

First, Ideological Remainers. This group feels an emotional link with the ‘European project’, and supports greater power being exercised by supranational EU institutions. It sees national identity as outdated or even dangerous, and sometimes holds a vehemently negative view of Britain. These ideas are quite old, going back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The vision of a post-national order, whether global or regional, has taken various forms: imperial federation, the League of Nations, the United Nations, and European federalism. These variants have been urged over the generations as guarantees of peace and modernity. Supporters of the EU have in their turn made these claims, linked to a vague sense that integration promotes general harmony, peace and welfare. These assertions are rarely examined, and stand up poorly to critical analysis. Whether they can seriously be considered an ideology is debateable: they often seem little more than clichés backed by personal convenience (ease of travel, ownership of property overseas…). Before the 2016 referendum was called, only about 4 or 5 percent of the population held these views. They barely surfaced in the Referendum campaign, which had little to say about the EU or its future. This reflects the political insignificance of ideological support for the EU in Britain. Nevertheless, it provides a balmy ‘mood music’ for Remain, especially among those who have little real interest in or knowledge of the EU as it really exists.

The second category are ‘Professional Remainers’. These are a far more formidable group. In some ways they are diverse, being drawn from business, the professions, politics and the civil service. But they have a common defining characteristic: they are committed to membership of the EU by their careers and hence by personal interest. Typical components of this group include executives of multinational companies, employees of lobby groups and think tanks (especially those receiving funding from the EU), academic researchers who are or hope to be in receipt of EU grants, employees of media organizations which support Remain, politicians representing Remain parties or constituencies, former politicians whose careers have included support for the EU or indeed EU employment, civil servants and diplomats whose careers have been focused on a high level of cooperation with the EU. For such people, familiarity with EU systems and contacts in Brussels give a major career advantage; conversely, Brexit poses a risk. Of course, Professional Remainers might also be Ideological Remainers, but they are not necessarily so. Indeed, some Professional Remainers do not support Remain at all in private, but are required to do so in public by their employers, clients or shareholders: in business, the universities and even the civil service, to be an open supporter of the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government, voted for in a referendum and confirmed in a general election, can be a career-damaging move. This category is by far the most influential and powerful element in the Remainer revolt. Their arguments for Remain tend to be technical (such as the cost and complexity of leaving) rather than ethical (such as democratic sovereignty or socio-economic justice). They are often narrow, concerning specific interests rather than the general interest – even if they present a specific interest (‘business’, ‘the City’) as if it were the general interest. It is difficult to estimate the size of this group – but its size is of little consequence. What matters is the power and influence it can exert. Nevertheless, there is a rough indication of its pre-Referendum size. The percentage of the British population who said before the referendum campaign that they wanted the EU to have greater economic and monetary powers was 15 percent (the lowest in the EU), and those who thought that the EU economy was doing well was also 15 percent. This total probably includes the Ideological Remainers. So as an order of magnitude, we might estimate Professional Remainers at around 10 percent of the population. Do its members share any intellectual characteristic (such as a ‘managerial’ rather than a democratic conception of politics), or is it merely a coalition of interests? It appears to be primarily the latter, and as such unwilling or unable to change its position. It is therefore largely fruitless to argue with them – which does not prevent us from trying.

The third category are the Worried Remainers, the largest and most malleable group. The Ashcroft Poll taken on the day of the referendum showed that those who voted Remain did so primarily because they were worried about the possible economic consequences. Yet before the referendum was called, as noted above, only 15 percent of the electorate thought the EU economy was doing well: here we can surely see the effects of ‘Operation Fear’ in creating a body of negative support for the EU based not on confidence that it was succeeding, but on the fear that leaving it would be even worse. Similar fears have been promoted in other EU countries, notably Greece, Italy and France, and have the effect of stifling anti-EU sentiment even in the countries most damaged by membership. Other fears that emerged during or since the Referendum campaign concern the status of EU citizens, the ability to travel and study, and the Northern Ireland border issue. This Worried group accounts for most of the 48 percent who voted Remain – say a third of the total electorate. The Worried are the only Remain group whose members can easily change their views, and a number have done so. Although there are plenty of independent studies showing that the economic effects of Brexit are likely to be slight – not least because the importance of our trade with the EU has long been diminishing and because WTO rules are not constraining – this message is deliberately obscured by continuing pronouncements of Professional Remainers in ‘Operation Fear’ Mark II. Similarly, it is clear that the Northern Ireland border issue is readily soluble. But alarmist pronouncements, including uncheckable leaks and exaggerated official statements, continue to be produced – a remarkable case of government policy being undermined by its own officials and even ministers. The failure of the government to counter alarmist predictions and thus to reassure the electorate of the soundness of its own stated policies is astounding. Worried Remainers deserve to have their fears taken seriously and the effort to reassure them by well based arguments is an urgent political need.

Do Remainers as a whole share any common assumptions? One appears to be ‘declinism’: the idea that Britain is a diminished and weak country unable to function economically or politically on its own. Another is that ‘Europe’ is a guarantor of peace and harmony. A third – though surely weakening in the face of the facts – is that the EU represents the Future. Rational discussion of all these issues is desirable. But the hard-core Remainers are unlikely to be converted, whether the Ideological Remainers or those Professional Remainers whose personal interests are at stake – though if the latter see those interests changing, they will shift their position without any qualms.

Robert Tombs is a historian, and co-editor of Briefings for Brexit.

  1. See Philip Cunliffe, ‘The EU: peacemaker or disturber of the peace?’ on the Briefings for Brexit website
  2. Standard Eurobarometer 79 (Spring 2013); the Ashcroft Poll, ‘How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday and why’ (24 June 2016) showed that fewer than one in ten Remain voters gave their main reason for voting as ‘a strong attachment to the EU and its shared history, culture and traditions’.
  3. On these issues see for example the articles by Pamela Dow, ‘How Brexit can help us tackle disadvantage’ and Thomas Simpson ‘The ethics of a second referendum’ on the Briefings for Brexit website.
  4. Standard Eurobarometer 79 (Spring 2013)
  5. For Remain voters, the single most important reason for their decision was that ‘the risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices’ (43%). Ashcroft Poll.
  6. See most recently ‘The Limited Impact of EU Membership on Barriers to Trade’, on the Briefings for Brexit website.

About the author

Robert Tombs