Imagine that the Scots had voted for independence in 2014. Or that the 2016 referendum had given a majority to Remain. Or that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn were to win a majority in the next general election. All the arguments constantly wheeled out to try to stop Brexit could be applied, and indeed more pertinently. People didn’t understand what they were voting for. They were misled by politicians and lobbies. They didn’t vote to make themselves poorer. They were undermining the whole economic future of these islands. They were threatening national security and international stability. They did not command a majority of the electorate.
But can anybody imagine that a well-financed set of lobby groups and a coalition of irreconcilable MPs would have tried to block Scottish independence until they could browbeat the Scots into voting again and differently? Or force us out of the EU against a majority vote on the grounds that no one had understood the dangerous direction the EU was now going in? Or keep Corbyn out of Downing Street by manipulating parliamentary procedures because he was a danger to jobs, a threat to national security, and had less than 50 percent of the vote? Would any reputable politician or commentator have been willing – even in some parallel universe — to advocate such recklessness?
Hence my incomprehension: what precisely is so uniquely important about remaining in the EU that it is worth risking untold damage to ensure it? Our European friends and neighbours in Norway and Switzerland are quite content not to be in the EU, and certainly do not find the question a cause of national hysteria.
The only shred of an answer comes in the form of repeated slogans about ‘crashing out’ and ‘cliff edges’. But slogans are not arguments: they are the refusal of argument. Have those repeating them, who rarely if ever go into precise detail, taken the trouble to inform themselves by listening to independent experts, among them the former governor of the Bank of England Lord King, and Nobel laureates such as Paul Krugman?
If they had listened, they would realize that the ‘crashing out’ hysteria is at the very least tendentious and extreme, and at the worst mere propaganda. Extreme and one-sided opinions give no rational basis for risking political and social mayhem. But even if the alarmist predictions were accurate, and Brexit was likely to result in a short period of economic disturbance and even a slight reduction in future GDP growth (which is strongly disputed) how could this justify the risks being blithely taken of undermining the legitimacy of the state?
Even for those apparently only concerned with ‘jobs and the economy’ the long-term damage that would be done by political instability would be far worse than leaving a customs union. This is even without giving any consideration to the manifest short and long-term problems of the EU, to which hard-core Remainers seem indifferent or oblivious – an extraordinary state of mind for a group whose supposed raison d’être is support for European integration. How can one be ‘pro-European’ and so silent about Europe?
So what really does make the hard-line Remainers tick? There are personal interests, ambitions and vanities at stake, to be sure, but so there are at every election. Admittedly, the 2016 vote threatened to be a greater watershed than the average general election. It was to be a decision for a generation. So for many older people – some of them veteran politicians – ingrained prejudices and the assumptions on which some had based their past careers were overturned. For the more illustrious, their claims to a footnote in history were dashed. For some in middle age, career changes beckoned. For some of the university-educated young, visions of travel and work in Europe, however idealized, seemed threatened. These were rational and understandable, if often superficial, reasons for regretting Brexit. But do they explain the foaming at the mouth that one commonly encounters?
There must be something more visceral: a conviction that ‘people like us’ must stay in charge. Remain is a way of identifying with an international elite of the right-thinking, which by definition cannot be wrong or be seen to be wrong. Conversely, the plebs – uneducated, uncool, provincial, middle aged – cannot be right or be seen to be right. Otherwise, civilization crumbles, self-esteem withers. Evidence and argument suggesting that the right-thinking are wrong provoke not discussion, but impatience, even anger.
It is significant that die-hard Remainers make so many references to Trump and America as a way of labelling and dismissing Brexit. They cannot understand their own country or face up to what has happened, and so they disguise it as something else. The first step back towards democratic normality is for them to look at reality and admit the possibility that they may be mistaken. Many who voted Remain in 2016 seem to have accepted precisely this, and support the majority decision from a sense of solidarity and a realization of the anger being aroused in the country. But among the die-hards there is no sign of reflection or any care over the risks they are causing to the whole democratic system, which belongs to us all, not merely to a self-regarding and frivolous political class.
Robert Tombs is a historian, and co-editor of Briefings for Brexit.