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Remainers will get nowhere by continuing to shout: ‘Told you so’

The Guardian logo The Guardian 8/12/2017 Anne McElvoy
A YouGov poll found 70% of people think Brexit should go ahead – including a chunk of those who voted against it. © AFP/Getty Images A YouGov poll found 70% of people think Brexit should go ahead – including a chunk of those who voted against it.

If liberals are so right, why are so many electorates finding us unpalatable? Progressive sorts, who believe that openness – to ideas, migration and trade – brings more benefits than closing off minds and borders are popular with each other. Sometimes they win power – Emmanuel Macron in France, Angela Merkel, most likely again in Germany next month. But they are not in the White House, nor are their near-cousins, Remainers, winning the argument in Britain.

Thomas Frank’s salty account, Listen, Liberal, on why America’s Democrats, left-liberal media and intellectual class failed to stop Donald Trump becoming president is one of the more honest attempts to answer that conundrum. Frank’s thesis is that they are still failing to convince most of those who voted for the dangerous pyrotechnic tweeter in the White House that he is on the wrong path: “The news media’s alarms about Trump have been shrieking at high C for more than a year,” he wrote in the Guardian.

To little effect, outside a pre-existing echo chamber. The response is more outpourings of rancour, more furious invective tinged with despair. A perverse effect is to feed Trump’s attention-seeking. Hence the foolish “fire and fury” outburst, which distracts from the deadly serious matter of an urgent need to deal with North Korea’s nuclear adventurism. Another round of outrage is then heaped on a president whose core message is that if he is annoying smug liberals, he must be doing something right. It also saves him from having to show progress towards any discernible achievements.

This is turning out to be a devilishly hard cycle to break, for reasons that lie within modern liberalism itself, as well as the awfulness of Trump and his enablers. If you are convinced that what you stand for is inspired by the Whiggish view, in which liberal progress is inevitable, it is perplexing and irksome to find that those standing for other values are getting ahead of you. Especially so in societies that have enjoyed growth and technological innovation and the benefits of openness and freedom for decades. But if a sense of superiority is integral to the liberal idea, it can be annoying and propagate the creation of small groups who talk more to each other than anyone else.

Something similar to what Frank describes in charting progressive America’s response to Trump is happening in the Brexit debate as the cliff-edge of exit proper looms. Remainers, with some good reasons, are annoyed to see the chickens coming home to roost: a three-way split in cabinet on what form of exit they want (having failed to enlighten us before the referendum) and tussles over which bits of EU burden or privilege we should plausibly strive to retain or ditch.

In this sour summer, many are making similar errors as their progressive American cousins. It begins, as it always does, with language and tone. Of course people should state very strongly when they think ideas are foolish or risky. But one sort of inflation that Brexit has definitely unleashed is the verbal variety. The word “catastrophe” is deployed so routinely that it makes me wonder what description would be reserved for, say, nuclear war (not as fanciful as it looked until recently) or the immolation of Syria.

This is the beginning of a trap to which Frank refers to as that “shrieking at high C” – the tendency to think that a case cannot be made or an argument nailed without upping the stakes in terminology. Twitter loves this and so do digital click-hunters.

Pitfalls abound. Not least because opponents, who have tapped into popular discontent, are better at it. So apart from commiserating with ourselves, it is easy for liberals to end up aping the very behaviour they disdain. We can enjoy James Chapman, the former political adviser and “hard Remainer”, being up for a round of pugilism with ancestral foes. But once you start suggesting that your opponents ought to be in jail, it comes across as more Venezuela than a full-throated defence of EU membership. The noise drowns out the signal.

It often comes with the thin skin of having lost a battle we feel we should have won – and none of us is immune from that vanity. A curdling tone against your foes morphs from feisty to bitter. In this category, I would include the kind of Twitter-speak that goes: “Happy now, Brexiters/Tories/Anyone I do not agree with?” or derides opponents for their vast stupidity, so that the speaker assumes intellectual superiority, as well as other kinds. It is also a short journey from there to the kind of language that draws liberals into the trap that George Orwell noted in his essays for the Observer – automatically imputing bad motives or false consciousness and a failure to defend the power of moderation on which liberalism is built.

Should we just sit back and take bad arguments and foot-shuffling excuses from those who led the country into what is, at best, a huge risk on its prosperity, with the potential to destabilise Britain’s relations with the continent? No. But choose arguments and evidence with precision. Do not grab at any passing indicator, the better to shout: “Told you so.”

Inconvenient truths persist: 70% of people think Brexit should go ahead, according to YouGov’s recent polling, including a decent chunk of those who voted against it. This is not exactly wind in the sails of the “anti-Brexit party” notion, which I would hazard, has a short summer’s lease. The counter-case in Britain goes something like this: “We’re beat up already by the pro-Brexit press and the Tory right – don’t expect us to lacerate ourselves any further.” Remainers have no need to cringe, but do need to beware coming across as prideful, rather than determined to limit the worst damage from a hard Brexit in the wider interest.

Those slogging away at that aim, notably Philip Hammond as chancellor, are doing the more responsible thing, even if it looks thankless and is too boring and incremental to excite the shouters. A further objection to catastrophism is that it is a declining asset, because unless voters can see a clear example of it in their daily lives, it stretches credibility. There is a very strong case for asserting that Britain’s economy and wider opportunities will be damaged – and the more so, the harder the Brexit. The clearest evidence is simple and it goes back to 19th-century liberalism, namely that protectionism does not work, whether it is applied to the job market or drawing up the drawbridges of mobility. So the weakness of the hard Leave case is the short-lived guarantees it offers for its claims. No sooner do they promise that getting out of the EU will constrain immigration than exceptions start to pile up for casual labour, for NHS workers, for students and, next year, for some other needed group.

The “hard border” problem in Ireland will have to be resolved with some extraordinarily complicated technological fix, which doesn’t half invite the old Irishism: “I wouldn’t have started from here.” Car-makers are bribed to stay in northern cities. To maintain the City’s ability to do business with continental Europe, lawyers in the Square Mile will get richer in sorting out the minutiae of “passporting” versus “equivalence”.

So much for the great leap out of EU servitude – the result of Brexit will be even more complex arrangements and trade-offs. Brexit Britain will not be a stroke of liberation – it will be a grind of contradictory drives and priorities and bog us down in finding very complicated solutions to our problems. Liberals should keep pointing this out and fight on specifics.

The difficulty for those who are keen to ally a passionate Remain vibe with a broader liberal one is what to aim for. Jeremy Corbyn has allied himself with hard Brexit without saying so. Theresa May would doubtless like to soften her dash for the out door, but is so weakened that any move she makes could be fatal. Those who desire a second referendum will need to be sure they do not lose twice, which Oscar Wilde might say looked like carelessness, but is perfectly possible.

In the meantime, it would be good to avoid the trap of unprepossessing miserabilism. There is still much to believe in and fight for in battered old liberalism. It’s an idea that persists because options to it fail to deliver on empty promises. The Economist’s 19th-century founding motto of a “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”, rings true in an era with many of the same underlying tensions and some fresh trials.

A simpler dictionary definition of liberalism is “willing to respect and accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own”. That one is harder than it sounds.

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