Has “Will of the People” Poisoned Brexit?

Tory leadership contender Esther McVey has pitched her campaign with the words “Take control of our destiny”. As a derivative of better slogans, it probably won’t get her far. But after the referendum in 2016, it would have been hard to predict that “take back control” might need reviving in 2019.

Some referendum claims were designed to fade away, such as money for the NHS or Turkey joining the EU. They were never going to survive post-campaign reality. But the decline of “take back control” into a semi-comical meme is surprising. It was, after all, the perfect statement of emotional desire – something integral to Brexit.

Worse still, its replacement by more dangerous slogans was not predicted either.

Leave has walked off the playing field, so every car plant closure, for example, is now brexit’s fault – even if it isn’t.

Sure, the return of Farage declaring “betrayal” was widely heralded, but “no deal is better than a bad deal” proved unintentionally durable. Originally intended as an assertion of a good deal to be done, it eventually brought down Theresa May’s Premiership by strengthening support for “no deal”.

One Brexit-supporting slogan and its offspring, however, rose quickly and powerfully after the referendum. As it turns out, that may have been a slow acting poison that now risks brexit.

The Will Of The People

With a very small referendum majority behind it, the government was put in a difficult place by Brexit. Leaving the EU was deliberately ill-defined during the campaign, with contradictory or fantastical promises that could not all be kept.

At the same time, Parliamentary rules make it problematic for ministers to lie in the House of Commons. They can lie to the public quite freely when campaigning, but not to Parliament when governing.

This had a stifling effect on those delivering Brexit. All analysis, all feedback from industry, and all economic theory said Brexit would be bad for the economy. In France that might not have mattered; politics there often looks beyond economics to some wider social or national outcome. In the UK though, 40 years of political orthodoxy has cast everything as a function of a balance sheet. That meant politicians simply didn’t know how to talk up something that economics suggests will diminish wealth.

By making “the will of the people” central to defending Brexit, the wider leave movement opened the door to a re-match.

At this point, the motivation behind delivery became critical. Far from being motivated by Brexit as a social good, government and the wider leave movement instead motivated itself by winning, and thus sought means of disarming criticism of its choices. So instead of focusing on Brexit’s benefits and admitting its negatives, we saw a fixation on the win.

Those critical of any particular Brexit direction were thus told to “shut up and get over it” and were labelled traitors and saboteurs and remoaners and so on. All of this hinged on the presumed fact that Brexit being good or bad no longer mattered because it could be justified – and all criticism disarmed – by stating the fact it had won.

Enemies of the People

At this stage, a long term hazard was apparent to anyone with common sense. People change their minds. We all do it all the time. So by making “the will of the people” the reason to do Brexit, the wider leave movement opened the door to a re-match.

Remainers just had to change public minds sufficiently, and inspire the mere question of whether the will of the people had lasted.

Worse still, because government faced concerns about how to leave the EU without admitting difficult truths in Parliament, it tried to simply not involve Parliament. That led to a court case and one of the most despicable headlines in UK newspaper history – “Enemies of the People”.

That act, and the motivation behind it, was critical to understanding how we got to where we are today.

If the aim of the leave movement was to achieve a good Brexit, then that court case would never have happened. After all, democracy works because scrutiny improves outcomes. So if the best possible outcome was the aim, scrutiny through democratic process would have been good for leavers.

For example, Parliamentary debate is open to the press. That means the public can see what is said by who, and what is proposed or done by government. That means that the watchful eye of leavers could have ensured bad moves were amended, mitigated, or binned while good moves won favour and wider support.

Instead, the leave movement opposed. It criticised parliament, attacked the judges over a perceived “defeat”, and insulted plaintiffs for helping to keep Brexit transparent and scrutinised. This was not the action of a movement seeking the best possible outcome, nor was it seeking to win over more people to see the light. Instead it was defensive, trying to hold on to its past win.

Such defensive motive rarely succeeds in politics.

Changing will

By playing defence, the leave movement has spent three years making almost no positive case for Brexit, and so support has ebbed away.

2019 has seen broadly remain parties out-poll broadly leave parties in a European Election – something almost implausible soon after the referendum. Subsequently, the Brexit Party (which was the single biggest party in those EU elections) somehow lost a Peterborough by-election that was tailor-made for a Brexit party.

For context, Peterborough voted with a huge 19,000 majority for leave in 2016. The by-election came with the Tories leaderless, the Brexit Party benefiting from EU election publicity, and with Labour having to find a candidate quickly because its MP had been locked up. To that we must also add that by-elections are typically a forum for protest votes and low turnouts, so it is no surprise that party chief executive Nigel Farage had already scheduled his victory trip to Downing Street the next day to demand a seat at negotiations.

And yet they lost – and this is why that slow acting poison is potentially killing Brexit.

By trying to consolidate a win by making the win itself the mandate, Leave has walked off the playing field while the game is still being played. Huge marches and big petitions get headlines, but it is actually the closer-to-home battle that remainers are winning.

Every car plant closure is now brexit’s fault – even if it isn’t. Because while plants closing down are maybe due to Brexit, Leave isn’t pointing at new car plants set to open up as a result of Brexit.

If that doesn’t change, it is hard to see how the “will of the people” can be maintained, if it even has been already. That in turn would mean that the motivation of winning has cost leavers their win.

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