In the wake of a General Election defeat, and a now impending but unstoppable Brexit, what happens to the huge movement for “remain”?
Remain itself won’t happen, but such strong views won’t fade easily. So should it reconcile, become an “awkward squad”, or could it realign?
The UK government has suggested that it wants to now govern for all, and be “friends” with remainers – ending the division in the UK.
This will have some appeal as division is tiring, unproductive, and damaging. But reconciliation requires some degree of good faith. At present that good faith lacks any foundation, and that will need addressing.
Leave is still fragile. So many hopes have been poured into brexit that it will fail to deliver on them all.
For a start, there is little trust between two strongly motivated sides to the division. There is also no trust in the naturally antagonistic political leaders involved. So what can overcome that?
One prospect would see the leaver side recognise the fragility of its project.
Leave won a marginal victory in the referendum four years ago, and is now set to get (broadly speaking) the thing it wants (brexit in some form). But leave is fragile. So many hopes have been poured into brexit that it will fail to deliver on them all – not least because some are contradictory.
A close relationship with the EU might ease remainer concerns. Automatic rights for migrants might help too.
More than that, the strength of its base is time-limited. As unpleasant as it is to note this, leave is mainly favoured by older voters, so time is not on Leave’s side. In effect, it has to reconcile a new future outside the EU with a more youthful remain outlook soon. Otherwise it will be overturned in ten years time by the inevitability of the undertaker.
For remainers, the prospect of waiting until time wins the argument may hold superficial appeal. But that is a pretty brutal approach to politics. Much needs doing regardless of EU membership, and a desire for a better country – or at least a less damaged one – is powerful motivation.
The trouble with the reconciliation is what might be reconciled with. While many leavers defend leave as not racist or xenophobic, there is a racist and xenophobic contingent that remainers want to see repudiated.
Lib Dems would seem almost silly to give up their one strong appeal for a core voter base.
Likewise, while leave has tended not towards magnanimity but towards “crushing saboteurs”, it has set obvious parameters for reconciliation. A close relationship with the EU might ease remainer concerns. Automatic rights for migrants might help too. Open scrutiny of Russian interference and a clean up of UK politics could win some around as well.
But much of that might now feel like defeat to leavers, and look like a path back to remain.
So reconciliation is going to be a very tough sell.
The Awkward Squad
Some part of remain will persist. It will remain remain until the UK leaves the EU, and immediately become rejoin after leaving.
This is attractive for a particular contingent, because it will likely align with party political preferences.
The Lib Dems worked hard – albeit inconsequentially in the end – to make itself the remainiest of remain parties. While the Lib Dems are still suffering their post-2010 malaise, it would seem almost silly to give up their one strong appeal for a core voter base.
Not everything is about Brexit, but Brexit is about everything.
The trouble with this is that this will appear to be just ongoing moaning by losers in much the way that those seeking electoral reform appear to be upset about losing after a general election (no matter how sound the case for reform is).
That appearance is not a winning one.
For much of remain, the most appealing shift now will likely to be scrutiny. People voted for a lot of different brexits. Brexit itself has still, even now, not taken shape. So scrutiny of what actually happens and the effect it has will become a strong focus.
For people less interested in leave and remain, this will seem tiresome – especially when police numbers are so low, the NHS is on its knees, and the public is suffering massive levels of poverty and hardship.
A few years from now, if the UK does not feel like it has won after all, there will be ongoing demand for change.
But it will play a part in all opposition over the coming years, because long term strategic direction feeds into all manner of policy decisions. Not everything is about Brexit, but Brexit is about everything.
Scrutiny will also, if done well, open up questions about the corruption in which the UK state appears to now be mired. From the Russia Report to mistrust of the BBC, there is a lot to be scrutinised that will please remainers but will also appeal more widely.
Eventually, if we presume reconciliation to a new future is unlikely, “rejoin” will probably emerge over time, beyond an awkward squad.
This will reflect changing demographics, ongoing disillusion with things that don’t change, and an endless drip drip drip of economic and diplomatic troubles that inevitably result from diminished trade positions.
Reconnecting with other politics, and remembering what it was all about in the first place, is sensible.
A few years from now, if the UK does not feel like it has won after all, there will be an ongoing demand for change that will again need meeting. “Rejoin” born of experience may then be a winnable prospect for parties.
A Split Remain
Because of all this, the huge motivation for remain is likely to split somewhat – at least for a few years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Unity is only useful if unity delivers an outcome, and it has not done so.
Reconnecting with other politics, and remembering what it was all about in the first place, doesn’t mean no longer caring about EU membership.
It just reflects the diverse situation on the doorstep, which is a smart thing for anyone political to do.
A separate article on Scotland and Northern Ireland is pending.