First blue passports. Now Brexit stamps. For some, these belong in the same file as the Royal Yacht Britannia and Big Ben’s bongs. See also: filament lightbulbs and fruit and veg sold in pounds and ounces.
For some (repeat: some) Remain-voting politicians and observers, this stuff is ridiculous, old-fashioned nonsense, an attempt to drag Britain back to some imagined 1950s idyll and proof to their suspicions that Leavers are old, weird and stupid. Just in case you need an illustration of this, dip into online ‘debate’ about the Sun’s Brexit stamps campaign.
Now, I should declare an interest: I voted Remain and still can’t see any of the possible outcomes of Brexit that is better than those that faced us if we’d stayed. But that doesn’t mean I think Brexit can or must be stopped.
Indeed, while I worry that Brexit will do economic harm, I also worry that stopping it could do greater social and political harm. The backlash, the anger, the grievance from Leavers denied their prize would be dreadful and escalate our nascent culture wars to a level that would raise real questions about whether Britain was a single and governable polity.
Instead of stopping Brexit, I think Remainers would be better putting their energy into building a consensus for something that looks like Norway and the EEA. This is, after all, what the majority of MPs would prefer to come from Brexit, and quite likely the majority of voters. (NB: some Leavers are quite keen on EEA-type outcomes. Smart Remainers would be making common cause with them right now.)
There are lots of components to that consensus, which I’ll write about at another time. (Hint: immigration is at the top of the list.) For now, the cultural stuff, the symbols: stamps and passports, and why Remainers are wrong to sneer.
Start with a basic rule of politics. It’s a fight and one you win by persuading people to agree with you. Remain lost in 2016. To win, and gain a majority for anything other than a fairly hard, painful Brexit, Remainers need to persuade some Leavers to agree with them.
For too many in the Remain camp, this is just a matter of time. Just wait, they say. Voters will realise Brexit is a disaster then come flocking over to our side. I think that’s optimistic, to say the least: people don’t easily change their minds. Even if Brexit is a disaster, many Leave voters won’t blame their own vote for that. They’ll blame other people.
Anyway, why would Leave voters flock to the Remain side? Why go running to people who have shown very little interest in understanding you and your views, much less respecting and representing them? Passports, stamps and the rest are symbols, but symbols matter. They really matter. For some Leavers, the ability to have the colour of passport they want is symbolic of everything they voted for: a country they find familiar, a country where they feel listened to.
Remainers mourning their red passport should reflect on their sadness. They feel that someone else has taken a decision for them, foisted something on them against their wishes. Which is fair enough, but it’s also pretty much what some Leavers have felt for years and even decades. ‘Taking back control’ wasn’t just about sticking it to Brussels. It was about taking back control from the people who now take the Mickey out of blue passports and Brexit stamps. And of course, some Brexiteers are quite aware of this and keen to start these fights. They know what Steve Bannon knows: the best way to consolidate and motivate your base is to rile your opponents into public scorn and abuse. And this is how Britain follows the US down the road to hell, the slide into polarised politics and a full-blown culture war. Passports and stamps are low-level skirmishes. What scares me is this binary mindset taking over on substantive issues, especially immigration and national identity.
So I say this to those Remainers who scorn blue passports and Brexit stamps: please sneer a little less and understand a little more. Listen to what people on the other side are really saying and what they really want, and treat those things with respect even though you disagree.
Remember that every joke you make and every cry of despair you issue about stupid Leavers and their stupid Brexit ruining your country is exactly what your political opponents want you to do, since it helps them escalate the culture war that they believe can solidify and lock in their 52 per cent majority.
And such a cultural conflict, I repeat, really could be worse for Britain than Brexit itself. If changing the colour of the passport and issuing a few stamps — and doing so with good grace and humour — are necessary to assuage Leavers’ grievances and to avert that escalation, that is a small price and one we should happily pay.