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Thwarting Brexit probably won’t stop Brexit

8 October 2019

7:00 AM

8 October 2019

7:00 AM

What if they succeed in thwarting Brexit? The odds seem weighted against Boris Johnson delivering his do-or-die (-in-a-ditch) promise to get the UK out of the EU by Halloween. The Benn Act has tied the government’s hands so there is no need for Brussels to budge. Donald Tusk can wait until Johnson cracks and complies, or until the Remain Parliament ousts him and installs a prime minister who will hold a second referendum or revoke Article 50 altogether. 

Because MPs have no commonly agreed position, we can’t be sure which eventuality we’re heading for, but we can agree that Britain’s membership continuing on November 1 would represent a big defeat for the Prime Minister, his government and the Brexit movement. Two deadlines would have been missed, the rationale behind Johnson’s leadership bid extinguished, and Brexit-blockers would be running the show at Westminster. Britain would be on course for an even more delayed Brexit, or no Brexit at all. 

Then what? The optimal outcome for Remainers would be for Leavers to concede defeat and a chastened electorate to return to matters more fitting for democratic participation, ideally with a note of contrition for everything they’ve put Parliament through. Work would be needed to replenish depleted faith in politics, though since the two sides blame each other progress on this front is unlikely. Eventually, with any luck, things would go back to normal and the UK could begin to rebuild the international reputation tarnished by Brexit zealots. 

This scenario is rooted in the democratic convention of losers’ consent: the system only works if the vanquished side in a ballot is prepared to abide by the outcome. The problem, of course, is that Brexiteers didn’t lose the referendum. What is being asked of them is winners’ consent to the status of losers because the actual losers would not concede defeat. This is an uncanny proposition and explains why stopping Brexit probably won’t stop Brexit: Leavers, cheated out of their victory, will feel no obligation to ‘move on’.

To understand how to refuse to lose, you only need look north of the border where the SNP has prospered since the 2014 referendum by simply ignoring its defeat and pressing on. For the past few years, we Remainers of a Pictish inclination have been labouring the parallels between the Brexit push to leave the EU and the SNP push to leave the UK.

A populist referendum campaign to reclaim sovereignty from a remote elite? The SNP got there first. Inflated figures and sinister threats? Way ahead of you. ‘Project Fear’? That was us. Vilification of ‘Westmonster’, off-message experts and the media? We should file a copyright claim. Bombarding voters with a questionable claim about the NHS? Classic Dom? No, classic Nic

What we’ve been uncomfortable doing is pursuing this logic beyond trite gotcha. For if Brexiteers successfully aped the SNP’s strategy during the EU referendum, why couldn’t they ape their strategy since? The SNP actually lost their referendum but you wouldn’t know it to look at Scottish politics. Five years on, the Nationalists are still in government, leagues ahead in the polls, and support for Scexit versus remaining in the UK hovers around 50/50. 

Many factors go into explaining this but a central one is this: they kept going no matter what. When they lost their referendum, the SNP almost instantly began to plan to get a second one. Whey they were told to move on, they went on a recruitment drive and started selling out concert venues for Nicola Sturgeon speeches promising freedom was just on the horizon. When they were told to ‘get back to the day job’, they continued with the constitution as their first priority. They did not flinch before pundits or polls, horrific policy outcomes at Holyrood or even setbacks at the ballot box. Scotland leaving the UK is their raison d’être and, with some tactical feints along the way on Scottish domestic policy or Brexit, they have pursued it with a relentlessness that has steamrollered their opponents. 

Remainers who reassure themselves there are no consequences to scuppering Brexit, that polls consistently show support for leaving well below 50 per cent, that the gammons will have no option but to accept a remain/revoke stitch-up, should reflect on the images from Saturday’s nationalist march through Edinburgh.

Five years after losing their referendum, the faithful have not flagged and have built their very identity around this cause. They provide an inadvertent blueprint for Brexiteers: never stop campaigning, spurn convention, defy the pundits, bash the media, wave the flag, and put the constitution at the centre of everything you do. If we accept the legitimacy of the SNP’s ongoing campaign for its goal, integrity demands that we recognise Brexiteers’ right to do the same.

Against a divided left, a Tory party that showed this kind of iron determination could win an election with a comfortable majority, either by standing on a single-issue ‘honour the referendum’ platform or by expanding it into a broader agenda of, say, ECHR withdrawal, tougher sentences, more hospitals and tax cuts for the low-paid. They would finally get their Brexit, and a harder, more right-wing one than set out in Theresa May’s deal.

As a Remainer, few things would dismay me more. As a democrat, I don’t know how I could deny them. They won the referendum and, provided they have enough stamina, can continue winning it until we are forced to accept we lost.


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