Why everyone is losing the Brexit war

No matter their politics, in 2019, no-one feels like a winner. How is it that everybody can be feeling beaten at once?

January 25, 2019
In 2019, nobody feels like they've won. Photo: Prospect composite
In 2019, nobody feels like they've won. Photo: Prospect composite

It is a mild January morning in Winchester, beneath the shadow of the cathedral. Middle-aged women walk small dogs down cobbled streets, square-jawed boys pour out of the nearby public school, and American tourists pause to study the blue plaque on the house where Jane Austen died. Meanwhile, a group of academics gathers in a room next door to the cathedral tea shop, to discuss Englishness in this most English of settings.

Or to be precise, the “cultural eradication” of Englishness, at least according to Colin Copus, a professor at Leicester’s De Montfort University. What is happening, the shirt-sleeved professor tells the audience, is a modern-day equivalent of what the Normans did in 1066. A conquering elite is deliberately suppressing a national identity, although what he calls the “neo-Normans” (roughly defined as the sort of middle class, Remain-voting, establishment types who proudly describe themselves as British or even European in spirit rather than English) come armed more with dinner party chatter than William the Conqueror’s bows and arrows.

The evidence that he provides for Englishness being unmentionable in polite society ranges from his inability to find so much as a fridge magnet bearing the flag of St George in the gift shops in Winchester, to the way our national broadcaster brands itself as BBC Scotland or BBC Wales in the relevant places but in England as the plain old BBC. The English may be the dominant power in the union, he argues, but they’re losing their identity.

That same day, a few hundred of those he might call neo-Normans are gathering a few streets away from parliament for The Convention, an emergency conference arranged by groups demanding a second referendum on Brexit. It’s designed to be uplifting and hopeful, with energetic young campaigners taking the stage to discuss how 20-somethings could be mobilised. But the audience is chiefly older, and deeply frustrated. Many are angry that the Labour Party doesn’t seem to be listening to them. When the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole suggests that a speech by the Green leader Caroline Lucas urging a full-throated defence of the EU is the one Jeremy Corbyn should have made, a great primal roar of approval goes up.

How many in the audience are Labour voters, someone asks? Hands shoot up everywhere, although the man behind me shouts “Not for much longer.” This audience may look as if they are winning at life—overwhelmingly middle class, articulate and free to set aside an afternoon to debate the future of the country—yet they find themselves impotent bystanders on the most critical issue in a generation. When it comes to politics at least, they feel as if they’re losing something. But then lately, who doesn’t?


Routs all round

Nor have Britons experienced the routine legislative gridlock, budgetary brinkmanship and government shutdowns Americans are used to enduring. From 1979 to 2010, British politics generally delivered clear winners. Heartbroken socialists in Labour’s wilderness years understood that as well as despondent Tories in the days when Tony Blair seemed unstoppable. For better or worse, it wasn’t hard to tell which way the wind was blowing.Not so long ago, Britons could look across the Atlantic at American culture wars—those visceral clashes over ostensibly trivial but heavily symbolic issues, where both sides complain of losing their country to the other—and feel smug. We hadn’t until relatively recently experienced quite the same fear and loathing, nor the same feeling of permanently being on the defensive.

Today, however, it’s easy to find politicians in both main parties convinced they will lose the next election. This still seems counter-intuitive: surely they can’t all lose. But then nobody won an outright majority in 2010, or in 2017, and the polls regularly find a preference for “Don’t Know” over Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn as a future prime minister. The last person to win a governing majority, David Cameron, promptly lost a referendum that has effectively paralysed Westminster almost ever since. The great crisis as I write reflects the fact that there is still no majority for any solution to the Brexit conundrum and for so long as that is true, no side will have won. Remainers are still mourning what they lost in 2016, while Leavers cry betrayal over what they think is about to be taken from them.

Politicians once sought to project themselves and their tribes as strong and powerful; “winning here,” as the eternally hopeful Liberal Democrat posters had it. But in this new climate they seek instead to slide into your grievances and dwell on failures, as if it is the loser who really takes all. To take one example, fat cat pay has been a perennial Labour campaign issue. Back in the 1990s, Gordon Brown would make hay with the idea of greedy individual snouts in troughs by whipping up outrage against the energy industry bosses’ bonuses—and then presenting himself as a man with a plan to do something about them with a windfall tax. Today, the emphasis has subtly shifted to the idea that the economy as a whole is rigged against the masses—that whatever he or she does, the little guy can’t win. The only answer is to upend the way that everything is run.

Corbyn’s case for pursuing a general election rather than a new referendum on Brexit, meanwhile, has been that economic losses under austerity transcend all other differences. As he put it in a speech this January, whether you live in Remain-voting Tottenham or in Leave-voting Mansfield you’re still in insecure work, still reliant on food banks. That is true of far too many people but self-evidently not of all Labour voters. But it is striking that in the worldview of today’s Labour Party, the middle is often absent. You’re either on the breadline, or in the elite; everyone’s losing, except the sort of people who don’t deserve to win.

On the right, there are rich political pickings to be had from what might be called a crisis of the majoritarians, or culturally dominant majority groups who feel something slipping away from them. Think of middle-aged men (egged on by Donald Trump) who have responded to the Harvey Weinstein scandal by complaining in the teeth of all the evidence that they’re the real victims; that they can’t make a joke without being torn apart by mobs of woke millennials, or that “they just aren’t giving jobs to men at the moment” (as Jeremy Clarkson said of Nick Robinson’s unsuccessful audition to present BBC Question Time). Think too of white people complaining that their history is being erased by black students objecting to colonial-era statues, or the free schools evangelist Toby Young—who himself lost an education quango job over views he’d expressed on social media—arguing that his friend and food magazine editor William Sitwell had fallen foul of the “Maoist thought police,” after the latter was sacked for being rude to a vegan. Their food is suddenly all the rage, but vegans themselves don’t seem to feel like they’re winning, either: some are demanding legal protection against discrimination on the basis of their diet.

Even public health measures, from the ban on smoking in pubs to proposed curbs on sugary foods and drinks, have become an unexpectedly powerful source of grievance among libertarians angry at the erosion of personal freedom to do things that aren’t good for them. May’s former chief of staff Fiona Hill is said to have been so concerned about the political impact of curbing sugar that she personally intervened to save Frosties from the nanny state.

So how is it that everybody can be feeling beaten at once? Part of the answer is so many people genuinely are losing out. The poor really are poor, and—if they rely on the many benefits that have been squeezed—getting poorer too. Even for the working majority, average real wages have not quite recovered to pre-crash levels almost a decade later. Years of economic decline, neglect and young people moving away have fuelled profound feelings of loss within some communities.

The real grievances aren’t just economic. In a survey by the TUC last year, more than half of the women asked said they had experienced sexual harassment. People of colour face stubborn discrimination, and reports of hate crime spiked after the EU referendum. But if many minorities fear a new mood of impunity in which people seem to feel they can say what they like, simultaneously some older white people complain of being “gagged” by political correctness from expressing once-routine views that are now deemed racist, sexist or homophobic, an unknown word a generation or two ago.

What seems to be happening here is that a majority culture unused to being directly challenged to this extent is rubbing up against more recently empowered groups impatient for change. And sometimes both sides of an argument can have justification for feeling like underdogs. All women suffer disproportionately from male sexual violence, giving many of them an understandable fear of sharing intimate space with anyone possessing a penis. Trans women are both marginalised and vulnerable, giving them an equally understandable fear of stigmatisation and attack. When these perspectives clash—as in arguments over whether trans people should have access to women’s refuges and prisons—both sides feel they have much to lose. And, of course, the vitriolic “debate” on social media only intensifies the bruises.


Power fail

The pervasive mood of defeat goes all the way to the top. The political establishment keenly feels an increasing sense of impotence, with for example several MPs worrying aloud during the so-called meaningful vote on Brexit that the political process itself was failing. There may be structural explanations for that, with even prime ministers no longer exercising the authority they once did.

Over the past two decades, the changing rules of politics have seen power drain from Westminster (see box overleaf). The loss of sovereignty to Brussels, even if it was never as great as those who propagated bendy banana myths claimed, is the obvious one. But power has also moved from Westminster to London, Scotland and Wales in devolution. It has passed from big parties to smaller ones, in coalition or in the kind of confidence-and-supply arrangement that currently has the DUP propping May up. It has flowed from Labour MPs towards Labour members, from whom the leader now claims his mandate, while in turn many members feel aggrieved that they lack the power to force dissident MPs into line. On the Tory side, the prime minister has lost ground to the backbench European Research Group that holds her hostage over Brexit, supposedly on Tory members’ behalf.

And to crown it all, Westminster has ceded power to the people via referendums, which with their simple propositions can leave even the winners feeling beaten. Just look at Scotland in 2014, where unionists won the vote on Scottish independence but lost the argument to such an extent that the SNP almost completely swept the board at the 2015 general election.

In sum, we’re not so much lacking sovereignty, as drowning in competing versions of it. The old establishment can certainly feel that it has lost clout, but nobody else feels as if they’ve gained enough. City mayors are reduced to gestures—Sadiq Khan lighting up the London Eye in the colours of the EU flag on New Year’s Eve, Andy Burnham giving part of his salary to the Manchester homeless—because they’re powerless to intervene in Brexit or reverse welfare policies that push people onto the street. Labour members were told they would decide Brexit policy yet Corbyn seems resistant to what very many of them actually want. And today, even the champions of Leave, from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson, are carping from the sidelines not running the show; as a result, their supporters fear being stitched up.


Hollow victories

When former Vote Leave staffer Chloe Westley tweeted that Leavers “are the majority, but treated like a minority” her comment was either liked or shared by more than 8,000 people. Westley, who now works for right-wing think tank the TaxPayers’ Alliance, has seen her profile shoot up since Brexit and is a regular on television; yet she complains of feeling marginalised on screen. “It’s always two Remainers, one Brexiteer, or sometimes three to one.” That may reflect the prioritising of political party balance over Remainer-Brexiteer balance on shows like Question Time, but evidently it still rankles.

But if Brexiteers as a tribe are particularly given to feeling sore in the aftermath of victory, it may be because the older among them still haven’t forgotten Cameron dismissing Ukip as “closet racists and fruitcakes,” or an aide to John Major describing hardened Maastricht rebels as “a swivel-eyed barmy army from ward eight, Broadmoor.” (Interestingly Corbyn supporters, who for years before their relative success in the 2017 election were told that their ideas were toxic with the voters, nurse a similar grievance.) “For a long time [opposition to EU membership] was a position that was regarded as being extreme or wrong,” says Westley. “Even when the referendum was won, there was still a distrust. I’d say to people ‘come on, we’ve won, you don’t need to feel like a victim or a David versus Goliath.’ But maybe they were right, in a sense, because it might not happen now.”

Winning doesn’t feel like winning if your side can’t grab the levers of power you need to follow through. And for one group of Leave voters in particular, that almost never happens. They’re the people the Bristol University social scientist Paula Surridge calls the “authoritarian left,” mainly working-class voters with socially conservative views on cultural issues such as immigration or disciplining children, but left-wing views on economic issues like workers’ rights and renationalising the railways. Though the biggest of 10 “value clans” identified by the pollsters BMG Research (which calls them “Proud and Patriotic State” voters and estimates they make up 15 per cent of the electorate), they have no obvious champion. Corbyn is too liberal on things like immigration and crime, May’s Conservatives are still too closely identified with big business, and Ukip has imploded.

Every time these people vote, Surridge says, one side of their split political personality is disappointed. “At the referendum, they came down very much on the socially conservative side. In 2017 (at the general election), the economic became more important. If another general election is all about austerity they may well pitch up for Labour, but if it’s about Brexit or even something like defence they may well pitch up for the Conservatives.”

And while left authoritarians won the referendum on paper, they have seen no tangible change in their daily lives. “For lots of these voters it’s not even clear the vote was particularly about Europe, it was about feeling that something’s got to change,” says Surridge.

There’s a strong overlap between these alienated Leave voters and those convinced their English identity is being suppressed by a snobby cosmopolitan elite, wrinkling its nose at flag-waving in general and white vans draped in the flag of St George in particular.  “The people who feel English are not the people who are in power in England, therefore it’s quite possible for them to feel dispossessed even though they’re living in England which is the dominant part to the union,” says John Denham, a former Labour MP who is director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, and organiser of the Winchester seminar.

Among Leavers—a majority in his former seat of Southampton Itchen—Denham reports “a sort of grim satisfaction” that finally someone has been forced to listen to them. Yet as he points out, listening isn’t the same as delivering. “Everybody’s losing, because Brexit in objective terms is not going to solve the problem. The people who voted Leave are still pretty lost.” The irony is that if a bad Brexit were to tip the UK into recession, it’s the struggling towns that helped swing it for Leave who could be most exposed to economic losses.


Losing to win

James O’Brien wins arguments. It is how he makes his living, as a talk radio host and one of few defiantly liberal voices on LBC, and it’s perhaps why his encounters with floundering callers often go viral. His bestselling book How To Be Right insists that by patiently dissecting right-wing grievances—those semi-mythical complaints that Britain is being “swamped” by immigrants, that you can’t pay a woman a compliment without getting sacked—liberals can defuse them. It is balm to the soul of people who feel they’re losing the argument not only on Europe but on racism, misogyny and the threatened virtue of tolerance.

For O’Brien, it’s about pinning people down to facts not feelings: “What’s important is asking them the same questions over and over again, not in a Jeremy Paxman way but in a ‘these are the words you use, explain to me what you mean by them’ and it’s astonishing how quickly that can lead to an unravelling.” On too much of the media, he says, people talk angrily past rather than to each other, while presenters leave arguments unchallenged. “We have this ‘both sides lied legacy’ from Brexit because all the coverage was ‘if we leave terrible things will happen,’ now over to my next guest who says ‘if we leave brilliant things will happen.’” The net result, he says, is a culture in which political argument is like “playing chess with a pigeon who just struts across the board, knocks over all the pieces, defecates everywhere and then starts off claiming he’s won.” For those used to playing chess by the rules, the last three years have undeniably been a shock.

Yet Britain palpably had not changed overnight. We woke up the same people as before. What happened was that a set of broad cross-party assumptions—that people won’t vote to be poorer, that lies rebound on you eventually, that there are lines politicians don’t cross for votes—were shattered. And for some, the loss of these old rules was a cause for grief in itself. The late Paddy Ashdown was expressing a common Remainer reaction when he turned to his wife after the referendum result and said that this didn’t feel like their country any more, the sort of phrase you would normally associate more with Nigel Farage.

Prominent Remainers are also sincerely angry on behalf of those they believe will suffer from an act of economic self-harm. The “you lost, get over it” crowing of some Leavers, who never showed any interest in trying to carry the 48 per cent along with them, has provoked them further. But the more erratic extremes of Remain opinion—from conspiracy theories about BBC bias to suggestions that older people shouldn’t be allowed the vote—increasingly creeping into the social media feeds of even mainstream figures may reflect something else too. The Remain camp is dominated by people—business leaders, opinion formers, ex-prime ministers and celebrities—who are used to possessing influence. Yet on Brexit, people refuse to be influenced. The experts’ warnings were ignored, their economic forecasts dismissed out of hand, their knowledge rubbished. The people have, as Michael Gove didn’t quite say, had enough of them.

Speaker after speaker at that London convention on a second referendum stressed that “we must never look like the establishment again,” as the People’s Vote campaign spokesman Tom Baldwin put it. But there was a striking dearth of answers about how precisely not to do so, while still holding establishment beliefs and indeed CVs (Baldwin, for example, is a former lobby journalist turned spin doctor for Ed Miliband). The grimly unspoken fear among some Remainers is that it may take Brexit becoming reality to prove retrospectively that open borders and international collaboration were a good idea—in other words, that Remainers might have to lose the battle before they can finally win the argument.

But whatever happens now, it may take years for the resulting grievances to work their way through our collective system. Should Article 50 be delayed, or a second referendum called, Leavers’ rage would be uncontained. But assuming Brexit does go ahead, whatever form it takes it is likely to disappoint either hard or soft Brexiteers; that paves the way for years of arguing that whatever emerged wasn’t “real” Brexit, that it could have been so much better had the other side only listened or planned things properly. Remainers, meanwhile, would still be left mourning the loss of British influence and of a world where it was easy to live, work and study in Europe. In this epic battle of the losers, it might be quite some time before anyone feels they’re winning again.

Read Tom Clark on how winning got so difficult