Why are people not changing their minds as the difficulties of Brexit become increasingly clear?
Since the referendum, exit negotiations have made almost no progress, and the Government is increasingly in disarray, with Ministers and MPs quarrelling about what they want, and what it might mean. Public dissatisfaction with progress has risen substantially, with a clear majority believing that the negotiations are being badly handled.
Yet public opinion remains stubbornly unchanged on the central issue. Those who voted to leave remain leavers, and many of those who voted remain accept the “will of the people” and believe that Brexit should happen, even if they believe it will be an economic and/or a social disaster.
Yet the “will of the people” is a lie, amplified by the passionate Brexiters and through the right wing press. Three quarters of the population (including those too young to vote, who will be most affected) did not vote for Brexit. Two thirds of the electorate did not vote for Brexit (either by voting against or not voting at all). Those who did vote divided almost equally between leavers and remainers, with a very small margin in favour of leave. A minority of MPs voted for Brexit, and two thirds of Labour supporters and voters did so.
It is also clear that those who did vote for Brexit did so for a wide range of, often incompatible, reasons, and the Government has already conceded that many of these will not be achieved. Immigration will not fall, because the economy and public services depend heavily on immigrant labour. There will not be more money for public services, since all commentators agree that the short term effect will be an economic contraction, as we see with UK growth falling behind the rest of the EU. “Control” by the people or by Parliament will not be increased, as we lose our MEPs and our seat on the Council of the EU, which will continue to set the rules for much of our trade, and the Government centralises power in the hands of Ministers. We will not see an expansion of trade with the rest of the world, as we struggle to renegotiate (from a position of weakness) the many trade deals which we are party to as EU members.
What is the explanation for this effective support for Brexit, despite the fact that it is increasingly difficult to do?
Firstly, most people do not understand much about the EU, and do not care much about it. Until two years ago, when opinion polls asked about what issues concern people, Europe always figured low down the list, far below the NHS, housing, schools, and employment. During the referendum campaign the EU rose up the list, but it has now returned to its previous low place. So until the referendum people took little interest. The achievement of the leave campaigners was to harness these other concerns to the idea of the EU, and persuade people that leaving the EU would in some way solve these problems, despite the fact that the EU has little or no impact on any of them.
Because most people know little, and care little, about the EU per se, when forced to take a simple yes/no position their decision was more emotional than rational. Because it was a binary choice, people came to see it as like a football match in which one side wins and the other loses. And like football supporters, they feel they have chosen their team, and they support it, even when it is badly managed, and constantly defeated. True supporters do not abandon their team just because it loses matches.
This is why evidence of the difficulties and the losses we might face from Brexit carry no weight. Opponents at home, or in the rest of Europe, are seen as an enemy to be defeated (despite the Government’s rhetoric about “friends and partners”). Evidence of failure is seen as a new challenge to be fought against, not an argument for compromise. What the leavers want, with a passion, is to leave, whatever that might mean, and they are quite willing to accept changes in policy in the interests of winning. It seems that many, perhaps most, leavers will accept continued migration, devaluation and economic decline, perhaps even unemployment, in order to win. Furthermore, they have been repeatedly told, and they believe, that they represent the will of the people: all right thinking people are on their side, and the rest are traitors.
This presents all political parties with a challenge. Because the referendum was set up on a simple majority of those voting, and a marginal majority has come to be seen as the will of the people, they feel (wrongly in my view) that it would be undemocratic to resist. So ardent, and no so ardent, remainers support leaving as “democratic”. For the large majority of professional politicians (who were remainers), the task has become to find a solution which demonstrates that we have “left” while doing the least social, economic, and diplomatic damage.
For the Conservatives this involves appeasing the extreme Brexiters, who for a range of ideological and personal reasons seriously want to leave. Although they remain a minority of Conservative MPs, and probably Conservative members, they will be constantly alert to betrayal, and they do understand the detail on issues they care about. With the right wing media, they will cry foul at the first opportunity, particularly if this fits with personal career advancement.
For the Labour Party the problem is different. Because the public opinion contest is not a rational one, anything which looks like resisting the will of the people will be seen (however spuriously) as betrayal of democracy. Despite the fact that a clear majority of members, supporters and MPs were remainers, and probably a majority remain so, the dangers of appearing to reject a democratic vote are seen as too great. Hence the current position, to repeat endlessly that we are leaving, while trying to ensure that we travel the shortest possible distance from membership. The risk is that the endless repetition of accepting the will of the people reinforces the belief that leaving is the will of the people, when this is plainly untrue. It is appeasing bullies.
The hope for Labour remainers is that somehow public opinion will shift to stopping Brexit, but the evidence is slim, for the reasons I have outlined. People have taken sides, and will die rather than admit that they were wrong.
So what would a Labour minimal Brexit look like? We would remain, for at least a “transition” period and perhaps indefinitely, in the single market and the customs union, because of the huge trade advantages, and because this is the only way of resolving the Irish border problem. This would require us to retain free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, membership of most or all of the host of collaborative and regulatory institutions like the Medicines Agency, and continue to contribute to the budget. The Government has already conceded that the volume of migration will not change, we will simply have “control”. Historically, the UK has chosen not to use the controls on movement which are available to it. As Belgium and Luxembourg demonstrate, “free movement” does not mean uncontrolled free movement, or unlimited access to housing or welfare benefits. The ECJ is a totemic issue for the far right, but most people care little about it. As long as we trade with the EU at all we will need a system to adjudicate on disputes, and it would be wasteful to create a parallel court to shadow the ECJ on this. On the budget, most people have no conception of the numbers: that our current contribution is tiny as a proportion of Government spending. Most will accept with a shrug a “divorce settlement” of £60bn rather that £20bn, since these are numbers beyond individual comprehension, and the scope for fudging over time is considerable.
The great and sad irony, is that the one thing we must do to demonstrate that we have left, is resign our formal democratic influence on the EU, its policies and rules. It is inconceivable that people will accept a Brexit which retains our seats on the Parliament and the Council. So we give up our position as one of the “big three” nations, without whose consent little has happened in the EU until now, and become “rule takers” like Norway, obliged to implement rules which we have no say in formulating. When this becomes clear, it might be the tipping point when people recognise this nonsense for what it is. It might be too late.