On 13th October, the Times columnist David Aaronovitch published an article entitled “Whisper it, but a pro-EU lobby is stirring.” Its tone is admittedly hesitant and conditional, with the title of the piece suggesting diffidence in putting forward a thesis unattractive to many readers. But it is difficult to believe that such an article would have been published in “The Times” six months ago. Beneath the apparently placid surface of supposedly entrenched British attitudes towards the European Union, much reassessment is taking place, as “Project Fear” turns more and more into daily reality.
It was always striking that despite governmental and media propaganda, only weakly opposed by the Labour Party, public opinion after the referendum in 2016 long remained very much as it had been before the referendum, with few changing their mind before Brexit happened in January, 2021. Shortages and disrupted supply chains seem now however to be giving the electorate a much less benevolent view of Brexit. A YouGov poll at the end of September found that 53% of respondents thought Brexit was going badly, while only 14% thought it was going well. A further poll published by Savanta ComRes on 5th October found that 52% of the electorate believed that Brexit had delivered little, while only 36% think it has been a success. According to Statista Research Department later in the same month, 49% of people thought it was wrong to leave the European Union, compared 38% who thought it was right.
Nor is there any reason to expect that the coming months will bring much economic relief for the Leave camp. The forecast of the Office for Budget Responsibility that the economic damage caused by Brexit will be twice that inflicted by Covid-19 seems well-grounded. It is difficult to believe that the signing of marginally beneficial trade deals with far-away countries will suffice to convince British public opinion that Brexit is the Christmas present everybody wanted.
As the Aaronovitch article further points out, there is a noticeable absence of will from the main opposition parties to hold the government to account for the failures of Brexit. It seems easier simply to let events unroll in such a way that these events will of themselves demonstrate the foolishness of Brexit. It is not necessary on this hypothesis to risk political acrimony and controversy by harping on a subject that many British electors regard as settled for the foreseeable future, even if they regret this settlement. The British electorate will, the argument runs, no doubt in its own good time appreciate the benefits of closer ties with the rest of Europe and gradually wish to resume its European vocation, perhaps initially by the Customs Union or the Single Market.
Over-optimism and passivity have however been the besetting sins of the Pro-Europeans in this country since 1990. Again and again, political confrontation has been postponed, in the hope that there will be a better opportunity to wage the political battle next month, next year or next decade. The culmination of this mistaken analysis was the referendum campaign in 2016, when political advocacy that should have taken place over ten years was unsuccessfully crammed into ten weeks. There is a real risk that the arguments in favour of rejoining the EU will fade from public consciousness if they are never articulated by political leaders.
If, moreover, this government has one important political talent, it is that of being able to divert attention from its own errors by erecting alternative scapegoats. Boris Johnson and his supporters will be working long and hard in the coming months and years to assure the British electorate that the discomfort and inconvenience they are suffering through Brexit has nothing to do with Brexit at all, but are rather the fault of President Macron, Simon Coveney and people pulling down statues of slave-owners. The election of 2019 showed that such diversionary arguments found and will probably continue to find considerable resonance among much of the Conservative-leaning section of the electorate.
A particularly interesting finding of the Savanta ComRes poll quoted above was the large number of voters who believe that their political parties would benefit from advocating the reversal of Brexit, with even 20% of Conservatives being of this opinion. It is all the more remarkable therefore that Brexit in general remains a taboo subject for so many British politicians, and rejoining the EU in particular is portrayed by the mass media (even in the mainstream) as a fantastic proposition without the remotest chance of implementation. This absence of serious discussion about Brexit is naturally highly congenial to the government, who have no wish for the consequences of their successful Leave campaign in 2016 now to be scrutinised with any vigour. By refusing to talk about Brexit, pro-EU forces in this country are implicitly accepting the government’s self-interested framing of the historical narrative, that Brexit has happened, there is no point in resisting it and by the time its full consequences are revealed, it will anyway be too late to do anything about it.
It is a curious conception of political leadership which allows avoidable economic and political damage to beset the country in the hope that this damage will be so painful that it will educate the electorate as to the error of their ways. It will be a symptom of an entirely dysfunctional party political system in the UK if the Brexit cul-de-sac remains indefinitely unchallenged by British politicians who know the harm Brexit is doing but are either too cowardly or too opportunistic to speak out what they know to be the truth. “Speaking truth to power” is a trope often employed in the context of journalists or officials telling unwelcome truths to ministers. But sometimes it is the ministers who need to tell the truth to the powerful electorate, on whom their jobs depend. In the case of Brexit, the ministers might even be pleasantly surprised by the open-minded reception they might well receive from unexpected quarters.