The obvious explanation would be: because Brexit’s happened. It happened 18 months ago, we have left the EU, it’s over. That’s not to say that Brexit ever ‘got done,’ because Brexit as a concept is impossible; you only need to look at the UK government’s farcical handling of the ongoing predicament of the Northern Irish border to realise that. Yet despite Brexit being unworkable (and the version we were promised unattainable in practice), on it drags. It has shut down businesses, torn families apart, battered our economy, and destroyed our reputation on the world stage. We should be up in arms about this disaster! So why aren’t we?
The reality is that five years on from the EU referendum, Brexit is a problem that for most people, even Remain voters who are politically active and follow the news, has become just an irritating background noise, drowned out by the constant roar of more pressing issues. The loudest of these is obviously the pandemic, the UK government’s response to which has been abysmal, so poor in fact that you can’t help but wonder if they’ve let the situation get so bad deliberately so as to overshadow the Brexit crisis. Brexit has made travelling to the EU far less convenient; Covid has made it impossible. Brexit has driven migrants workers away; Covid is presented as the real reason for why they left and why businesses are struggling. Brexit has caused prices to increase and led to customs issues at the border; actually, that’s just Covid slowing down deliveries and making goods more expensive. Whatever damage Brexit has done to the UK, it can be handily dismissed and pinned on the pandemic instead, so why should any regular person even notice? Things are tough right now for just about everybody, but the public already have an explanation for that; Brexit is yesterday’s news, and good riddance to it. People cannot be expected to protest something they already showed up in their hundreds of thousands to demonstrate against over a period of years, lost the battle, and have since wearily resigned themselves to enduring that loss for decades to come. Of course we Remainers are not happy about it; we’re still furious, still shouting at the TV every time Boris Johnson or any of his band of manipulative hypocritical Tories and Brexiters who own the media pop up and spew their lies, but with a Conservative majority government which is consistently polling at least ten points ahead of the opposition, what can we do about it?
Some Remainers reckon we ought to still be on the streets every week protesting against Brexit. Why? What would the message be? What would be our aim? People showed up for the Kill the Bill demonstrations, and the Free Palestine marches, because the demand is clear and people can easily get passionate about the cause. What would Remainers be demanding now? “Stop Brexit” and “Give us a People’s Vote” have obviously had their day, and the government didn’t listen to us then; they definitely won’t listen when we’ve lost our only demands. What specifically do we want? We know Brexit isn’t going well but what message does that send out other than “we told you so”? Rejoining the EU is a non-starter right now; we all know it would be the best and most sensible thing to do, but that doesn’t mean there’s enough public support to successfully campaign for it yet. It would be like losing at the Olympics and then immediately demanding another go; while that would be nice, and would certainly get us what we want quicker, in reality we must go home, rest up, and only then start preparing to try again several years down the line. This resting period should be used to work out what exactly we want for the future, seeing as this is not the Olympics and we don’t get another chance to rejoin the EU in four years time, we’re in for a long wait yet. There has been very little talk of improving the terrible Brexit deal the government keep trying to backtrack on, but this should be an obvious demand; joining EFTA, the EEA, or even rejoining the single market are all positions which could arguably be included as a party manifesto promise, whereas full EU membership would require another divisive referendum, and there is no appetite for that yet from just about anyone. However, this isn’t really something that people could get on the streets to protest for; it would probably involve lobbying MPs, writing to newspapers, passing motions to urge political parties to support it, generally going down a different route to start that debate, and even then we’d probably have to brace ourselves for a long wait to gain enough backing for any of those positions. For the Remainers who still want to take to the streets, they need to think hard about what their demands are, as the current messaging is cluttered and confused, making it even easier for politicians and the media to ignore them. Strategically they’d probably be better off focusing on one issue at a time; join farmers on their protests against low-quality food imports, join demos for migrants’ rights as they face the increasing threat of persecution and deportation, including EU citizens suffering through the shambolic settled status application process. We can’t just stand around waving our EU flags with the same stale and failed message we’ve been spouting for five years; we have to adapt.
Indeed, many ex-Remain activists have already chosen to adapt by simply finding other issues to involve themselves with, including smaller and more local campaigns and charities, where their support is more likely to make a difference. As a socialist as well as an ex-Remain activist (a deeply unpopular and controversial combination at the time), I know plenty of people who put their heart and soul into getting Corbyn elected and enabling his policies to be put into practice. None of these activists are still using the same messaging and doing the same campaigning now; they have moved on and found other important matters to put their energy into, whether it be volunteering for food banks, organising rent strikes, or getting involved with existing campaigns and helping them to reach their targets, still hopefully holding onto the ultimate objective of a socialist government whilst also recognising that it isn’t happening anytime soon, and there are other efforts that can be undertaken in the meantime. This is the attitude that all Remainers need to adopt, because although this is a waiting game which will almost certainly takes years to properly get started (and then decades to achieve our end goal), it doesn’t mean we have to sit on our hands until the time is right, but nor does it mean we should waste our energy standing on the street shouting just for the sake of looking like we’re doing something.
My point is, we Remainers need to accept that we cannot force people to care about the effects of leaving the EU before they have actually experienced them, and the original Remain campaign itself should have already taught us that. Unfortunately, we must bide our time and wait for the public to face the realities of Brexit first-hand, because until Brexit starts affecting people personally and the effects can be undeniably pinpointed to the cause, there will be no public backlash, and the Leave voters and Boris Johnson supporters will never shift from their stubborn insistence that this is what they voted for, and there is no point protesting until that happens and they can join us. For now, we can and should continue drawing attention to the destruction Brexit is doing, ideally without saying “we told you so,” if the purpose is to get other people onboard with our cause, but also explore other causes to put our efforts into. We’re 11 years into this seemingly endless succession of Tory governments now; children are going hungry, people are still living in dangerous tower blocks with Grenfell-style cladding, migrants are being scapegoated and persecuted, rape convictions are horrendously low, racism still runs deep and hate crime is on the rise, and as a country we seem to still find open transphobia and Islamophobia acceptable. There is so much still to fight for, so many wrongs to right, so while we put our EU dreams on the back-burner until the time comes to return refreshed to the Rejoin campaign, let’s focus on all the good we can achieve in the meantime.
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