As celebrities and failed politicians prepare to gather for another central London protest against Brexit, their unchanging tactics make clear that this is more about burnishing their reputations as right-on culture warriors than sincerely trying to persuade the British people to change course
John Harris has long been about the only writer at the Guardian worth reading, and today he has some wise words of advice for the organizers and stars of the upcoming march in support of “People’s Vote” on overturning Brexit and remaining in the European Union.
For those who have been living under a rock and therefore missed the incessant publicity of these astroturf, significantly foreign-funded umbrella groups agitating for another vote (termed by activists and unquestioningly sympathetic journalists the “People’s Vote” because presumably the June 2016 vote which they lost turned out not to be a people’s vote) are holding another one of their big marches in central London. They will be meeting in fashionable Park Lane, that bastion of salt-of-the-earth Britishness with which so many potentially wavering regional Leave voters identify, and sauntering down to Parliament Square where they will hear various assembled celebrities and last season’s political grandees tell them the same comforting bromides that they have been repeating for over two years.
John Harris thinks that maybe – just maybe – this “second time lucky” approach will not bring the windfalls which the organizers are hoping for, which presumably include generating mounting and irresistible public pressure for Brexit to be delayed while a new referendum is organized.
The music, apparently swelling towards a climax that never arrives, sounds like a Coldplay outtake, and most of the faces suggest an entertaining Saturday night in front of the TV. On and on they go: the singer Jamelia, the actor Dominic West, Philip Pullman, Stephen Mangan, Josh Widdicombe, Tracey Ullman, Natascha McElhone, the musician Nitin Sawhney, Gary Lineker, Matt Lucas and good old Dan Snow. Non-famous people seem to be few and far between, with the exception of an unnamed man in front of a football crowd and someone whose caption merely says “a farmer from Scotland”.
Who are these people? The same crowd of luvvies who believe that their celebrity endows them with some special wisdom and insight into geopolitics which the rest of us desperately need to hear. The same people who actively drove wavering voters into the arms of the 2016 Leave campaign.
Ostensibly, the video is aimed simply at encouraging people to go on the demo, a job it may well be doing reasonably well. But it clearly has a larger reach, and shines light on an increasingly inescapable problem: the failure of the range of forces now pushing against Brexit (from Open Britain, to Scientists for EU and the student campaign FFS (AKA For our Future’s Sake), and Britain for Europe) to do much more than working up their own side, and get anywhere near shifting the balance of opinion in the country.
Slow hand clap. It took two years, but we finally got there. To be fair, Harris probably knew this all along – but then if more instinctively pro-EU journalists, commentators and campaigners had half of Harris’ self-awareness we likely would not have voted to leave the EU in the first place. More:
To be fair to anti-Brexit campaigners, the contortions of the Labour party and the big trade unions are not helping them. But they should also look at their own failings. First, as evidenced by the video, they cannot seem to break out of the stereotype of remain voters as metropolitan and largely middle class, nor push beyond the impression of the anti-Brexit cause as something led by representatives of some awful ancien regime, commanded by Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Bob Geldof (with supporting roles for, say, the former minister Andrew Adonis and the philosopher AC Graying, both of whom perhaps ought to tweet less).
Overall, there is still precious little awareness that if you put the people formerly known as the great and the good at the forefront of anti-Brexit campaigning, you run the risk of simply reminding millions of people why they voted to exit the EU in the first place. The problem is arguably symbolised by one fact above all others: that by the end of this month, the two biggest anti-Brexit events to date will have been huge marches in London.
This is why I shake my head every time that Tony Blair decides that the nation needs to hear from him on Brexit one more time – that if only he gives one more stirring speech, contorting his increasingly cadaverous face into those positions of faux-anguish and sincerity which once fooled so many of us – that we will immediately stop, see the error of our ways and hand the car keys back to the same determined kidnappers who drugged and abducted us in the first place, just as we stand on the cusp of escape.
But clearly this is not a lesson which penetrates the minds of the Smartest Guys In The Room, the people who think that their credentials, jobs and lifestyles give them some kind of exclusive divine right to chart Britain’s course. And so, like a one-hit wonder that won’t go away, they keep playing the same tune to an increasingly bored wider audience.
But it need not be like this, says Harris, who proposes ditching the celebrities and failed ex-politicians in favor of being seen “pitching up in the places that voted leave, and finally listening”. Harris signs off with this parting advice:
And perhaps bear in mind the words of the venerable Gina Miller, uttered at the people’s vote march earlier this year. “It’s time we took things back to the streets and the lanes, the towns and the villages, the meadows and the squares of this country,” she said. So why haven’t they done it?
Why haven’t they done it yet? Maybe because people like Gina Miller and the assembled celebrities agitating to subvert Brexit would never sully themselves by holding their big march in Sunderland (61-39) or Boston (75-25). Hell, they won’t even go so far as Birmingham (50.4-49.6). They wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those places. They’re happy to cut schmaltzy little videos exhorting other people to take the “People’s Vote” campaign to those areas, but Patrick Stewart and Bob Geldof aren’t going to check in to the Premier Inn Coventry and dine at Wetherspoon’s after a long day knocking on doors or accosting shoppers outside WH Smith.
And so we have this ludicrous campaign of unhinged celebrity carnival barkers, bleating their hypocritical demand about another referendum yet refusing to take their message beyond its existing metropolitan strongholds. Remember, these people really do consider themselves so smart. So much more educated, so much better informed, so much more aware of every possible relevant factor concerning Brexit, and yet they have made zero attempt to change the disastrous strategy which saw them lose the last round back on June 23, 2016.
Why? I am becoming increasingly convinced that the reason is that for many of them, this is not about leaving the European Union at all. That like so many other social justice causes, this is little more than a convenient vehicle for second-tier celebrities to clamber onto in order to prove their woke, right-on credentials. In short, the People’s Vote campaign is at least 50% a culture war issue. If even half of these celebrities were really motivated purely by the earnest desire to see Britain saved from economic self-harm, they would have been found during the 2017 snap general election protesting Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and cutting urgent YouTube campaign videos warning people not to vote for the party of renationalization and endlessly high taxes. But they didn’t, because allying with the Conservative party makes for bad PR, while hating on the Tories makes you cool and edgy.
Establishment and celebrity Remainers talk the language of economic damage, but at heart they are fighting a culture war. And to these people, Brexit is to be opposed because as Bono never tires of lecturing us, the European Union stands for everything enlightened and noble on this continent, and the nation state (and particularly Britain) stands for everything retrograde, oppressive and embarrassing. I have been watching this establishment-celebrity hissy fit roll on for over two years now, and I am convinced that the great thrust of their motivation is entirely rooted in the culture war.
Were it otherwise, establishment and celebrity Remainers would have used some of their vaunted intellect to learn from their mistakes and change tack. They would have realized that screeching worst case scenarios of economic doom at a population who were not evaluating the decision to leave the EU purely on economic terms had failed once, and would likely fail again. They would have conceded that having the same tedious, back-slapping conversation in which they and other like-minded souls praise one another for being so compassionate, intelligent and not stupid enough to be manipulated by the Russians was not buttering any parsnips among Leave voters. They would have ventured out into places like my hometown of Harlow, Essex and chatted with voters there – that way they could engage and attempt to convert some Leave voters firsthand while remaining within spitting distance of the M25 when they reached their tolerance limit for mingling with parochial Gammons.
But the celebrities and their political puppet-masters didn’t do any of that stuff. Instead, they threw every insult in the book at the other side. They painted the question in stark, good versus evil terms. They put forward air-headed celebrity spokespeople to make pro-EU statements about as emotionally convincing as a Kate Winslet Oscars acceptance speech. They came up with a new, racist word for white male Leave voters: Gammons. They broke out their actuarial tables and publicly looked forward to the death of elderly Brexit voters. And they organized march after insufferable march deep in the heart of Fortress London, the only part of the United Kingdom which most of them know or like.
The campaign for a “People’s Vote” is an exercise in catharsis for ordinary Remainers and an opportunity for virtue-signaling and personal brand-burnishing for the campaign’s celebrity conscripts. It is the least organic political movement in modern British history, and by far the most cynical. Again, most of these people bleating that the British people must be given a say over the terms of our future relationship with the EU never wanted the public to have a say in the first place, and certainly never wanted any public consultation or consensus-building as government after government took us deeper into supranational political union. And now they’re weeping in the streets of London, claiming that another referendum is required in the name of justice and democracy? Give me a break.
This is a culture war and these people are culture warriors – and rather pathetic, transparent ones at that. They certainly are not genuine tribunes of the people. Go ahead, try to change my mind.
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At least Dave Chapman’s supportive reply includes some (doubtfully relevant) facts.
Boston voted Leave 3 -1 because austerity (nothing to do with Brexit) had made them hostile to immigrants. They may be right that Brexit has already deterred immigrants, and will continue to do so, therefore emotionally they still blame the wrong culprit.
If the Irish border figured in the pre-referendum debate, I missed it. My original reason for voting leave looks more realistic every time this crops up: it is in the interests of transnational companies to split elected governments.
Your comments would have greater force if you had not deserted the ship.
Typo in the above. I voted Remain!
Not really pedantry, but sometimes it’s worth a reminder that these people are not recommending a ‘second’ referendum (even though they might call it that), it’s a ‘third’. To go off on a tangent, the 2011 referendum on AV changed LibDem policy not one iota, and in fact, for the people for whom voting reform is an obsession, it’s all you can do to get them to acknowledge that referendum ever even took place.
The 2011 event is interesting for a little stat that David Starkey articulated some time later. That only two constituencies in the UK returned a majority vote for AV. If memory serves, those constituencies were Brighton, and one of the two Islingtons. He offered the theory that those particular voters represent the definition of ‘centrism’ in the UK. The archetypal examples. In 2014, the result of the EU Parliamentary elections uncovered that dogged pro-EU representation in the UK – i.e. the people who will enthusiastically go to a booth to endorse a pro-EU political stance. The result gave a wipeout to the LibDems who lost all their MEPs bar one, and that residual MEP being from London. London giving a result on the EU which was entirely unrepresentative of the rest of the UK. I use the LibDems for the specific reason they were the only UK Political Party to conduct their campaign on an enthusiastically pro-EU platform for this election.
They were awarded 6.6% of the voting turnout, which represents around two percent of the total qualified electorate at that time. Outside London, the number of people willing to enthusiastically vote in favour of a pro-EU stance was effectively (in political campaigning terms) non-existent.
On a further supporting tangent, I’ll use the example of an appearance by David Aaronovitch on a political magazine TV show (forget which one – most likely to be Newsnight) probably a little earlier than 2014. Speaking on the subject of a referendum with respect to the Single Currency in the UK he said of such a vote – (paraphrase, but accurate in sentiment) ‘If we* (* the pro-EU side) lose that referendum, it could be ten years before we could hold it again’. The lack of self-awareness encapsulated within that is quite staggering, but ‘encapsulated’ is a decent word to use. The argument on that shore is in a capsule. They won’t ‘do’ introspection. The LibDems lost in 2011 and in 2014 …’…. because umm, student fees, coalition, Nick Clegg unpopular, …. other stuff, Putin,’ Proceeding to today it’s all about a big red bus and the eponymous stealthy touch of Putin once again. But never, never any articulation of the legion flaws of their own side, and its long dreary history of incompetence. What will it take for someone like Blair to engage the self-honesty to ask ‘What if we were just crap, and deserved every slapping we got?’
There is no version of any EU In\Out referendum vote which might conclude against their wishes which will ever be acceptable. No margin of victory, no percentage of votes, no level of voter turnout. Effectively, there cannot be an electoral solution to a problem which has taken on a demi-religious mythos. To that narrow band (and I’m talking about that two percent mentioned above) any such referendum held will always be seen to have been held illegally, or with fatal strategic flaws, or ultimately the conclusion reached will be that the voters are just too thick. But it’s that two percent which represent the loudest voices. The louder they get, the more they convince themselves they’re of profound importance. Incidentally, had the 2016 Referendum gone the other way (no matter the proportion of voter turnout, or the margin of victory) dogged Leave Campaigners themselves would not have accepted the result but that would be academic. It would have been taken by the pro-EU establishment as a fait accompli and that particular aspect of the EU debate would have effectively closed off forever. There would never be a further vote on the matter. Not ever.
There’s an unbridgeable divide here. And an interesting concession on ‘representative democracy’. Lost on many of these people is the notion that they might have to commit to a long-term strategy if they want to rejoin the EU. The notion oft-expressed that UK youth – for a good example – are denuded their European destiny for ever now is just so much childish drivel. They can build and support a pro-EU political platform and accurately and enthusiastically offer it to the UK populace in a positive and honest spirit. It’s become clear that such an outlet will not be followed by the present-day pro-EU establishment and their continued insistence on a further referendum gives more than an inkling of truth that ‘representative democracy’ will not give them the result they want. That if you want actual and genuine strategic chance, you can’t look to traditional UK politics to get it.
It’s a growing elephant in this room and I wonder if or when they’ll begin to perceive it?
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