Here’s a ramble about political persuasion on Brexit. I want to ask a precise and subtle question about the debate. I think it’s a genuine question, but it may turn out to be rhetorical.
It is this: Since the 2016 referendum, has anyone actually changed their mind?
On the face of it, many such people exist. There are Leavers-turned-Remainers, and there are Remainers-turned-Leavers.
These people fall into two visible categories.
First, there are those who, having been exposed to 3 years of debate and discussion about the meaning of Brexit, now believe they were mistaken. For example, those who, in 2016, believed the ‘£350 million for the NHS’ bus slogan, but who are now persuaded that it was bunkum; or (say) those who now believe that any repatriated sovereignty and ‘control’ is not worth the loss of influence over decisions (on trade, on climate, on technology) that will affect the country.
Second, there are those people who still think that some form of Brexit is desirable, but that this Brexit has been so bungled that Remain is now preferable.
In summary: some Leaver voters who have changed their mind over the principle, while there are others who think we should now Remain only as a matter of expediency.
My observation: Those who have changed their mind on principle tend to be members of the public. Those who have changed their mind for more pragmatic reasons tend to be politicians and activists.
Now let’s perform the same calculus in the opposite direction…
The most prominent members of this group are Labour MPs who think that a failure to discharge the mandate of the 2016 referendum result is intolerable.
Most of these MPs represent parliamentary seats where a majority of people voted Leave, and so they also have a strong secondary argument, which is that supporting Leave (despite having personally voted Remain) is the proper way to represent their constituents.
This sensibility exists outside parliament too. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, I certainly felt that Brexit should be implemented. Some Remainer voters still believe that should happen, whatever the economic and social cost.
Crucial point: Although such people (whether MPs or voters) believe that Brexit should be enacted, they continue to believe that leaving the EU will be economically and socially harmful to be country. They have not been persuaded that Brexit would be a good thing in itself… only that failure to deliver on the result would be bad. They, too, have flipped their position because of expediency.
But are there Remainers-turned-Leavers who have changed their minds about the principle?
My hypothesis is that there are not.
What would such a reversal look like? I assume it would revolve around the way in which the EU has behaved during the negotiations. Using its leverage to ‘force’ certain constraints upon the British negotiators and government. That’s the only information about the EU that has been revealed since 2016.
Personally I would be surprised if any Remainers subscribed to this argument. If you were predisposed to support the EU in 2016, then why in 2019 would you see the EU negotiating power as a negative, rather than a feature of membership? In any case, I have not seen any Remainers-turned-Leavers make this case.
So what’s my point?
Well, if my hunch is correct, then no new people are being persuaded towards Brexit for anything other than political expediency. I think that is a noteworthy fact in favour of the notion that Leaving the EU would be a bad thing. Brexit is not an idea that has any momentum. No new people are persuaded by its merits, and it only finds favour because of what might happen to our democracy, were it to be abandoned.
That is not to say that there is no moral argument for delivering the referendum result. Obviously there is. But that is a distinct and separate argument from the principle of Brexit. We should not conflate the two, though I think many Tory leadership candidates do exactly that. And it is the Brexit party’s only message.
The other implication of this principle vs expediency analysis concerns how we conduct our political debates and ‘messaging.’ You cannot negate an argument about expediency of Brexit with a counter-argument about the principle of Remain. The ‘Lexiter’ concern about the political disaffection that will come, if Brexit is permanently delayed, cannot be countered with fine and honest arguments about the benefits of the single market. It can only be answered with arguments about the equally catastrophic effect of No Deal and a Hard Border in Ireland.