Earlier this week I wrote a piece titled –
It provoked a strong reaction, both good and bad, and got people talking and thinking which was my intent. Unfortunately, one friend who passionately believes that Labour should block Brexit, wrongly presumed the letter was my way of saying that anyone who wants to overturn the referendum is a metropolitan elitist, arrogant snob who looks upon all leave voters with disdain. That’s why I want that friend, and anyone else who feels the same to know, I do understand why some of my fellow remainers want to block Brexit. They may well feel uncomfortable about going against a referendum result, but in their cost/benefit calculations, blocking Brexit, or at least aiming for a second referendum, wins. Those who hold that view are, more often then not, people of integrity and as such I respect them. The point I was trying to make was not so much about them, as about the way leave voters feel about them. I’ll explain more about that later.
For my part I wish a referendum had never been called in the first place. I fret about what Brexit means for my three children – one whose partner is Polish – my little granddaughter, and the country as a whole. And I often feel anger toward those who stoked up anti-immigration sentiment for their own selfish ends; and I include some Labour MPs in that number (ironically often the same MPs who went on to become passionate Remain campaigners and who now say we must not leave the single market).
But greater than all these fears are my very deep fears over the possible repercussions if Brexit was to be blocked. Why? Because rage and political disaffection would be an inevitable by-product of a blocked Brexit. That rage and disaffection would be manna from heaven for far right parties, who would, in my view be the greatest beneficiaries of it.
If the arguments for blocking Brexit were more compelling I might be swayed. But the argument I’ve heard most often to justify the blocking of Article 50 is that the leave campaign told lies…or that people were not implicitly advised that a leave vote would mean a hard Brexit. And both are true. However, which General Election campaign hasn’t involved some major truth spinning? Or outright lies? All of them. But we don’t re-run General Elections on those grounds.
Had the probability of a hard Brexit never been mentioned at any point throughout the campaign I’d say, yes, this whole campaign was based on lies which voids the result. But the risks and possibilities were discussed at length, over and over again. People who voted Brexit knew those risks (though for those voting to regain control over immigration I’d suggest they saw the risk as a gain). To suggest otherwise is to patronise them in the extreme.
The final argument used to justify the blocking of Article 50 is that Brexit will hit the poorest hardest. That may well be true, but the same can be said of Tory governments. Again we don’t block the General Election result on that basis, tempting as that is. Working class people, like my Tory voting nan for instance, often vote against their own interests. It’s frustrating, but that’s the imperfect world we live in. I just happen to believe it will be a lot less perfect if we start to turn our backs on democracy whenever it fails to serve up the ‘right’ result. That rings too much of tyranny.
One of the ‘blessings’ of not coming from a purely left wing family is I often get to hear from people who see things very differently to me. Sometimes it leads to heated shouting matches, but often it gives me food for thought. For instance one of my relatives voted Brexit, predominantly to reduce migration. She is ‘disgusted’ with Labour MPs who are, and I quote, “acting as if I’m too stupid to know what I was doing.” That was the inspiration behind my open letter.
I’ve since explained that the majority of Labour MPs will not vote against Article 50, but the die has been cast. My relative, who always used to grumble about ‘posh’ Labour MPs like Blair, who has voted UKIP, but quite likes Jeremy Corbyn, now swears she’s done with Labour for good.
I can imagine some readers reaction to this. They may well be asking themselves why we should pander to people who voted Brexit on racist grounds. But that over simplifies things. Even Brexit voters who cite immigration as the primary reason for voting leave are not necessarily racist. Many, like my elderly relative, simply see things getting worse for ordinary people, including their children and grandchildren, and have been sold a very simple solution, which is to reduce the number of people applying for jobs, using the NHS, schools, council housing etc.
These ideas are deeply entrenched. Trust me, as someone who has tried over a number of years to uproot them, I know. Trying to compete with the scare stories in the right wing media is no mean feat.
So I’m not denying for a moment that a fair number of Brexit voters voted leave misguidedly thinking, like my relative, that a reduction in migration would mean a greater share of the pie for everyone here already. Labour’s failure to challenge that narrative adequately in the past means they have to be held partly responsible for Brexit. Even during the referendum campaign I heard several Labour MPs insisting we would get tough on immigration if the public served up a Remain vote, which simply reinforced support for Brexit because people knew you couldn’t square the circle of tough controls on immigration with membership of the single market. So even if it’s true that people who voted Brexit were misled, how can that be grounds for blocking Brexit when that process of misleading has been going on for many decades, and Labour played a significant part in it?
I hope people will now better understand what motivated me to write my open letter. I wrote it in the hope that Labour members calling on Jeremy Corbyn, and indeed all Labour MPs, to block the triggering of Article 50, got to stand for a moment in a Brexit voter’s shoes and ask themselves is that really how they want leave voters to feel? Because that’s how many would feel…patronised and held in contempt because they voted the ‘wrong’ way. If people were misled into voting Brexit, they won’t think that of themselves and they won’t be filled with gratitude toward their Brexit blocking ‘saviours’.
Instead they will be filled with justifiable rage; rage that will be looking for a home. For many, populist right wing and far right parties may well become that home. Many others will never vote in a General Election, or any election again. They will hold democracy in contempt, understandably so. It’s no good saying now to leave voters that the Referendum was advisory when that genuinely was one of the least discussed facts in the campaign. Regardless of the good intentions that lie in the hearts of those who want to block us leaving the EU, if Brexit is blocked, it would open wounds that would NEVER heal.
I’m not saying I’m right on all this and people who disagree are wrong. Brexit has thrown all the dice in the air and no one knows how they’ll land. I’m simply sharing my perspective and my very genuine fears.