There are three, at least, major problems facing anyone wanting to be actively anti-Brexit at the moment:
– The accusation of ignoring the popular will as expressed in the referendum and, related to that, of being a ‘bad loser’ in some way that offends English sensibilities.
– The continuing strong support in the country for an anti-immigration stance around having unconditional sovereign control of our borders.
– The political logic driving the government towards a hard Brexit as a means of maintaining party unity.
The first of these is the relatively easy one, as it is about rhetoric rather than facts (though rhetoric can, of course, have real world consequences). There is no denying that 52% of people who voted in June 2016 expressed a preference for leaving the EU. But this did not amount to a vote in favour of any particular future relationship with the EU, nor does it bind the people of England to a course of action which, at some future point and in the light of further information, it decides it does not want to pursue. Given the enormous importance of what is happening, it is not being a ‘bad loser’ to point this out, it is being a responsible member of a mature democracy. Anyone who tries to indicate otherwise should be robustly rebutted.
The second and third problems, taken together, are more tricky because of the continuing determination, it would seem, of our EU partners to tie single market membership to the free movement of labour. Maybe in some back room somewhere, a partial disconnection between the two is being negotiated, but there is little sign of that being the case. In any case, it is dubious whether partial retention of free movement is any longer politically tenable, without some radical shift in the public mood.
So, what can the anti-Brexiteer do to help bring about this change in public perceptions? There is, naturally, the need to continue pointing out the benefits of the Single Market to family and friends and to workplace colleagues. But one of the lessons of the referendum was that abstruse economic arguments do not outweigh the immediacy of issues like sovereignty and immigration. The more effective path is therefore to identify the material consequences of Brexit as and when they occur and make sure that people understand that these are happening due to separation (or the prospect of separation) from the Single Market. The Remain campaign suffered from dealing in hypotheticals; it will be much easier to make the economic arguments when the hypotheticals become reality. There may well arrive a time, if events are properly framed, when the price being paid for an extreme anti-immigrant approach will be seen as being too high by the English electorate and compromise will be welcomed.
The sad aspect of this approach is that the argument can only be won after much, or possibly all, of the damage has been done. Nevertheless, the fight must be fought – we owe it to our country and to future generations to do so. If the impact of a hard Brexit on jobs and living standards start to become clear before the end of the two year notice period of Article 50, there may yet be an opportunity to soften the terms. Failing this, a future government could be better positioned to modify our relationship with the EU in the future. And, at the very least, if the English people come to appreciate the economic losses of leaving the Single Market, they may be less willing in the future to accept the lead of those who offer them simple solutions that appeal to their prejudices and fears. They may even be willing to listen to experts.