If, three years ago, you had tried to have a discussion with almost any Londoner about hard borders, the difference between a customs union and the customs union or about backstops to backstops, it is likely that you would have been met with a look of bewilderment. Yet turn on a radio or TV in 2019 and you’d be lucky to go five minutes without hearing these now everyday terms.
You would think from the shift in discourse that our politics had been radically transformed since 2016, but the truth couldn’t be more different. In reality, many of our politicians are simply using this new language to conduct the same debate that should have been settled by the EU referendum. Stay or go. Remain or Leave. Brexit or not Brexit.
Among others, Sadiq Khan is guilty of this. He will wax lyrical about the merits of the UK staying in the single market, but he is just raking over old ground. The British people, in their wisdom, decided that we should diverge from the EU, but staying in the single market would mean that we would be tightly aligned. The London Mayor is still banging on about the merits of Remain.
It’s nothing new to say that some Remainers haven’t accepted the referendum result, but little focus has been given to why they haven’t. These Remainers, many of whom are “children of Blair”, view Brexit through a narrow economic prism and are both the architects and disciples of Project Fear. Politicians like Mayor Khan cannot understand why anyone would ever want to commit such reckless self-harm and wholeheartedly believe that this country will be nothing less than an economic basket case outside of the EU.
The Mayor is fond of saying that “nobody voted to be poorer”, but during the referendum campaign he and other Remainers spent the whole time loudly claiming that Brexit would be an economic catastrophe. The fact that Leave won demonstrates two things: one, people didn’t buy Project Fear, two, more importantly, they didn’t vote to leave for primarily economic reasons.
Remainers who constantly push the economic argument, underpinned by their Project Fear rhetoric, have fundamentally misunderstood what Brexit is about – it is not about economics, it is about democracy. It is about restoring faith that the politicians they send to Westminster actually have the power to govern the country and that it will be British courts that enforce the laws passed by the British parliament, without the interference of institutions that are wholly unaccountable to the British people.
The fact is, those who voted to leave the European Union did so in the hope of restoring and renewing democracy – it wasn’t the economy, stupid.
Brexit is all too often seen as a regressive, backward-looking movement spearheaded by xenophobic Little Englanders. But the reality couldn’t be more different. Those who voted Leave were mostly optimists who felt that this great country could be greater still. As the polls carried out straight after the referendum showed, voters put their X in the Leave box in order to have more control over the laws that effect their lives by restoring their ability to hire and fire those who govern them. Far from disparaging Brexit, we should be holding it up as one of the great progressive movements, alongside those of the Suffragettes and Chartists.
If certain Remainers are reluctant to understand why the country voted to leave, they are even more unwilling to acknowledge the democratic benefits that leaving the EU will undoubtedly bring. Instead, they insist on being cheerleaders for the unelected and thoroughly unaccountable European Commission and European Court of Justice, while trying to overturn the result of the greatest democratic exercise in Britain’s entire history. This toxic cocktail puts them on the wrong side of history, desperately trying to defend the status quo and stop the evolution of democracy. Yet, incredibly, it is the Leavers who are derided as the reactionaries.
This behaviour hasn’t just been frustrating for the majority who voted Leave, it has also been deeply damaging to our national interest. A polarised Westminster, clearly split on whether to deliver on the June 2016 vote, has given Brussels the distinct impression that we are not entirely serious about leaving. What kind of incentive does this give the EU to, for example, make concessions on the backstop?
The majority of Londoners voted to Remain, and Sadiq Khan has consistently drawn on this to justify his continuing opposition to Brexit. London, as the nation’s capital, enjoys a deserved prominence on our political scene, but Brexit was a national decision, and it is vitally important that London is seen to accept the national result and plays a leading role in building for the future with energy and optimism. For the Mayor or other Londoners to continue to undermine Brexit will ultimately benefit no one, including the most ardent Remainers.
There is still the danger that, given parliament’s ambivalence, this could culminate in a half-baked, half-in-half-out deal which would fail to satisfy anybody or finally resolve this crucial question.
It could all be so different. If, rather than continuing to fight the Stronger In campaign, politicians of all stripes had focussed their efforts on making Brexit work, we would now be in a much stronger position. Entirely sure that the UK was serious about leaving, the EU would be working to get the best Brexit, not playing divide and rule in an attempt to condemn our country to a state of vassalage.
We have now reached the eleventh hour of the Brexit negotiations, but the question remains the same. Should the UK leave the EU? The people gave their verdict in June 2016. It is time for the politicians to honour it.