For a lot of Britons, Brexit is still mostly just words. Jargon, vague promises, dire warnings, contradictory predictions, a few catchphrases – an alternately gripping and boring conversation that has been going on for years, only occasionally accompanied by actual changes to everyday life. It’s a conversation that remainers have rarely controlled, let alone dominated. If they are, finally, about to lose the Brexit battle, this may be why.
For all their ingenuity and energy since the referendum, they haven’t done enough to undermine the messages that leavers have used to sell their project. Nor have remainers produced equally effective propaganda of their own. Much of the empirical case for Brexit may have unravelled over the past three years, but remainers still haven’t shifted public opinion decisively enough.
After the referendum result was announced, leave figures quickly began talking about “the biggest democratic exercise” and “largest mandate” in British history. The first claim was incorrect: more people voted in the 1992 general election, when the UK population was more than a 10th smaller. And the second claim was at least debatable: the leavers’ victory margin was much narrower than those in the UK’s two previous national referendums. Yet remainers did little to stop both claims solidifying into orthodoxies, so widely held that to question them feels a bit nit-picking, nerdy, counterintuitive. The leavers’ preferred frame has been placed around the referendum result.
The same has happened with who voted for Brexit. Again and again, they have been characterised as “the left behind”: poor, neglected, Labour-inclined voters from the north of England. The reality that Brexit is essentially a rightwing project – to deregulate the British economy for the benefit of more hard-nosed, non-EU capitalism – has been largely obscured. Since 2016, a few dissenting academics, most prominently the Oxford University geographer Danny Dorling, have produced strong evidence that more Brexit voters were, in fact, prosperous Conservatives from southern England. But these interventions have hardly dented the conventional wisdom. From BBC vox pops to tabloid editorials to Labour shadow cabinet meetings, “left-behind” leavers still loom disproportionately large. Remainers have been unable to identify and promote a similarly marketable political cohort of their own.
Another pro-Brexit message that has been allowed to spread largely unchecked is that it’s possible to “get Brexit done” quickly and conclusively. In February, the pollster Andrew Cooper wrote in the London Evening Standard that when focus groups were told that an initial Brexit deal “would actually trigger a new and almost certainly much longer and more complex new phase of talks”, there was “horrified silence”. That remainers have failed since 2016 to bring most voters to this realisation – that they have made Brexit seem a malign but largely abstract process – has been a crucial failure.
Yet perhaps the inability of remainers to control the Brexit discourse should be no surprise. The formation of the prevailing common sense on political questions is rarely driven by which side has the better ideas. The leavers have had most of the press on their side, implacably anti-European for decades. And the BBC has been strikingly reluctant to pick apart dubious pro-Brexit claims, for example about the supposedly overwhelming leave mandate – for fear, it seems, of being accused of remainer bias. More helpful still, leave has benefited from the tendency of most journalists, very obvious in recent days – see the breathless excitement about Johnson’s “great new deal” – to prefer breakthroughs to stalemates. Rather than assuming that journalists outside the Tory press would always act as remain’s allies – as fact-checkers against the leavers’ half-truths and lies – remainers should have realised that a Brexit deal, and whatever uncharted world comes after, is simply a better story for the media than Britain staying in the EU.
Leavers have had much of Whitehall on their side, too. The government’s “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign, launched last month, was officially described as Britain’s “largest ever government public information campaign”. It may be clunky, but together with the equally derided Department for Exiting the European Union, established in 2016, the publicity campaign has helped to keep Brexit feeling inevitable, even at times when the government’s flailings at Westminster have suggested otherwise.
Remain has lacked such potent allies. Despite the huge economic risks of Brexit, business organisations have not opposed it with much intensity. Currently, the website of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) meekly hopes for “a good Brexit deal” that “delivers frictionless trade” – as if the latter was a realistic ambition rather than a fantasy, shared by many leavers, for a country intending to exit the world’s richest free trade zone. This month, the CBI has reserved its energies for a fierce but factually inaccurate attack on Labour’s nationalisation plans instead. The episode suggests the CBI might be more assertive if Brexit were being pursued by a Labour government.
Given all these biases, perhaps even a more proactive remain propaganda campaign would have been doomed from the start. Yet the failure to mount one, at least so far, does reveal something important about the remain movement. It has not been focused enough, in a sense, not political enough. At times, in fact, it has tried to make a virtue of not being political.
A wide but unwieldy coalition of liberal celebrities, lawyers, usually apolitical citizens, leftwing and centrist activists, and usually warring political parties, it has advanced – further than most people ever expected – on multiple fronts: on the streets, in the courts, in the Commons. But the movement has been so busy with all this, and with managing itself – the 48% getting to know each other – that it has not noticed how the underlying political narrative has still been moving in Brexit’s favour, and has not done enough to reverse that.
It’s telling that the only two remain phrases to really cut through have been “bollocks to Brexit” (morale-boosting defiance for the already converted) and “people’s vote” (a call for a second referendum that is coy about how people should actually vote). Neither has the agenda-setting quality of the leavers’ best messages.
In the long run, the remainers’ rhetorical failures may matter less than they have since 2016. If Johnson’s deal passes, and both the leavers’ euphoria and the wider public’s sense of relief dissipate, the Brexit crisis will still be there – but as a more concrete matter, less about rhetoric and more about economic and diplomatic realities. Remainers may finally be able to say the words that some of them have been itching to use for years: “We told you so.” It’s emblematic of the whole Brexit tragedy that the remainers’ best line can only be used when it’s too late.
• Andy Beckett is a feature writer for the Guardian