The Politics of Denial

John Winterson Richards sets out a view on why the remain campaign lost the referendum

Since the General Election, there has been a run of articles on ‘Click on Wales’ by people who voted to remain in the EU last year, basically saying that we should, er, remain in the EU.

There is nothing wrong with that. We still live in a democracy and everyone has a right to their opinions – and no one else has a right to expect those opinions to change magically because a majority disagreed with them.

What is more disconcerting is how much they still rely on arguments that failed to convince last year – repeating the same thing and expecting a different result – and how little they acknowledge everything that has happened since.

It is as if Bobby Ewing has just stepped out of the shower, wholly unaware of the million-vote ‘Leave’ majority in the biggest turnout in British electoral history. Or of the total absence of the immediate financial crash predicted in that event. Or of the complete lack of interest on the part of the EU itself in doing anything that might still keep Britain in. Or of the brute legal fact that notice under Article 50 is now served, so that the UK will cease to be a member of the EU automatically on 30th March, 2019. Or that a General Election was held subsequently in which over 80% of votes went to parties positively committed to implement ‘Brexit’ and the only pro-EU national party – which itself did not even pledge to try to withdraw the Article 50 notice – was flattened.

History has moved on. Like it or not, ‘Brexit’ is happening, and we face no dilemma of choosing between ‘hard or soft Brexit’ because the EU itself has made it clear that it wants it hard. So why are so many of our brightest and best still in a psychological state of denial about these facts?

Here are three hypotheses – by no means mutually exclusive.

First, they still in shock. Those of us on the losing side in the 1997 devolution referendum are still just as unhappy with that result as the hard-line ‘Remainers’ are with last year’s. The difference is that we expected our defeat. In fact, we had years to prepare for it mentally. The ‘Remainers’ woke up one Friday morning to find their world had collapsed in the night.

Second, it came as a blow to their self-esteem. It was a nasty surprise to those who fancy themselves as intellectual leaders to discover that their fellow voters did not see them that way.

Third, and this is the big one, people who invest a lot of their ego in the belief that they are intelligent have found it difficult to come to terms with the glaring truth that they ran a very unintelligent campaign…

The British public are divided into three main groups on Europe. The smallest, possibly only a quarter, consists of those who actively like the EU. Slightly larger is the group of those who actively dislike the EU. Largest of all, possibly a majority, is the group in the middle, the mass of people who never really liked the EU but were prepared to put up with it for the economic benefits.

The story of ‘Brexit’ is the story of how the ‘Remainers’ lost the support of that third group.

Diehards may have constructed an alternative narrative in their minds, in which they lost because a majority of the people of this country are ignorant or racists or ignorant racists, but the reality is that ‘Remain’ lost because moderate opinion swung to ‘Leave.’

What is harder for them to bear is that this swing was caused not by any brilliance from the official ‘Leave’ campaign – which was an embarrassment – but by the way the ‘Remain’ campaign itself alienated the people whose support it needed and might easily have won.

David Cameron called the Referendum because he was confident that he would win it – and he would have done if the vote had been held the same day. That position of strength crumbled over the months that followed.

The ‘Remain’ campaign got off on the wrong foot with a Downing Street-produced letter from ‘business leaders’ signed by a bunch of Cameron cronies and bankers that would put almost anyone off. The tone of ‘Them and Us” was therefore set from the start.

Nevertheless, ‘Remain’ still had the initiative and their focus on economic arguments, their only real strength, was having the desired effect. You can sense the momentum in some political campaigns, and one could feel ‘Remain’ pulling ahead in April last year

…until Barack Obama saved the ‘Leave’ campaign by telling his supposed closest allies to go to the back of the queue.

There was no sudden reversal, but that was the day the momentum shifted – because that was the day the campaign ceased to be about the economy and became about respect.

This is what the ‘Remain’ campaign never understood, and what, judging by the recent articles on this website, some ‘Remainers’ still do not understand – that it is not just about money.

Sir Michael Caine has since summed it up for a lot of us when he said that he would rather be a poor master than a rich servant.

Some ‘Remainers’ mock this sort of visceral pride. That is what cost them the Referendum. They simply did not get it. A lot of moderate but patriotic people were insulted by President Obama’s remark. They felt insulted when they were told that their once great nation was incapable of standing alone. They felt insulted by the way the EU itself had ignored calls for internal reform for forty years. They felt insulted when their complaints about EU bureaucracy were met by the response that it was “only” about thirty thousand strong. They felt insulted when they were called racists for expressing concern about the level of immigration.

The ‘Remain’ campaign effectively preempted the unofficial slogan of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid: “If you vote against us, you are deplorable.”

How did supposedly intelligent people ever think that would win others to their cause? More importantly, have they learnt nothing from their defeat?

If they can stop trying to refight lost battles, ‘Remainers’ still have a lot to gain. If they accept that ‘Brexit’ is going to happen, they could make a useful contribution to what is now the real question of how independent Britain will get on with our closest neighbours. The process of defining that relationship begins only when negotiations on leaving end, and it offers ‘Remainers’ an opportunity to win back at least part of what they lost in 2016.

To do that will require humility. They need to win over people who voted against them. That means addressing their concerns instead of insulting them. It means admitting mistakes and learning from them. Above all it means moving beyond this sullen, repetitive “We were right and you were wrong.” If your strongest desire is for  history to prove that your negative predictions were right, first do your best to prove that they were wrong.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.


John Winterson Richards is a management consultant based in Cardiff

17 thoughts on “The Politics of Denial

  1. Looking back is always a double edged sword. We now what we now know, and so we can’t re-run the events of last year, but we can consider what significance those events had.

    One thing we should do is disconnect the vote of June 2016 from the issue of continuing membership of the EU. The referendum was fought with no discernible facts troubling the campaigns (shoutathon, more like). It was also fought with no inkling of a programme for how to achieve this fabulist idea of leaving the EU. It wasn’t possible then and it has become obvious that it is not possible now or ever will be without significant damage to the country (and most of the UK). The referendum was ‘advisory’, and since the changes implied are so fundamental, the detail should be subject to a ‘mandatory’ referendum with a realistic threshold – if it is worth continuing at all. In the meantime there has been a general election fought, ostensibly, on the need for a clear mandate. It was not given. The Election trumps the Referendum constitutionally. Game over,

    On the other hand, there are two points that should not be forgotten. The Brexiteers have an opinion which should be respected. They fervently believe that there is benefit to be had from living in a sort of European North Korea, and they are entitled to their opinion.

    Secondly many people voted in the 2016 Referendum in order to effect change. ‘All this’ needed to be stopped. Their voice spoke loudly again in the General Election. I believe that what they had in their sights was the cavalier Cameron and then May the Merciless; the endless austerity, the privatisation of everything that moves (and doesn’t) and erosion of the public realm. Coupled with that, in my opinion, was the widespread belief that it was all being done for the benefit of the few … ‘them’.

    If we ever were to leave the rest of the EU, ‘they’ would get even richer as the rest of us decompose. It won’t happen, and that’s why.

  2. A first rate analysis of the EU ‘referendum’ and the reason why the majority in GB voted to get out,and that includes Wales and even the Bridgend constituency on our FM!!.I voted in the 1975 referendum to agree to the ‘amended’ terms of membership of the EEC,however voted out in the 2016 vote.The main reason being that the EEC was seen as an ECONOMIC club and that our industry/services needed access to that vast and growing market.Since 1975,as the late and very great Enoch Powell forecast the EU is set upon closer and closer integration which is perfectly acceptable if the Europeans wish to be dominated by the economic/financial that is Germany,however we have fought for centuries to be part of Europe,but removed from its political process.We have been told a ‘pack of lies’,for years and years,however once out of EU the UK will be able to design its society/economy with responsibility resting in Westminster,and minor administrative tasks left to the Bay of Handouts!!

  3. The worst article I’ve ever read on IWA! Filled with misconceptions and sad unrealities! The reason ‘Leave’ won the referendum is the campaign was based on lies and misconceptions fostered by the campaign and the right wing media barons took advantage of people’s genuine concerns at being seemingly ignored. The redirected proper ire at the the right wing Austerity policies from the true authors of these hurtful policies, the Tory right wing, towards the EU. It was cleverly orchestrated and to everybody’s surprise, worked! Dominic Cummings the Director of the Leave campaign has openly admitted that without the ‘lies on the bus’ Remain would have won. This ‘Management Consultant, expects people to collude and accept this attack on democracy by admitting that Brexit will happen! No! It must not happen! The referendum was advisory and a snapshot in time of a misdirected and gerrymandered vote, that we are now except as ‘the will of the people’! To do so would be to accept that referendum won by a Trump like model of electioneering as being a normal part of the democratic process.

  4. Immigration into the UK has hovered around half a million a year for the last decade. That`s 5 million people. Public opinion polls in that time have shown immigration to be an increasing concern with about three quarters of the population believing that the current rate was too high. In the months proceeding the referendum TV screens showed the pathetic flight of refugees across Europe and out of the Middle East.
    Of course there are other reasons for the referendum result but none that matters more than the above. Whether the European Union is mostly, partially or slightly responsible for this state of affairs is beside the point. People answered the question put before them.
    Its not often than JWR displays the same Nelsonian eye as Geraint Talfan in his article last year.

  5. The EU is not imposing a hard Brexit on the UK, they have said from the beginning that access to the single market includes freedom of movement. It’s London that are imposing a hard Brexit.

    The news on the BBC website today is the UK economy is underperforming / lower than it should be and that is because of the impact of Brexit. There is plenty of evidence that Brexit is having a negative impact on our economy.

    While unionist nationalists are now claiming the devolution referendum was a lost cause from the beginning, it wasn’t like that at the time. Unionist nationalists believed they would win and would stop Welsh devolution and save the union (how Welsh devolution is a danger to the Union is a secret they are not sharing with the rest of us) and they were genuinely shocked when they lost. It’s a paradox that people most anti EU are also the people who are the most anti Welsh Assembly

  6. “most anti EU are also the people who are the most anti Welsh Assembly”. Let’s look at some possible correalations………

    7 reasons why some Europeans hate the E.U.

    1. Pay for E.U. bureaucrats

    2. Wasteful travel

    3. Overreaching regulation

    4. Lack of accountability

    5. Ignoring rejections from voters

    6. A Babylon of costly translations

    7. Unnecessary bureaucracy………

    Is the Welsh Assembly suffering from a pizza addiction, are there too many rope pullers?…….

  7. I admit to fluctuating on this issue. In some moods I look forward to a hard Brexit. People in this country have little or no idea how closely intertwined our economy and that of Europe now is. Our automotive industry, our finance industry, higher education, farming and pharmaceuticals all have integrated supply chains and would be hard hit – in some cases devastated -by losing frictionless trade with the rest of Europe. (Engine plants in Wales get over 70 per cent of components from Europe and send over 70 per cent of their finished product to Europe. Most of Welsh meat is exported to Europe. I could go on. No amount of appeals to the Dunkirk spirit will change those facts). People won’t believe what they are told so they have to learn the hard way. Wholesale relocations by those industries, job losses, much reduced growth and so no public finance benefits, indeed losses are inevitable after a hard Brexit. When feeling grouchy I think: bring it on. Then people will learn to pay a bit more attention next time they are asked to vote.

    In other moods I am ashamed of these thoughts and think I should try to be more generous and benevolent. Then I think the UK should at least stay in the EEA after leaving the EU, which would allow the UK to maintain frictionless trade. We would be out of the Common Agricultural Policy and out of the Common Fisheries Policy so contributions would be reduced. As for immigration, that is a joke issue. Most of the “immigrants” people worry about are from South Asia. Half our legal immigration comes from outside the EU and there are estimated to be about 150,000 illegal immigrants every year anyway, many from Latin America. If the British government wanted to reduce immigration by more than half it could do so inside the EEA and it could eliminate benefit tourism from Eastern Europe too. So who is kidding whom?

    Anyway, I end up thinking everything is for the best. Either we shall be sensible and be in the EEA or the silly b****rs will get what’s coming to them.

  8. mrorigami2013

    Yes, but these reasons also apply to Mess-Minster, and not only do they apply to Mess-Minster they happen to apply a lot more to Mess-Minster than the EU or Welsh Assembly. Mess-Minster wastes over 2 billion pounds every year. Lets not forget the 250 million paid for an airport that couldn’t be used or 90 million paid for IT equipment that didn’t work. Oh we can’t forget those because most of us didn’t know because that was buried by Mess-Minster and the Tory press. Accountability huh? Not if its Mess-Minster squandering our money.

    Unionist nationalists have a Goldilocks vision of the world. The EU is too big, Wales is too small and England is just right in every way. I prefer to live in a UK that is more like Switzerland than a UK which is more like Yugoslavia (which is the model the Unionist nationalists want). Sadly there is a small group of very naive people who are attempting to roll back devolution and assimilate Wales into England as a great Cornwall and with Yes Cymru fighting back we have the choice of being a great Cornwall (ignored by Mess-Minster, have regulations which only fit the south east of England, unnecessary bureaucracy etc).

    The world is not a perfect place and I hate to break it to the unionist nationalists but either is Mess-Minster. However much we dream of the empire and WWII the world has moved on.

  9. Another leave supporter interprets the leave vote as according entirely with his own reasoning. Yes, the remain campaign was poor. But I suspect there are as many leave visions as there were leave voters.

  10. Thank you all for your comments – some of which provide perfect illustrations of the main thesis of the article.

    To reply to all in detail would simply be going over old arguments, the very thing against which the article protests, but some of the points raised do prompt some short footnotes.

    Howell, it cannot be emphasised enough that the older generation who voted to leave the EU were the same people who, as youngsters, voted to join it.

    JOJ, if GTD and I have the same Nelsonian affliction it must be in different eyes! That said, immigration was mentioned in the article, and you are right that it was, and remains, a major issue. It is, however, an issue that extends beyond EU membership, and the specific question in the Referendum campaign was how European leaders in particular responded, or failed to respond, to public concern.

    Philip, the facts about the devolution referendum are summarised in comment number 2 below this article, – and if you want to discuss them further, that would be great fun, but perhaps we should do so on that thread rather than this one, which we can then keep for those who want to discuss Europe.

  11. PS: David, it is perfectly accurate to say that there is a great diversity of visions among the 52%, but the same can be said of the 48%. Everyone has his own reasons, and everyone knows his own better than his opponents do.

  12. @ Philip Hughes

    The dream of empire was over when Britain joined the EEC. The EEC turned into a dream of an ever growing European superstate led primarily by Germany and France.

    Wasting money has become an art form on a massive scale for the EU bureaucrats ……..

    I don’t think we should roll back devolution but we should remember that devolution should be benificial to all of the people of Wales not just for the non-unionist nationalists.

    Yes, the world has moved on, now the globalists call the shots and the world owes the globalists a lot of money.

  13. John

    Thanks for the offer but one I respectfully have to decline. Work commitments and looking for work between projects makes my online present sporadic.


    I agree with your post and we both agree that the world has moved on and is a different place. As they say the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. My world and the society and culture I live in is different from that of my parents, which is in turn again different from their parents and theirs. My world, I hope, will be very different from my son’s when he is my age. Attempts to turn the clock back and turn any country into a living museum can only result in disaster. A Wales which will return, once more, to being heavily reliant on England will be bad for Wales, bad for England and bad for the union. England and Wales will once more be locked into a Yugoslavia style union while N.Ireland and Scotland will be in a Switzerland style union. A set-up which will mean Wales will always be at the back of the queue for anything and we will fall further and further behind N.Ireland and Scotland and the other regions of England and we will constantly be a drag on English resources. A set-up that is likely to see not only a revival of groups such as the FWA but more aggressive and active and with strong support in the general population.

  14. @ John Winterson Richards

    After 20 years of the Welsh Assembly is it time for the people of Wales to be given a referendum on independence from the UK?

    The Scottish people have been given the opportunity to express their wishes in a referendum.

    The UK haas been given an opportunity in the EU referendum to express their wishes.

    In our mountain fastness, is Welsh nationalism a myth, propagated by the few.?

    We cannot be denied!…… let’s have a referendum and answer the question once and for all.

  15. The reason why the remain campaign lost is simple: it relied on the view that the British people based their decisions off evidence and reason. Instead the British people are emotional and always have been.

    The same mistake is what is resulting in public opinion failing to shift after the fact. Regardless, of the overwhelming evidence showing how bad Britain is now doing, Brexit has now become a religion. It is beyond reason, no matter how much evidence we have.

    The cult of Brexit is now so strong voters would be happy for their family to lose their jobs to make it happen. What a country we have become!

    People who want to protect Britain’s future by preventing Brexit need to abandon reason and campaign on emotion.

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