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

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