Author: Holly Whitbread
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have rolled my eyes at embittered Remainers telling me that people didn’t know what they were voting for when they voted to Leave the European Union. Or indeed, that the vote was purely about immigration and symptomatic of a ‘Trump-like’ nationalism which has infected the Western world – an isolationist construct which fails to give due consideration to the economic consequences.
This pompous view was articulated to me by a guest at a dinner party I recently attended. The Remainer in question proclaimed, whilst sitting with a group of university-educated friends who uncomfortably nodded along: “I can understand why you voted to Leave, you know what sovereignty means, but the majority of people who voted to Leave don’t. Most people voted to Leave because they are anti-immigration. We can’t go ahead with Brexit…” before then echoing that favourite line of Remainers that “people did not vote to make themselves poorer”.
I was affronted by this statement and responded by asking: “What makes you think that you know better? How can you qualify the claim that people didn’t understand what they were voting for?”
There is something distinctly illiberal about the attitude of the self-proclaimed liberally-minded individuals with whom I was sitting around that table. They seem to believe that there is only one prescribed view of a modern internationalist world, which is entirely conditional upon membership of the European Union.
This sense of moral and academic superiority displayed by some Remainers, more than two years after the referendum, is not only undemocratic but arrogantly misguided. It shows a basic misunderstanding of people’s reasons and motivations to vote to Leave.
It may be true that the average person on the street does not understand the in-depth intricacies of the political arguments surrounding Brexit – on either side of the debate. But this does not matter. For the average person who voted to Leave, they wanted to see an outcome which achieves a palpable sense of freedom: the ability to have control over their national destiny with power ultimately in the hands of the British people and executed through our democratic institutions (sovereignty). This idea adheres to the simplest of principles outlined by the Leave campaign. At its heart, Brexit was a grassroots democratic movement for the long-term future of our nation.
Two and a half years after the referendum, much of the Vote Leave community is twitching with discomfort following the publication of the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement.
There are currently ongoing debates around the adequacy of this ‘deal’. Many of the anxieties are centred around the potentially indefinite ‘transition’ period – whereby we remain in the customs union, unable to strike new trade deals – and the extended jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. A significant perceived flaw of the document is that we may be trapped in an endless backstop, which the UK could not leave without the EU’s consent. In turn, this would compromise the Union, by placing Northern Ireland in a different position to the rest of the UK, with closer economic alignment. Other concerns include the UK continuing to accept the EU rules on VAT, not to mention a huge £39 billion exit bill that many believe to be unacceptable.
Aside from the debate surrounding the apparent flaws of the document, it is clear to me that the Prime Minister’s deal has achieved one thing: it has disproved the Remainers’ myths that Leavers did not know what they were voting for and that the vote was purely motivated by nationalism and a so-called desperate cry to reduce immigration.
The Prime Minister’s deal effectively addresses the immigration issue. It puts an end to freedom of movement, the policy which some suggest was the primary cause of the Leave vote. But many of us Leavers remain dissatisfied. Whilst addressing the need to have control of immigration, that is certainly not enough because concerns with the plan are largely around the concept of sovereignty.
The greatest inadequacy of the ‘deal’ is that it fails to ‘take back control’ in many different aspects of our relationship with the EU. Many leavers have concluded that this deal leaves the UK as a mere subsidiary of the EU.
A couple of nights ago, I went to my local pub and spoke with the locals who I know raised a glass with Iain Duncan Smith when he visited on the campaign trail with Vote Leave. When asked how they felt about the deal, they said they felt disappointed and somewhat underwhelmed, noting that there was no point in Brexit if the UK remained answerable to Brussels. I saw yet again this popular drive for freedom: the idea that a vote for Brexit was about a strong sense of political vision, striving for identity in the modern world. I saw no confusion or regret about the way those people had voted.
No one could question the complicated nature of this negotiation, which requires us to untangle ourselves from the web which the EU has weaved through our constitution over the past four decades. However, for the sake of democratic integrity, Leavers have always craved an ambitious liberty-led Brexit, rather than a pragmatic one.
The average person will not be flicking through the pages of the colossal Withdrawal Agreement, but seeking clarity from media reports and asking: does this plan take back control? Does it achieve what they want Brexit to be?
The Remainers, who still are sulking about the referendum outcome, may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of Leave voters, regardless of academic accolades and social or economic backgrounds, have strong convictions about Brexit: a clear vision for this national project. Leavers are in pursuit of sovereignty, not just in name, but in a tangible reality.