The dangers of compromise: reflections on the future of Leave and Remain

I had thought that I would find the 31 January 2020 much easier to navigate than I have.

I long ago made peace with the fact we were leaving, the failure of parliamentarians to capitalise on the tools available to the most powerful parliament in living memory the final nail in the coffin of the hopes of Remainers. But I find myself waking on 1 February angrier than I have ever been with those who have led us to this economic, diplomatic and cultural destitution – and those from both sides already asking us to move on in the spirit of ‘coming together’. 

Tom Peck’s searing account of the event in Parliament Square last night only fuels that anger, the dismal cultural illiteracy on display a foretaste of the abject international humiliation that is potentially in prospect.

The language of healing and coming together infuriates.

It requires those of us whose values led us to a particular position to compromise those values and embrace and accept unpleasant and dangerous political positions that have been obtained through the misrepresentation of fact and framed by the distortion of history – ours and that of our continental friends.

The very language of compromise is problematic, particularly when those scenes from last night in Parliament Square – the inherent violence of the language, the cultural ignorance, the crass triumphalism, the fundamental misunderstanding of concepts such as sovereignty and freedom – are contrasted with the character of the gatherings of Remain over the last few years.

And to that end, compromise is potentially just one more misstep by those of us who see yesterday as tragedy not triumph. Compromise requires both parties to a dispute to move their positions. In triumph, it requires the victor to show magnanimity. In defeat, it requires the loser to accept that the other side has prevailed. A way forward is found through both sides giving ground on what they believe is the right way forward.

But this battle – and it has been and will remain a battle – is not simply transactional. It is dialectical, concerned with the investigation and discussion of the truth of opinions. In the examination of facts from multiple perspectives, in order to reconcile those views, there is a key element which cannot be foregone: facts. The language of compromise assumes that those with whom we are engaged share the same intent and capacity for rational analysis of the situation.

Surely, if the last four years have taught us anything, it is that motivations for political positioning extend far beyond fact, to the irrational and the seemingly unfathomable. For those of us who have identified as Remain for the last few years – liberal, social democrat, socialist or even conservative – to employ devices that require an appreciation of evidence to reach compromise is for the side advocating that, and for whom such thinking is instinctive, to continue to flog the horse that died in 2016.

Those who say that Europe barely registered on the list of public concerns before 2016 are largely right, though there was always a cadre of peculiar English nationalists that railed against Europe and a smaller group of European Union enthusiasts who knew but could not articulate its benefits with any popular resonance. Remain as a tribal identity arose in reaction to the promulgation of a Leave identity that promoted values and a world view that are deeply anathema to those of us who now subscribe to the former.

What challenged many of us was the way the Brexit debate became a vehicle for the expression of deeply-held resentments, that had been unarticulated for years in communities, with the European Union misidentified by those with a more insidious political agenda as the source of their problems. Those same people marshalled that resentment, utilising emotionally resonant propagandising that many of us felt had dark echoes of history to create a powerful synergy between those with genuine grievance at a sense of political and economic abandonment and those whose ideological ambitions gave them sway inside a government (and opposition) hamstrung by the accidents of successive inconclusive general elections.

Just as Leave forged new political allegiances, Remain arose as a tribe in direct response to the threat that Leave presented to values many of us held dear, embodied in the European Union (with all its faults), cutting across traditional party divides in the process. For some that was the simple rationality of nations working together to tackle multilateral challenges like security and the climate emergency. For some it was about the common sense of needing to collaborate economically to ensure we are not squashed between the United States and China. For some it was an unprecedented vehicle for preserving the peace and exploring our shared and separate intellectual and cultural histories.

We saw that, regardless of our personal politics that framed the challenges we saw, there was something greater at risk. It led those of us who could, not all of us, to subordinate our more immediate political loyalties to a broad movement that we felt might safeguard something that had felt so instinctive and natural we had taken it for granted, politically, since its inception.

Those who talk depolarisation, who talk compromise, who talk of coming together, seem to be making a deeply flawed assumption that we do so with similar intent.

We do not.

Whether more considered Brexiter commentators like it or not, last night in Parliament Square was the political and cultural apotheosis of Brexit. It was the moment that we have been heading towards since 23 June 2016. We can try to rationalise it away all we like and pretend it is not so, but the cultural illiteracy of a baying mob unable to understand the words of their Rule Britannia anthem, the casual racism of a thug shouting ‘Fuck the Pope’ to an Irish reporter, or that various Remain politicians should be hanged, and that Remainers should ‘do one’, is the mentality of those who chose to celebrate the pinnacle of their achievement at the heart of our capital city. Whether Johnson intended it to or not, last night’s gathering symbolised Brexit to the world.

Where was the confident recitation of treasured national verse? Where was the celebration of our own rich national musical and artistic heritage, the foundations on which a nation is built? Where was the measured reaching out and recognition of the need for care in victory, that others are mourning? Where was the acknowledgement that despite Brexit, we remain a member of the community of nations? Entirely absent. Instead, we were treated to an incoherent, embarrassing parade of D-list raconteurs, half-remembered hymns, cheap beer, Union Jack cupcakes and vulgar epithets.

And yet there are calls from both sides for a ‘healing’ and a ‘coming together’.

It is an unrealistic and potentially dangerous challenge.

I am not prepared to compromise my values of openness, tolerance, of cultural and historical inquisitiveness, of friendship, and cooperation. I am not prepared to pretend that we are better off in terms of our economy, our security, our climate challenges. I am not prepared to subordinate evidence to irrationality, even as I acknowledge how important it is that those of us in politics understand the need for emotional resonance in the things we say.

And I am not prepared to infantilise those who voted Leave by pretending that they are not responsible for their decisions. Whatever the misleading nature of the debates, whatever the counterfactuals, the reality is that adults in a democracy took a decision. Whether we like it or not, Leavers chose to believe one set of arguments and dismiss others. They chose whether or not to acknowledge or evaluate the arguments being made by those trying to prevent this catastrophe. That is the privilege of all lucky enough to live in a democracy. And with it comes a responsibility and accountability. Whether voter or politician, those whose actions led to yesterday are responsible for what happens as a consequence.

Some, like arch Brexiteer Mark Francois, are saying they hope the labels of Brexiteer and Remainer can now be left behind. Of course. Those who have demonstrated every appetite to avoid scrutiny, who have issued misleading economic claim after misleading economic claim, are going to want to put those labels aside. There would be nothing more convenient than being able to regard Brexit as a political crucible in which we can all be refashioned and those who led us to this could somehow abdicate responsibility for what follows in a ‘coming together’ or ‘healing’.

No, the labels of Leave and Remain, of Brexiteer and Remainer, are more important than ever now in a democracy in crisis due to institutional failures of accountability and a political elasticity with the truth that has undermined confidence and electoral trust. As with any decision, those who implemented it, and those who called for it, politician or member of the public, should be held to account for its consequences. Four years on from the referendum, there is no hiding in a democracy behind the arguments of ‘We didn’t know’ and ‘Yes, but’.

If it succeeds, it is incumbent on those of us who identify as Remain to acknowledge that success. If it fails, those who bear responsibility for bringing it about – Leave voter and Leave politician – must be seen to be accountable. Prices voted for are prices to be paid.

As a liberal, I have long accepted I can often hold at least two contradictory opinions at the same time and on the same subject. I can want a more constructive and engaged approach to politics whilst understanding that it might fail and that others do not want that. Today I am seized of the need to do things differently, whilst not letting go of the values which I have spent four years articulating under the banner of Remain. I am very aware of the need for more rationality in our politics, whilst recognising that it is anger that won on 23 June 2016 and on 31 January 2020.

For now, at least, anger is framing my perspective and experience to date would seem to suggest it is a far more effective marshal of political opinion than rationality. Remainers should learn how to harness its emotional power whilst not foregoing the truth.

So, to appropriate the language of last night’s Brexit embarrassment in Parliament Square, which I presume is language that is readily understood by those who do not share my values or outlook: Leavers can ‘do one’.